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.