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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pedro Pratt, baseball pitcher extraordinaire. "The Colored Wonder" of Portland, Michigan

Don "Pedro" Pratt (or is it Walter Pratt?), kneeling (3rd from right), ca. 1890.

Six years ago, I wrote a book, through Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, entitled The Portland Area 1868-1939. It’s a photographic history of Portland, Michigan. (Amazingly, it is still in print and available where all fine books are sold). I’m not mentioning this to toot my own horn (well, maybe just a little), but merely to set the scene for what’s to follow here.

In my research, I came across a huge cast of characters that shaped Portland’s history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, (and lots of information that never made it into the book). None of these characters were more interesting or enigmatic than a local baseball star named Don "Pedro" Pratt. Through the whole process of writing the book, his existence proved to be shadowy and fascinating: a guy who flitted in and out of the picture with a legend that reminds me of the blues singer Robert Johnson.

Before I go any further, I should explain that in the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century, local baseball teams were a big deal. You have to remember that we’re talking about the days before television, before radio, and a time when such entertainment devices as gramophones and telephones either hadn’t yet been invented or, if already invented and on the market, were considered luxury items, much too expensive for the common person. The main sources of entertainment were the local opera house (later replaced by moving pictures)--and weekend baseball games. Portland, along with many other small Michigan communities, had its own team that, on warm summer Sundays, drew hundreds of fans to Goodwin Park to watch the action. These games were not  relaxed and leisurely either, they were highly competitive, no-holds-barred battles for community pride.

Now back to our subject. Pedro Pratt was an African-American in a community with an extremely small, but unusually visible and noteworthy African-American presence, which I discovered was rarely mentioned in any previous history written about Portland. In my research, I found only one photo of Pratt (located in the Portland Area Historical Society’s collection), and it appears in the book. It’s a school photograph from the late 1880s or early 1890s that, coincidentally, also features a young Clarence Budington Kelland, who went on to become a famous novelist and short-story writer, but whose works are now almost completely forgotten.

The photo itself features only boys, and they are all dressed in matching costumes, as if for some sort of musical or dramatic performance. While most of the other boys are posed either lounging languidly on the floor or, in the case of the older and taller boys, standing in back with arms crossed or leaning affectionately on each other, Pedro is kneeling by himself bolt upright, his serious young face, under a halo of dark curly hair, staring directly at the camera. Pedro is sitting amongst his classmates, yet seems completely separate from them. Am I reading too much into a photograph? Possibly… but I definitely believe there could be some truth to Pedro’s “otherness” and perhaps some alienation from his fellow, lighter-skinned, classmates.

As near as I can tell, and I don’t yet have conclusive proof, Pedro Pratt was the son of Angeline Pratt. In the 1900 Federal Census, Angeline wass listed as a 43-year-old single mother, and earned her living as a laundress. She had four sons: 21-year-old Walter (whom I suspect may be Pedro), Don (age 16--he may also be Pedro—but probably too young), Theodore (13), and Lawrence (10). I’m fairly certain she also had a daughter named Maud who may have married and moved out of the house by 1900. (If all of this seems a little sketchy, that’s because it is. One of my future projects is to really dig in deep to the Pratt family and solve these mysteries).

Update: I am now almost 100 percent positive that Pedro Pratt's given name was, indeed, Don. He was born in 1884 and sometime after his baseball career was over, moved to Lansing, Michigan. He married and worked mainly as a carpenter. I'm still looking for that elusive obituary. I also question whether--if Don was in fact "Pedro"--the youngster in the photo is not actually Don's older brother Walter. By the way, Walter Pratt was also a baseball player. Here's where my doubt comes from: I know that Clarence Budington Kelland was born in 1881. The Pratt in the photo looks, to my eyes, older than Kelland. Walter Pratt was three years older than Kelland while Don Pratt was three years younger.

So why should anyone care about Pedro Pratt? What is so interesting about him? Why am I obsessed? It’s because the guy was a tremendous local baseball talent, and was the only dark face on otherwise all-white teams in the first two decades of the twentieth century. This was the era when the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” was in full force, barring blacks from playing baseball alongside whites, and several decades before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947. It’s possible that semi-pro ball and a few minor leagues were a bit more lenient about the policy, but even so, this was a time of segregation and racism, so it’s still remarkable that Pedro Pratt was allowed to play at all. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Pratt was an exceptional talent—at least at the local level.

In the course of my research for the Portland book, I only found a few photos of Portland baseball teams--none of which included Pratt. The Portland City Hall, however, had an oversized reproduction of a Portland baseball team photo (one of those old-fashioned kinds with individual portraits of the players arranged in a group), and that did feature Pratt. It was on loan from someone in the community, and I can’t remember why I didn’t try to contact this person to scan the original (maybe too frazzled at that point to bother). Anyway, with the amount of research I had to conduct in such a brief period of time, I couldn’t focus too much on Portland baseball. I delved into only a few seasons, but what I found was good stuff--and I’ve got a serious itch to dig deeper soon.

I looked at the 1910, 1911, 1912, and 1913 baseball seasons of the Portland city team (because the photos I found for the book were taken in those respective years)—not in any great detail, since as I said I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on them—but enough for some good stories. When I resume my research of Pratt’s baseball career, I’ll have to go back a bit more because Pedro began playing organized ball as early as approximately 1904.

The 1910 season began with manager Chester Divine lamenting his team’s lack of pitching depth, though Portland opened up its slate with a 10-1 victory over the REO squad. The May 24th Portland Observer announced that Divine “had the dragnet out” for Pratt and had located “the Colored Wonder” playing “star ball” [I’m still not sure what “star ball” was] in Indiana. Pratt agreed to come north to play for Portland and made his season debut against the Oldsmobiles on May 29, a game Portland lost 4-2. The season got better for Pratt, because he had three consecutive shutout pitching performances and Portland finished with a season record of (approximately) 13-5. (This final record is based on the game results that I was able to conclusively document. The Portland Observer wasn't exactly the Sporting News when it came to accurate or complete statistics).

One of Pedro Pratt’s best individual all-around performances occurred the following season. In May 1911, Pratt and Portland beat the Oldsmobile squad 15-3. Pedro was outstanding as both a pitcher and hitter in that game. He struck out seven batters and did damage with his bat, going 4 for 5, scoring 3 runs.

In a June 1911 practice session, Pratt accidentally lost control of his bat and it hit Chester Divine in the head. Though Divine was not seriously injured, it did end his baseball career. It appears that there were no hard feelings between Divine and Pratt over the incident.

On July 13, 1912, Pratt pitched a one-hit shutout.  More amazingly, he actually pitched three consecutive shutouts that year (repeating his feat of 1910), and an incredible 30 scoreless innings between July and August of that season.

In 1913, the curve balling (and occasionally spit balling) Pratt threw an opening day shutout against Pewamo. Later in the season, Pedro struck out an astounding 13 batters in 5 innings en route to a 13-4 thumping of Lowell.

After this, Pratt’s live is a mystery. I didn’t delve any further into his baseball career, and I still have no idea what became of him. (See updates above and below). I have found no obituaries, and no record of where he is buried. He remains largely a mystery to me, but his ghostly presence re-enters my consciousness from time to time and is especially present right now. If I can find the time this summer, and maintain my current level of ambition, I may yet solve the mystery of Pedro Pratt.

Update: Just today, the "Portland, Michigan: Hometown History" Facebook page published a photograph of one of the Portland baseball teams that featured Pedro Pratt as its star pitcher. Here is this team photo. I sure wish I'd been able to publish it in my Portland book.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods (and my own cardboard gods)

I'm always a little disappointed when I see a great idea that someone else has thought of and wish that I had thought of it first. Of course, when that idea is done better than I could ever imagine myself doing it, I don't mind nearly as much.

That's the case with a book called Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker, which is an offshoot and extension of his wonderful website of the same name, Wilker posts images of old baseball cards (ca. 1974-1981) from his childhood collection and uses them as a springboard for deeper, and quite often hilarious, meditations on his own childhood and life. He's an excellent writer, and has an extraordinary eye and ear for nuance and detail. What could be painful-to-read naval-gazing in less skillful hands comes off as humorous and moving portraits of a 40-something guy trying to make sense of his life, past and present.

Wilker is about my age--from what I gather in the book I'd guess he was born in 1968 (same year as yours truly)--and grew up with a hippyish, back-to-the-land mother (and her equally bohemian boyfriend) in a rather rednecky area of rural Vermont. As a nerd and outcast in the community, he took refuge in baseball and his collection of "cardboard gods" and, when his older brother chose to ignore his presence, entertained himself with Strat-o-Matic baseball and other imaginary games. I was struck by the parallels between my life and Wilker's. Though my parents weren't hippies like Wilker's, I too moved to a rural small town and felt like I was, if not an outcast, a definite oddball who would never fit in. Like Wilker, I took refuge in baseball cards, comic books, and my own imaginary baseball and football teams.

Wilker started collecting baseball cards in 1974. Coincidentally, that's the year I bought my first pack of baseball cards (though it'd be more accurate to say my mom bought me my first pack of baseball cards). I distinctly remember the scene: my family was in the Upper Peninsula visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins--this would have been autumn '74. The specific details of the purchase are hazier, but I must have been in a grocery or convenience store with my mom (my aunt, uncle and cousins may have been there too for all I know) and I asked my mom to buy a pack of cards for me. Since I was six years old and didn't even like or know much of anything about baseball at the time, it perplexes me as to why I wanted the cards. Perhaps it was just wanting something or anything from our shopping excursion, and settling for the cheapest item in the store. In any case, the only card that survived from this pack, and one that I amazingly still have in my possession, is the 1974 Topps #18 Gary Thomasson that you see at the top of this entry. (I should admit that the image in this blog post is not one of the actual card in my possession, but a jpeg I found on the internet).

Compared to Josh Wilker, I was a little late when it came to baseball fandom. The first time I played organized baseball was probably the summer of '74 or '75 (can't remember for sure) when my mom and the mom of my friend Claud "Scooter" Staples signed us up to a pee-wee league through Detroit Parks and Recreation. When I look back on it now, it's my belief that my mom and Scooter's mom thought that, as boys, baseball must be in our DNA, so we'd instinctually know how to play. The truth was that we were both utterly clueless. Neither of us could catch the ball and were not any better at throwing it. I remember going up to bat, actually making contact, but running to the pitcher rather than first base. I'm pretty sure that was the only game we participated in that summer. It was an inauspicious debut for me as a baseball player.

From 1975-1977, I collected a few more baseball cards, but living in Detroit I couldn't just walk up by myself to the neighborhood store to buy packs. 1976 was the year I truly became a baseball fan. It was the summer of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, and the entire city of Detroit was in love with the charismatic, floppy-haired goofball who brought an enthusiasm to baseball that hadn't been seen in those parts since the '68 Tigers won the World Series. Just about every kid on the 14100 block of Artesian in northwest Detroit was baseball mad that summer, and I was not immune. That was the summer that I finally learned to catch a baseball with proficiency, and attended my second game at Tiger Stadium (but this '76 game against the Indians was the first one I can remember in any detail--I had gone to a night game at The Corner a year or two earlier with my friend Steven, but all I remember are big, tall grownups blocking my view the entire time).

I didn't start collecting baseball cards in earnest until 1978, when I went to spend two weeks with the beforementioned aunt, uncle, and cousins in the tiny town of Baraga, Michigan. By this time, I was a true baseball fan and devotee of the Detroit Tigers. My aunt and uncle owned and operated a flower shop on Baraga's main street, Superior Avenue, a short walk from the local grocery store, Larry's Market. I enjoyed spending the afternoon at the flower shop, walking down to Larry's Market, buying packs of cards with the spending money my parents had sent with me (probably not with the intention that I'd blow it all on baseball cards), and walking back to the shop to peruse my newest treasures. For reasons unbeknownst to me, the cards I bought in Baraga were way better than the ones I acquired in Detroit. I obtained many of my favorite Tiger players, along with stars such as Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, and George Foster, to name a few.

In 1979, my family moved from Detroit to the village of Caro, up in Michigan's "Thumb" region, a town surrounded on all sides by farms and cornfields. Like Josh Wilker, I felt like a misfit. The contrast couldn't possibly have been more extreme between the multicultural urban sprawl of Detroit and the very white, very rural Caro. I'd had a somewhat promising baseball/softball "career" going in Detroit, but it quickly wilted when I moved to Caro. Was it lack of confidence? Probably. Worsening eyesight that was undiagnosed until I was 16? That probably contributed also. The fact that I was a bit of a nerd? Yes. By age 13, I'd retired from organized baseball--not to return until 1995 when I made a modestly triumphant return to organized sports, at age 27, with the Peanut Barrel Bar softball team.

Despite my lack of success on the field, my love for baseball never waned, and I also continued collecting baseball cards.

Josh Wilker gave up baseball card collecting in 1981. I continued collecting, with varying degrees of ferver, until 1985. I even ventured into the realm of vintage cards of the '50s and '60s, haunting the Caro Coin Shop after school in the early '80s to buy cards of players of baseball's "Golden Age" prior to my birth. This heralded the full flowering of my geekitude. While other boys my age were chatting up girls after school or actually playing sports, I was perched in the coin shop, breathing in proprietor Mr. Marchlewicz's cigarette smoke, pouring over whatever new "cardboard gods" he'd added to his inventory. I'll always be indebted to Mr. Marchlewicz's patience. He could have thrown my nerdy teenage ass out of there, but I must have been well-behaved and respectful enough that he took pity on me.

In the summer of 1984, with the Tigers cruising towards the world championships, and aided by summer jobs babysitting and mowing lawns, I managed to complete my one and only set of Topps baseball cards. I nearly repeated this feat in '85, finishing about 50 cards short. I went as far as writing a list of all the cards I needed to complete the set, but lost interest and never achieved the goal.

By the summer of '86, my collecting gears switched from baseball cards to records (and later, CDs and books). I still occasionally bought cards for old times' sake, and to relive the temporary state of euphoria, which Josh Wilker describes so eloquently, when one first opens that pack of cards to see the treasures within the wax paper.

Fast forward twenty years: In 2006, my wife and I were experiencing some fairly extreme financial difficulty. It was so rough that my wife actually made the supreme sacrifice and sold some of her beloved antique Blenko glass. I didn't want her to be the only one to give up valuable possessions to help pay the bills, so I took some of my choice baseball memorabilia to various dealers in the Lansing area. I knew full well that dealers wouldn't give me the best prices, but I didn't have the time to try and sell the stuff on eBay. I needed money NOW. Baseball card dealers in the towns of Mason and Portland took some of my cards in exchange for rather paltry cash. At the time, I didn't care. I needed the money. It still pains me to think of the items I sold (thankfully only a fraction of my most prized memorabilia), and occassionally I conjure up fantasies of revisiting these dealers to buy back what in my mind is rightfully mine. However, deep down inside, I know that like the '85 Topps set that was never completed, my dreams of reacquiring those lost treasures will more than likely never happen.

At least I can be secure in the knowledge that 37 years later, '74 Gary Thomasson and I are somehow still together.