Most Rhode Islanders recognize the strong relationship between their state and professional baseball at both the major and minor league levels. Few, however, are aware that this connection extends to the professional black teams in the Negro Leagues during the age of racial segregation in the 1930s and 1940s. In those years, African Americans participated in leagues of their own in response to the exclusionist policies of white major league baseball. Three men with close ties to Rhode Island participated in the Negro Leagues and distinguished themselves as outstanding athletes. Joseph Gomes, Charles Thomas, and Gideon Spence Applegate successfully competed “in the shadows” of segregation and thrilled loyal fans who appreciated their performance as a distinct form of social and cultural expression. Baseball certainly strengthened community within black neighborhoods, but both fans and players never lost their determination to integrate America’s national pastime. Outstanding players like Gomes, Thomas, and Applegate used the power of their abilities to demonstrate that they were second to none and, as such, acted as pioneers in the struggle to desegregate the game and country they honored.
Joseph “Joe” Gomes from East Providence began his career as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Bacharach Giants in 1929 and would spend seven seasons barnstorming the country competing against such legendary figures as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and “Cool Papa” Bell. Earlier, Gomes led his East Providence High School baseball team to a state championship in 1928 where he garnered all-state recognition. After high school, John McGraw, manager and co-owner of the New York Giants, approached Gomes with a plan that would send the talented right-handed pitcher to Cuba for a season or two with the idea that he would later join the Giants as a Cuban player. Gomes affirmed his own heritage as a Cape Verdean and declined the offer. He subsequently played both baseball and football at Providence College and then made his professional debut in Philadelphia. He is, perhaps, the only person of Cape Verdean ancestry to play in the Negro Leagues. After his professional career ended, Gomes played for several local semi-pro and amateur teams in Rhode Island.
Equally significant is Charlie Thomas. Thomas was born in Georgia but spent most of his early life in Dayton, Ohio before moving to Boston, Massachusetts to attend college at Boston University. After serving his country with distinction in World War II and graduating from college, he moved to Providence where he enjoyed a strong presence as a community leader and civil servant working for the city’s recreational department and family court system. Thomas compiled a successful professional career as an outfielder with the Newark Eagles playing for Hall of Fame owner Effa Manley between 1941 and 1943. With the Eagles, Thomas had Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin as teammates. The national and local press consistently touted Thomas’s athletic career and one teammate characterized him as “the guy who could deliver in a clutch.” Upon completion of his career in Newark, Thomas joined the Boston Colored Giants, New England’s most successful independent professional team where he frequently thrilled fans at Cardines Field in Newport. He also played semi-professional football for the Providence Steam Rollers. A member of the Boston University Athletic Hall of Fame, Thomas was a nine varsity letter award winner.
Gideon Spence Applegate made his professional debut at McCoy Stadium as a member of the New York Cuban Giants in 1943 and competed for two full-seasons while still a student attending East Providence High School. During the 1943 season, he initially played under an assumed name, most likely Spearman, and the following year starred for the New York Black Yankees alongside manager George Scales and Hall-of Famer Willie Wells. Applegate was initially recommended to Cuban Giant owner, Alejandro Pompez, by his high school coach who also served as the skipper for the minor-league Pawtucket Slaters. He competed against such renowned Negro League players as Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson. Upon completion of his military service, Applegate attended a try-out at McCoy Stadium and joined the Pawtucket Slaters for spring training in 1948. Later, in 1949, he joined the Kingston, Ontario team, a farm club for the Boston Braves, where he became the first African-American player in the Braves organization. Applegate played for the Kingston Ponies in 1949 and 1950 in the Canadian Border League before winding up with Waterloo in 1951. The following season he helped the Superior Blues, a Chicago white Sox farm club, capture a league championship by pitching two no-hitters against rival teams in Sioux Falls and St Could. During his minor league years, he was selected to play in three all-star games. Applegate also starred for a celebrated local black team in Rhode Island. He played semi-professionally for the state’s premiere black club, the Invaders where he again competed against the best talent in the Negro Leagues with games against the New York Black Yankees and Philadelphia Stars.
Circle Athletic Club and
Providence baseball fans experienced a different version of the “Summer of ’49.” Their edition focused on another pennant race, not the one in Boston and New York. This story featured the Circle Athletic Club, one of the city’s most celebrated and historic amateur teams. By season’s end, the Circle team conquered all its divisional opponents in the Independent National League and then set it sites on the American League victors for the Amateur championship. The Circle players subsequently won the championship and in the process made history as the first truly integrated team in the city’s then 48 year history of organized amateur ball. This month, on August 8th , the Pawtucket Red Sox will commemorate that achievement and honor pitcher Charles Butler for his outstanding accomplishments. Butler, who graduated from Central High School in 1944 and later served with distinction in World War II, initially played for the city’s all black team, the Invaders, before joining the Circle A.C.
Butler credits Ernest “Biffo” Duarte, prizefighter and sports promoter from Fox Point, as the inspiration behind the first integrated team. He scouted the best players, black and white, because he wanted only the best. Duarte struggled to land his ballclub in the Tim O’Neil Amateur League and only after relentless requests for a franchise did his dream come true. In 1949, two contingent factors, the expansion of the Independent League and the late withdrawal of one of its teams allowed the Circle Club to enter. As legend goes, Duarte told his ballplayers that the name of their club would be the Circle A.C. because nothing is more perfect than a circle that’s what he expected from his players.
He nearly got it. In its inaugural season, the team won its first 14 games, then lost one, but bounced back to win all its remaining contests. In a script only Hollywood could have written, the team won the amateur championship by defeating the highly favored Tutelo’s club on a two out, two-run double in the bottom of ninth which scored the tying and winning runs by pinch hitter Charles Harris. For the city’s African American community, the game defined the “Summer of 49” along with the promise of racial equality.
Although Charlie Harris provided the heroics that evening, it had been the consistent pitching of Charles Butler who delivered the team to its championship moment. Two other standout players, first-baseman Dick Harris, Charlie’s brother, and short-stop Johnny Braxton provided the power and speed essential for a balanced offense. A year earlier, in 1948, Harris and Braxton were among the first black players extended a tryout by the Boston Braves. The Braves organization eventually integrated its ball club in 1950 with the arrival of Sam Jethro.
In 1951, the team jumped to the semi-professional ranks and again made history as Rhode Island’s first integrated team to play for the National Baseball Congress’s world championship in Wichita, Kansas. On the road to Wichita, the team defeated Newport’s Bove Chevrolet led by player-manager Gordon Ross for the state semi-pro title and then defeated the Moodus Club of Connecticut to secure the regional championship. The Circle A.C. defeated teams from Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia before falling to the reigning Congress champs, the Indiana Capehearts. Butler played magnificently during the Kansas tournament as did his African American teammates Ray Edmonds and Charles Thomas. Thomas, then living in Rhode Island, had played for the Negro League World Champion Newark Eagles and had Hall-of-Famers Monte Irvin and Larry Doby as teammates.
The local press reported that “the idea of mixing races in the big leagues was quite a problem to the club owners but to Biffo it seems to be routine. He has managed to secure the better ballplayers of both races and not once has there been any inkling of misunderstanding among players or managers.” It is important to recognize that alternatives to the Jackie Robinson model of integration existed. Major League teams had several options including signing several black players at once to create an integrated team, like the Circle A.C., or expand the league to include one or more of the successful Negro League teams. The closest the national pastime came to true integration were rumors, now largely discredited, that maverick owner Bill Veeck planned to purchase the 1943 Phillies and stock the team with black ballplayers.
Long before baseball became the national pastime is was the local one. Providence fans surely followed the 1949 Red Sox and Yankee rivalry, but neither team featured a black ballplayer. While in Rhode Island, an interracial crowd gathered at Cranston Stadium to support the Circle A.C. in its bid for a league championship. Local baseball reflected the city’s racial flexibility and echoed the pulse of the community in ways the national pastime never could.
Charles Butler was born and raised on Providence’s Westside and currently resides in East Providence with his wife Gwen. As a youngster, he played baseball at Central High School under renowned coach Walter “Pard” Pierce and concurrently starred for his neighborhood team the West Elmwood Raiders. Upon graduation, in 1944, he entered the United States Army and served with distinction during World War II. Upon his release in 1946, he resumed his ballplaying career as a hard throwing right-handed pitcher for the city’s black semi-professional team, the Invaders. Later, in 1949, he helped the first truly integrated amateur team in the city’s history, the Circle Athletic Club, win the Independent Amateur League championship. As the team’s premiere pitcher, he helped lead the team to a 20-2 overall record. Butler, a versatile athlete played the outfield when not on the mound. In 1951, he joined a very select group of athletes, both black and white, to represent the state in the National Baseball Congress world Championship in Wichita Kansas. To this day, Mr. Butler remains an active and avid golfer and tennis player.
During the challenging years of World War II, baseball provided a sense of comfort and stability for many Americans. This proved especially true for African Americans who steadfastly supported the war, but still faced racial segregation and discrimination at home. In 1945, the best non-white ballplayers in Providence formed the Invaders Baseball Club and quickly became New England’s most successful African American semi-professional team. These players competed against prominent regional clubs, both black and white, including the powerful Boston Colored Giants. By the time the Invader s disbanded in 1948, two of its members, Johnny Braxton and Dick Harris, had received tryouts by the Boston Braves and the team was carded against professional Negro League teams, including the New York Black Yankees. The Invaders also hosted hard-hitting barnstorming clubs like the Philadelphia All-Stars and Washington Pilots with rosters that listed mostly professional Negro League players. Fans packed Pierce Memorial Stadium in East Providence to demonstrate their appreciation for the team and its owner, Richard “Pop” Dudley, for the pride and sense of accomplishment the Invaders exemplified. It is exciting to note that during the team’s inaugural season, pitcher Amos Venter defeated the South Providence Mariners in a memorable game which included a hit and run scored by Mainer Lou Gorman, an outstanding first baseman who later became the General Manager of the Boston Red Sox.
The Invaders depended on Donald Taylor’s strong right arm to keep the team competitive in Rhode Island’s semi-professional baseball circuit. He never disappointed his teammates. He was a pitcher’s pitcher known for his pinpoint accuracy and ability to change speeds. Like many hurlers of his day, Donald was also a position player who hit for average and power. Most notably, in 1947, he doubled and scored the winning run against the Philadelphia All-Stars, a professional traveling team, in one of the Invader’s most memorable games. Donald was born on the West Side of Providence in 1922. Orphaned at an early age, he attended the Rhode Island State Home and School and later graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 1940. While at Mount Pleasant he excelled in both football and baseball and also served as senior class president. Donald answered his nation’s call during World War II and served in the Army between 1943 and 1946. He participated in the Pacific Theater where he rose to the rank of Sergeant. Following his military release, he attended Delaware State College and became a stellar pitcher. After his college years, Donald spent most of his professional life in service to others. Starting as a Youth Supervisor for the Boys Training School in 1954, he later rose to the rank of Deputy Director and Acting Director of the state’s Department of Corrections. He retired from state service in 1989 as Assistant Director of Business Management in Management Services. He married Dorothy Hicks Goodwin in 1967 and they currently reside in Wakefield. He has three daughters and two sons.
Raymond Venter Sr.
The Venter name is well known in Rhode Island sport circles. Accepting the plaque in honor of his uncle, Amos Venter, is his nephew Raymond. During the 1940s, Amos played for the Invaders along with several other championship black teams including those coached by legendary sportsman Red Smith. Raymond followed in his uncle’s footsteps and became one of the state’s leading scholastic athletes. A graduate of Hope High School, Raymond excelled in football, basketball, baseball, and track. He later continued his athletic career in Providence’s amateur leagues where his hard work and ability played a major role in securing the state softball championship for his employer, the Amica Insurance Company. Raymond’s talents extended to the coaching realm where he assisted youngsters in the Martin Luther King Recreation League in Providence and Monsignor Clarke School in Wakefield. Raymond married Judy Riels and has three children, a son and two daughters. He currently lives in South Kingston.
Paul Price played for the Invaders along with his brothers Dan Price and Amos Venter. Paul’s speed and agility landed his a spot in the middle infield at second base or shortstop. He was born in Providence in 1921 where he attended the neighborhood public schools. Paul remained active in several civic and charitable organizations especially the Mason’s Constantine Temple #14. As a Mason, he served as Promotional Director for the Shriners and staged many fund-raising events which showcased the talent of the leading jazz bands and singers of the 1950s. He married Barbara Chinn, who recently passed away, and has two sons and two daughters. He lives in Providence.
Ralph “Tilly” Davis
Ralph Hickman Davis, better known as Ralph “Tilly” Davis in the local Rhode Island baseball world, was born in Providence, Rhode Island on February 5, 1915 to William and Rhoda (Hickman) Davis. He was the fourth in a family of four brothers, William, Dexter, Maynard, Clinton, and a sister, Nellie Davis Williams.
Ralph graduated from East Providence High School in 1934. Along with his two older brothers Dexter (Class of ’28) and Maynard (Class of ’30), and younger brother Clinton (Class of ’39), the gifted foursome excelled in varsity sports and were heralded statewide.
All four brothers were honored in 1955 by the East Providence Lettermen’s Club for their excellence in sports. Each of the Davis Brothers competed in at least three sports and led the East Providence High School “Townies” to championships for more than a decade. Whether playing baseball, football, or basketball from the late 1920s to nearly 1940, opposing teams in any of those three sports encountered at least one of the famed Davis brothers. At the time of the Letterman’s honoring event, The Providence Journal Bulletin further spread the news of the Davis Brothers’ extraordinary athletic achievements and artfully captured the foursome in a character portrait penned by the newspaper’s acclaimed illustrator, Frank Lanning.
While attending East Providence High School, Ralph achieved interscholastic all-state honors in baseball for both his junior and senior years. According to local sportswriters, he was considered one of the finest all-around athletes of his day, especially in baseball, when he captained the East Providence Townies to an undefeated season in 1933.
Ralph “Tilly” Davis owns a significant piece of Rhode Island baseball history. In 1933, as a member of the East Providence Belmonts, he helped integrate the Pawtucket Twilight League as a smooth fielding first baseman. Ralph also hit .360 that year, and it became apparent that he would soon advance to the highly competitive Pawtucket Inter City League. As expected, Ralph became the first player of African American descent to play in the Inter City League as a member of the semi-professional East Providence Townies. Ralph enjoyed a successful career with the Townies and in 1935 participated in the League’s All-Star game held in Coates Stadium as a representative of the Leagues’ American Division. Sportswriters touted Davis as a” heavy and consistent hitter, [who] has belted the old apple throughout the year at over a .320 clip while afield his handling of first base has been a revelation to his admirers. A past master in scooping grounders or reaching wide for bad throws, Tilly was unquestionably the leading first sacker of the strong Pawtucket League.” Davis played a key role in the American Division’s win with a clutch single in bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game.
During this period, “Tilly, divided his playing time between the Inter City League and several African American independent teams including the Dixie Matthews Athletics, The Douglass Athletic Club, and the Providence Colored Giants, and the Royal Colored Giants. He earned inclusion on the Boston Chronicle’s African American All-Star team for 1933, 1934, and 1935.
Ralph Davis had two great passions — baseball and flying. Like other young men of the time, the imminent specter of war swooped up three of the five Davis brothers. Civilian life pursuits were swept aside in order to serve gallantly in the service of their country.
During WWII, Ralph served in the United States Army Air Corps, assigned and served as a pilot, mechanic and instructor to the famed and highly decorated 99th Pursuit Squadron, known as the fearless Tuskegee Airmen flying those distinctive red tail P-51 fighter plans. Ralph Davis was honorably discharged in 1945 holding the rank of Staff Sergeant.
While still in the service, Ralph met and married, Mary Tate and they settled in her hometown of Staunton, Virginia. The couple was blessed with one son, Clinton Maynard Davis, currently a Staunton resident. Clinton accepts tonight’s recognition and memorial plaque on behalf of his father and family.
His belief in his abilities… His love for sports and honest competition all served as the foundation for Ralph “Tillie” Davis’ most inspiring life achievements.
Ralph Davis left this life in 2002 at the age of 87.
Carter “Speed” Braxton and John Braxton
Carter “Speed” Braxton and his brother John formed one of the smoothest double-play combinations in local black baseball. Carter began his baseball career in 1937 as a member of the West Elmwood Raiders as a pitcher and infielder. By1942, he had become manager of the Raiders, a team that now included his younger brother John. During World War II, the West Elmwood club played a highly competitive schedule in the John Hope Amateur League against ballclubs that included a talented team of black sailors from the Quonset Naval Air Station. The games attracted large numbers of fans that traveled to Hope Field, Bucklin Park, Tockwotton Park and Mashapaug Park to watch their neighborhood teams compete.
John entered the Navy in 1943, but periodically joined his brother on the field when granted shore leave. After the War, John became a stellar player for the finest African American team in Rhode Island, the Invaders. His talent caught the attention of the Boston Braves and, in 1948, the Braves selected him to participate in a try out held at McCoy Stadium. Johnny Braxton, who threw and batted right-handed, was characterized in the local press as an alert and fast infielder who covered a lot of territory around shortstop. He batted for average and was one of the leading base stealers in all New England.
The brothers reunited one last time when both participated as members of the famous Circle Athletic Club, the first integrated team in Rhode Island’s legendary Tim O’Neil League. With Carter playing second and John at short, the brothers helped the Circle Club win the League’s championship title in 1949. John gained recognition for his bat and Carter for his speed.
Not to be outdone, sister Lillian Braxton served as a founding member of the Circlettes, an all girls athletic club designed to promote baseball and basketball competition among Providence’s African American women.
Carter was born in 1925 and raised in Providence. He served his country with distinction as a member of the Navy during World War II. He married Hope (Washington) Braxton and together they created a family that included three sons, Carter, Earl, and Winston and two daughters Marsha and Linear. Later, he married Ramon (Smith) and raised two daughters Tyna, and Christine. Carter lived most of his adult life on Cranston Street and worked as a longshoreman as a member of the International Longshoreman’s Association Local 1329. He passed away in 1989. His younger brother, John, also served his nation as a sailor during World War II and later worked at the former Quonset Point Naval Air Station in North Kingstown. Born in 1927, John married Velma (Taylor) Braxton and raised a family that included four sons, John, Jr., James, Ronald, and Curtis and three daughters, Ellen, Patricia, and Nancy. He remained a life-long resident of Providence and died in 1994.
Both were the sons of Carter and Mary (Cuff) Braxton and the brothers of Thomas, Clara, Martha, and Lillian. Thomas Braxton will accept the commemorative plaque in his bothers’ honor.
This article originally appeared on the official website of the Pawtucket Red Sox. Click here to view the original story.