Frank "Doc" Sykes as Told to John Holway
I was a strikeout pitcher until I learned better: There was an easier way to beat teams than trying to throw it by them. We played the Chicago American Giants, and I don’t think I threw one ball up there that would have broken a thick pane of glass. Rube Foster, the Chicago manager, said, “Well, College, I see you’re learning some sense.”
In 1917, when his academic career at Howard University was winding down, Doc pitched for the Lincoln Giants in the “World Series” against the western powerhouse Chicago American Giants. That is when he first met Hall of Famer Rube Foster who encouraged the young pitcher to “not” rely on speed alone. Here is Foster with his championship team that also included John “Pop” Lloyd and Pete Hill.
The pitching dentist, Doc Sykes, was 90 years old when I met him at a Negro League reunion in Ashland, Kentucky in 1982. Erect, white-haired, with a thin white mustache, he was the patriarch of the group.
In addition to baseball, Sykes played a critical role at a moment of great tension and danger in the history of the civil rights movement when he testified in the famous 1933 Scottsboro murder trial in Alabama.
Sykes and I met often at his Baltimore apartment. We went to Oriole games together, and I drove him to speak to members of the Society for American Baseball Research, which delighted both him and them. He still had his charm and good looks, and whenever we walked into the lobby of his building, the ladies fluttered around him.
Mike Stahl of Baltimore also spent many hours taping Doc’s memories and poring over newspaper files to reconstruct his playing record.
Some fans thought Doc was my real name; they didn’t know I was a graduated dentist. My parents were born slaves. [Sykes’ grandfather actually owned his father.] There wasn’t much they teach me other than truth and honesty and respect for elders. There wasn’t too much I could offer my children other than what my parents had offered me.
I was born in 1892 in Decatur, Alabama, the town that the Scottsboro murder case put on the map. Decatur had about 16,000 people and one automobile — it went two blocks and broke down.
I was the seventh child of a family of 12; eight lived to be grown. My mother was part Indian; I don’t know what tribe, Choctaw or what. My father made money with a saloon.
My favorite brother was a darn good businessman; he had a coal and wood business and an undertaking business. He died young, and my father took over his funeral business. They said, “You sold ‘em liquor and got ‘em ready for dying, and then you went on and buried ‘em.”
My father told us, “Get an education, I’ll help you.” He could do addition in his head better than I could with pencil and paper. He’d say, “Figure that out again, son, that doesn’t sound right.” He was well thought of by everyone in Decatur. In fact, the day of his funeral the white businesses closed for an hour.
I came from a family of five boys. Three were exceptionally good ballplayers. My oldest brother I would consider tops; I don’t think he would have had a darn bit of trouble making the big leagues. I copied him closely; I watched him and tried to act like he did.
I followed my brother as an apprentice in the funeral home. Around 1906, when I was 14, I remember driving a wagon carrying coffin to the jail, where three black men were lined up on the gallows.
The trap was sprung, but one rope broke. As the man cried, “Thank the Lord, I’m saved,” a new rope was hastily brought and the execution was carried out.
In 1908 I enrolled in high school in Memphis. When Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries, they announced it round-by-round at the Opera House. People said, “That black son of a bitch knocked Jeffries out!”
While in high school, Doc recalled hearing “live” the Jack Johnson heavyweight championship match over the “white favorite” Jim Jeffries in an Opera House.
I went to Chicago around 1909, taking a course in embalming and hooked up with a Sunday School league out there. I started out as an outfielder, and one Sunday the pitcher couldn’t get off, so the coach called on me to pitch. From then on, I was a pitcher and a pretty good pitcher.
In 1912 I went to Morehouse College — it was called Atlanta Baptist College back then. I had pretty good speed as a pitcher; in one game I struck out 16 men and lost the ball game.
I played against Dick Redding when he played with the Atlanta Depins, and I ran into him again when I went back there with the Morehouse team. His home was Atlanta, and Redding umpired a game for us against Morris Brown University. Redding called a couple of bad ones on us, but we beat them anyway.
Shown here are Smokey Joe Williams, the venerable Sol White, and Cannonball Dick Redding. Doc played against both Smokey Joe and Cannonball.
I struck out only one man — and I tried to strike out only one man. They had a short dump over in leftfield. By this time I knew about what college boys would hit at. You threw it on the outside, they’d reach over and hit a little slow roller to the second baseman or the first baseman. The shortstop didn’t make a play in the field that day; the third baseman had one chance.
I remember something I pulled off back then that wasn’t so nice on my part at all. We were playing over at Talladega, I was pitching, and one umpire was a professor at Talladega. I threw strike after strike up there, and he’s calling ‘em balls. I got hard in the head and went so far as to call the man “a son of a bishop.” [Laughs] Oh, he said he was gonna report me to my dean. And he did.
I got back to Atlanta, and Dean Archer called me in. He was a big fellow — behind his back we called him Big Boy — one of the cleanest men I ever knew. He said, “Mr. Sykes, are these charges true?”
I said, “Yes sir, Dean, they are true.” I was looking for him to ship me home.
But he said, “Mr. Sykes, you’ll have to get better control than that.” [Laughs] I think it was because I told Dean Archer the truth.
Dean Archer also taught mathematics. He would walk up and down the aisles, throwing out questions. One day I stood up with an answer. Dean Archer just shook his head. “One of my brightest and best,” he said, “one of my brightest and best. He is almost right — almost right. But absolutely wrong.”
In 1912 I entered Howard University in Washington to study dentistry. A teacher of anatomy used to give us a lecture. He said, “Now you’ve come to Howard to get your medicine, your dentistry, your pharmacy. Plenty of women out there after you’re finished.” But the man who never cared anything about women, I can’t understand him.
I was a varsity player in basketball and baseball four years. The spitball was my best pitch because it had a sharp break away from a right-hand batter. I had excellent control of those spitballs; one game I threw nine straight spitball pitches, nine straight strikes. Sometimes I faked the spitball and threw a fastball that would shoot up.
But I never threw at anyone’s head — I’ve thrown at their feet, though.
I never lost a game to any college team, which is a record that can be equaled but cannot be beaten. A bunch of Howard students went up to Philadelphia and played a game against Hilldale, I would say about 1915. At that time Hilldale was made up of a bunch of local fellows, who never had any big time experience at all. [In the 1920s Hilldale became a Negro League powerhouse.]
I didn’t put too much thought to playing professionally; I had my mind made up on being a dentist. The fellow who got me into big league baseball was a friend of mine and a student at the dental school at Howard, Bill Wiley. [Wabisha “Doc” Wiley became a catcher for the Lincoln Giants and later was a prosperous dentist in Newark.]
The baseball season opened up and the school closed, and Wiley had given the owners of the Lincoln Stars some insight into my ability.
The McMahon brothers owned the Lincolns. We played at 136th Street and Fifth Avenue, a little park there. I think my pay was $75 a month; I never did know what any of the other ball players got. I was working another job as a redcap at the Pennsylvania Station and at Grand Central Station — those were good paying jobs. An old baseball player ended up being the head man at the Grand Central Station.
To my mind the Lincoln Stars were a real strong team. They had Smokey Joe Williams pitching.
This original artwork by Sanjay Verma features one of the greats that Doc played against, Smokey Joe Williams.
Manager was Zach Pettis, a catcher, who was born and raised in El Paso and could speak Spanish fluently. But the Spanish players didn’t know that, and we had a signal between us, so I always knew when they were going to steal.
Bojangles Robinson, the tap dancer, used to hang around the park in New York. He had only one good eye. Pool sharks used to take advantage of him.
In 1915 the Lincolns went out west to play the Chicago American Giants and Indianapolis ABCs.
This original watercolor by Mark Chiarello features Bruce Petway, the great catcher who many say was the greatest at his position of his era. Doc tells John Holway that Petway could throw “out men on his knees.”
Chicago had Bruce Petway — there was a catcher that threw out men on his knees, Jimmie Lyons stole a lot of bases; I would say maybe Spotswood Poles of the Lincolns had a little bit on him, not much. And they had quite a hitter named Horace Jenkins [.313].
Cristobal Torriente stood off the plate like Roberto Clemente, but he hit Joe Williams just like he was his cousin.
This very rare news service photograph shows Hall of Famer Cristobal Torriente when he played in Cuba in the early 1920s.
Sykes lost three games. The second one was to Frank Wickware by 2-1 in 11 innings.
When we played Indianapolis, their manager, C.I. Taylor, was arguing with the umpire at home plate, and I threw the ball at him. Taylor came out to the pitching box, said, “You’re the last one on the team to do a dirty trick like that. You go to school, you’re supposed to have some sense. If I was a cussing man, I would call you a son of a bitch, goddam you!”
McMahon drank up the gate receipts. Lloyd was so mad he stomped off to play for Foster.
I went over to Hilldale to play for $125 a month.
In 1919 I went to the Brooklyn Royal Giants.
Dick Redding was manager. Once when we were playing up in Lebanon College, Pennsylvania, we dressed at the hotel there, and Redding and I were going to the park together. Dick was really black, and we met a white lady with a little boy. The little boy looked up and said, “Mother, mother, are those niggers?”
Dick was a quiet, easy-going fellow, no trouble to anyone, but sad to state, he couldn’t read or write. I don’t know who made out his lineup card.
Santop was the catcher. His great asset was hitting, but as for catching or running a team, why, Santop wasn’t too much.
Stringbean Williams was a curve-ball pitcher and beat some of the better teams. Quiet fellow, never had much to say.
Frank Earle was third base; he was evil. (See photo above of 1917 Brooklyn Royal Giants featuring Frank Earle standing fourth from the left.)
I used to come over to play with the Baltimore Black Sox on Sundays, starting maybe 1919. They were principally local talent, but before long they started bringing in men who developed into top ballplayers.
Jud Wilson was one. He didn’t look like a ball player; I said to myself, “This guy’s over-rated.” Biggest mistake of my life.
This original oil painting by Nancy Vallely features the great Jud Wilson.
This side-written Hillerich & Bradsby bat was game used by Jud Wilson during the 1920s. During his decades-long research of box scores and records, John Holway credits Jud Wilson with having a batting average of over .350 during his 20-plus year career.
We were playing Hilldale a close game, and they sent Louis Santop in to pinch-hit. I knew he would never hit at the first strike, so I threw one just as hard as I could and busted the plate wide open, right over the middle. The next one I threw was a slow spitter, looked like it took the middle. He took one healthy swing, and the ball went up in the air about a mile. The second baseman made the putout. I can see Santop now, saying dirty words.
There was an incident that’s very vivid in my mind in a ball game in South Baltimore. Fellow named Peck Learing was catching for the American Chain Company, and a fellow on our team was trying to get home. Peck had him out a country mile, and the man cut him all up with his spikes. It was one of the dirtiest acts I ever witnessed in baseball; I’ll never forget it.
I was getting $150 a month from Rossiter, the owner. Ed Bolden, the owner of the Hilldales, was the cause of me getting a raise to $300. Bolden offered 300, and Rossiter said he’d match it. Why in hell didn’t I say 400 or 500?
My younger brother, Melvin had a tryout with Hilldale, but he couldn’t hit an outcurve. I told him, “Unless you learn how to hit an outcurve, your stay won’t be long up here.” He never did learn.
Sam Streeter was a tough left-handed pitcher. I got hooked up in a game against him one Sunday in 1922. Streeter pitched a heck of a game, gave only four hits; I got two of ‘em. A fellow named Lyman Smith, never known to hit a left-hander, hit a home run; Sam got in too close. Going into the ninth, Scrappy Brown said, “You know, nobody’s gotten to first base on you.” [One of baseball’s oldest taboos is to mention a no-hitter while it is in progress.]
On the first man up in the ninth, Red Miller made an error at third. The man stole on the next pitch, out by a mile. It was the only no-hitter I ever had, and I faced only 27 men. Miller used to drink. Someone beat his head on the concrete and killed him.
After 70 years, Doc’s memory was a little faulty. His daughter, Alice, was kind enough to send me a detailed article about the game from the Baltimore Afro-American. It reveals that there were two errors; the one by Miller came in the third inning.
In the ninth inning, R. Smith pinch-hit and lifted a fly down the right field line, where veteran Blainey Hall dropped it. Streeter, a good hitter, batted for himself and slapped a grounder to shortstop Possum Poles, who started a double play to end the game.
Sykes didn’t walk anyone. He struck out two. Only five balls were hit to the outfield, one was popped up, and 19 were hit on the ground. Dick Lundy, one of the three best shortstops in blackball history, grounded out three times, once to Sykes.
Lundy later went blind and ended up shining shoes at the Jacksonville railroad station. Hall was one of the top hitters in the pre-World War I era. I met him many years later living as a hermit in an old house in the woods outside Baltimore. Unfortunately, his memory was almost gone, and I didn’t get any useful stories.
The Black Sox were drawing bigger crowds on Sundays than Jack Dunn’s Baltimore Orioles [perhaps the greatest minor league team of all time]. I’d say anywhere from 2,500 up to maybe 5-6,000 people. Almost half the crowd was whites. After 1937, when the Elite Giants represented Baltimore at Bugle Field, the white attendance dropped off.
I stayed with Baltimore five or six years and played with outside teams at the same time. Got good money out of it.
I went to Pimlico to the races every day. Harry Mann, one of the world’s best clockers told me, “I know you’re losing money. The only way to clean up at the races is with a shovel and broom.” I took his advice, and my practice improved immediately. Then when I put my hand in my pocket, I could feel some money.
After the 1926 season, I returned to Decatur with my wife and family. I took the Alabama dental board examinations in a hotel, and I had to go up on the freight elevator — couldn’t go even one floor on the regular elevator — but there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
In 1931, the sensational Scottsboro murder trial rocked the town when nine black hoboes, ages 13-19, were accused of raping two white women hoboes in a railroad boxcar. The boys were tried and sentenced to death within a week. After an appeal, the re-trial achieved celebrity nationwide and opened in an atmosphere of tension as National Guardsmen patrolled outside the courthouse.
“Doc” Sykes testifying at Scottsboro murder trial.
The trial was held under Judge Horton, whom I knew personally. I had been in his court several times in murder cases, where one Negro shot another Negro. In one case I was asked to give an opinion as to whether a bullet could have been the cause of death. One of the lawyers objected, but Judge Horton said, “Your objection is over-ruled. Here is a man, graduated from Howard dental school and has a major in anatomy, and I feel he’s competent to say whether or not the bullet was the cause of death.”
Of Decatur’s 9,000 blacks, none had ever served on a jury. The defense called several prominent blacks — doctors, teachers, and others — to testify that they were qualified to serve. The prosecutor was described as “brusque” in his questions before an audience of whites, some with their feet on the bar rail, others spitting across the bar into spittoons placed there.
Sykes, “a handsome man in a brush mustache,” according to the Birmingham News-Herald, “was polite but self-confident in his replies.” He produced a list of 200 local Negroes whom he said were competent to serve. Judge Horton agreed.
However, the youths were convicted again.
As I’ve grown older, I think back on how the 12 men on the jury could bring in a verdict of guilty against nine innocent Negro boys. How could they — and I knew some of them on the jury — call themselves Christians? I suppose they didn’t think any more of a Negro than they did a dog.
Sykes helped two black reporters from the North, spiriting them from house to house when “the situation became threatening for them.” When they ran into cars filled with Klu Klux Klansmen, they made a fast get-away.
The boys were eventually set free.
After a cross was burned in front of my house, I thought it was a good time to come back to Baltimore.
Change, I don’t think, will ever come. If it does, it will be after we’re gone. A lot of people are fighting for that change.
Frank “Doc” Sykes
September 16, 1922
Bacharach Giants ab h r Black Sox ab h r
cf Crockett 3 0 0 lf Raggs 4 0 0
3b Jones 3 0 0 c Lewis 3 0 0
lf Reid 3 0 0 2b Ridgely 3 0 0
ss Lundy 3 0 0 rf Hall 3 0 0
1b Deas 3 0 0 1b Wilson 3 1 1
rf Young 3 0 0 cf Smith 2 1 1
1b Davis 3 0 0 3b Miller 3 0 0
c O’Neill 2 0 0 ss Poles 3 0 0
ph Smith 1 0 0 p Sykes 3 2 0
p Streeter 0 0 0
24 0 0 27 4 2
b Decatur, AL 4/10/92, d Baltimore 11/10/86 BR TR 6’2 192
w l ip r tra
1914 BRK, NY 0 4
1915 NY Lincoln G 6 2
1916 1 3
1917 No record
1918 PHI 2 1
1919 BRK Royal G No record
1920 BAL Black Sox 2 2
1921 1 1
1922 BAL, PHI 5 1
1923 BAL 5 2
1917 0 3 29 12 3.70 (1 Save)
Vs. White Big Leaguers
1915 vs. Chief Bender 1 0 9 3 3.00
Negro League 22 16
World Series 0 3
Vs. Big Leaguers 1 0