“Take me out to the ball game.
Take me out with the crowd….
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out.
At the old ball game!”
It all began when I saw again a blurry photo labeled “Park Day 1933” among my mother’s photos. The photo was of a Black baseball team, some doffing their caps for the photographer. The photo had intrigued me before but this time I pursued more information.
It was taken in Cambria, Wisconsin where the population was 671 in 1930, a white farming community of mostly Welsh and German heritage – almost certainly all white. It is 46 miles from Madison and 85 miles from Milwaukee: a pretty isolated area. What was the story behind this photo? How did the residents receive this team? I was so curious!
I contacted the Cambria-Friesland Historical Society via Facebook messaging and asked what they knew about this day. Mary Jane helpfully tracked down a newspaper description about that Park Day in 1933:
“On Tuesday, August 22, 1933 the House of David of Benton Harbor, Michigan played the Giant Collegians of Piney Woods, Mississippi.” The article states the Collegians also played at Park Day the year before, and on August 21, 1934 the Collegians returned and played “Happy” Felsch’s Wilkes Dairy team of Milwaukee.
The Giant Collegians
Aha! Zooming in I could see “Giant Collegians” on the baseball shirts. A starting point! Piney Woods at that time was a junior college. It was one of many historically Black colleges and universities around the country who fielded baseball teams that traveled around playing all over the United States in the 1920s and 1930s to raise money for their colleges.
It turns out that not only those teams but other teams, Black and white, were organized into leagues and traveled around from town to town – particularly small towns in rural areas to entertain. It was called Barnstorming and it started in about 1860 on a small level but grew massively during the 1920s and 1930s with poor economic conditions (the Great Depression of the 1930s). It provided entertainment for the communities and income for the players or their organizations. Baseball was the number one sport in the country during these years, so crowds always showed up.
I learned that in 1932 135 players tried out for the Piney Woods team and they sponsored three teams – the Giant Collegians, the Brown Cubs, and the Little Brown Cubs. Together they played 169 games in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, winning 148 games, losing or tying 21. They played against professional squads as well as semi-professional and amateur teams. In 1933, the Giant Collegians team headed to the Midwest to play 20 games in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The total number of games played that season is unclear.
Piney Woods added a twist by surprising the fans who stood expecting to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. Instead, a quartet sang a couple of Negro spirituals, told the story of their school, and solicited donations. The music and the story served to expand the awareness of the audience to a culture they knew little to nothing about. A definite bonus!
The House of David
The Collegians’ 1933 opponent at Cambria Park Day – the day the photo was taken – was House of David of Benton Harbor, Michigan. They turned out to be a unique piece of barnstorming history! The House of David, established in 1903, was a sect that lived communally and considered themselves Christian Israelites. They got into the barnstorming circuits in about 1915.
Photo credit: Chris Siriano’s House of David Baseball Museum
They couldn’t cut their hair, so their appearance was distinctive among the baseball teams. They followed a strict moral code and were strict vegetarians. That moral code included egalitarian beliefs so they played against teams of all kinds including Negro League and historically Black college teams like the Piney Woods Giant Collegians. Apparently an example of this happened on that Park Day in Cambria, Wisconsin on August 22, 1933.
The team even traveled for a few weeks some summers with the Kansas City Monarchs in the depth of the Depression for financial reasons. The Monarchs were known as the greatest Negro team of them all. In an interview House of David player Lloyd Dalagar said, “We didn’t care what color they were. To us they were just gifted athletes who weren’t allowed to play in the big leagues.”
In 1934, before their largest crowd to date, they defeated the first Negro team invited to the famed Denver Post Tournament, their traveling companions the great Kansas City Monarchs, for the championship.
This book provides rich information about the barnstorming teams and specifically the House of David and its teams. (They had up to three teams at some times.)
Baseball and the House of David: The Legendary Barnstorming Teams, 1915-1956 by P.J. Dragseth.
“Happy” Felsch’s Wilkes Dairy Team of Milwaukee
I was unable to find information about this team that apparently played the Giant Collegians on Park Day 1934. Perhaps it only played locally and sporadically. But “Happy” Felsch was a renowned baseball player from Milwaukee who rose to fame in the Chicago White Sox team beginning in the 1915 season. The scandal about the fixing of the 1919 World Series (the Black Sox scandal) derailed his promising major league career. Although there is detailed information available about his activities after that, I could not find a barnstormer team of that name, or even just connected with Wilkes Dairy. The Society for American Baseball Research is the creator of the detailed account of Felsch’s life: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/happy-felsch/
The Life of Barnstormers
Life on the road was tough for barnstormers and even more so for the Black teams. For all of them, the drought that extended through the decade of the 1930s caused dust storms in the Midwest and southern Great Plains which impacted travel and availability of food and water. They traveled by bus mostly, with automobiles in some cases. Extreme heat, vehicles without air conditioning and travel on backroads to reach small towns made for tough travel. Black players weren’t allowed in hotels in these years of segregation and Jim Crow laws. But still they played.
This fascinating journey of exploration began with one blurry photograph from 1933. I am grateful to learn more about the time, the town and the sport – including the examples of breaks in the segregation of the time. I would love to learn about reactions of the people of Cambria to these (at least 3) visits of the Giant Collegians and their opponents. What kind of welcome did they receive? Was there apprehension or fear? Any backlash? Perhaps I can learn more. And I will be looking for other opportunities to explore stories behind photos from the past. Stories expand our awareness in profound ways. The path from generalized facts and knowledge to more specifics is a rich one.
I’m Carol Brusegar, author, photographer and curator of information. My focus is on gathering and writing on topics that enhance all our lives – regardless of our age. Topics include health and wellness, personal development, innovation and creativity, and a variety of helpful, practical tools and practices. I have a special interest in helping people over 50 years of age to create their 3rd Age – the next stage of their lives – to be the best it can be.