Excerpt: Before Jackie Robinson
The following excerpt comes from Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers by Gerald R. Gems (February 2017).
From Chapter 3:
When Great Wasn’t Good Enough
Sam Ransom’s Journey from Athlete to Activist
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, sanctioned by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, promised an end to slavery in the United States. The radical Reconstruction of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War seemingly gave African Americans their long-sought inclusion in the mainstream society. Former slaves gained citizenship, civil rights, and suffrage. Blacks were elected to the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, and local offices throughout the South, but such progress proved short lived. The Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866, began to impose terror and intimidation on southern blacks as its vigilante operations spread throughout the region. Moreover, the disputed presidential election of 1876 resulted in a political compromise that enabled white southerners to restore their primacy throughout the South, subjecting blacks to peonage as sharecroppers and enacting Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation policies and curtailed suffrage rights. The brief glimpse of equality quickly lapsed into pre–Civil War social, economic, and political patterns of white hegemony and racial oppression.
Free blacks living in the urban centers of the North enjoyed much greater latitude. They established their own newspapers throughout the nineteenth century, and they began urging their southern brethren to seek better lives in northern states, where jobs, education, and opportunities awaited. . . .
African Americans increasingly heeded the voice of Du Bois, many heading north for better life chances. The Ransom family did not wait for such admonitions. They preceded the exodus to the North, traveling to Illinois, where their son Samuel was born on the Fourth of July in 1883. Sammy Ransom entered Hyde Park High School in Chicago in 1899, paying for his expenses by working as a hotel bellhop. At Hyde Park he was a good student but became an exceptional athlete, starring in football, baseball, basketball, and track, yet his success demonstrated the liminal status of blacks in American society at the turn of the twentieth century. Although Ransom labored in the shadow of his white teammate, Walter Eckersall, a future All-American at the University of Chicago, he was lauded as an outstanding talent in his own right. The Chicago newspapers praised his exploits with rarely a mention of his race as the Hyde Park teams claimed the Cook County, regional, and even national championships. A 1904 school publication acknowledged Ransom as “ever reliable . . . attracted favorable criticism from friend and foe.”7
As a baseball player, Ransom excelled at several positions: pitcher, catcher, and infield, with Hyde Park winning the league championship from 1901 to 1903. In 1901 Ransom caught as Fred Beebe pitched in what was described as the “the best battery ever developed at a Western prep school.” They were also the “heaviest hitters.” Beebe left school and later turned pro. In 1902 Ransom took up the pitching chores and displayed a strong arm on the mound as the team traveled to Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Hyde Park engaged both other high schools and college teams in its competitions, and Ransom threw seven innings of shutout ball in defeating the University of Wisconsin team. “Ransom’s work as a pitcher in these three games won for him the respect of even the Wisconsin supporters.”8 Against Oak Park High School Ransom played catcher, and after he had made two throws to second base, the opponents abandoned any further attempts to steal a base. In a game at Delavan, Wisconsin, Ransom hit a home run so far that it was never found. When the baseball team was expelled from the city league for an unauthorized game in Michigan, Ransom managed to arrange an unofficial game with the league champion, North Division High School, and Hyde Park prevailed 12–0. . . .
The Hyde Park track team also captured the state championship in 1902 with Eckersall competing in the sprints and Ransom scoring in the field events as a long jumper and shot-putter. A Chicago sports writer recalled that “Ransom could play any game well and what a gentleman he was. I remember him at one indoor meet in which the opponents of his team were being hissed by his school. Ransom came out on the floor and held up his hand for silence. He got it. ‘White people,’ he said with a most appealing grin. ‘Do you have to have a negro [sic] tell you to be fair to white folks?’ They yelled the roof off and there was no more hissing.”10 . . .
Pioneers such as Jack Johnson, Rube Foster, and Fritz Pollard refused to be subjugated and symbolized both pride and hope for other African Americans. By the 1920s, with the emergence of the “new Negro” and a heightened racial consciousness, Sam Ransom, too, came to realize that his early athletic successes belied the true fate of his people. He campaigned for civil rights, playing a key role in desegregating the Minnesota National Guard, and helped to establish and then serve on Minnesota’s Interracial Commission (now the Department of Human Rights). The governor cited him for distinguished service to the state. He later scolded the United States for its racial policies, yet he retained his patriotism and remained “friendly, enthusiastic, kind and gentle, with a superb sense of humor.”38 Though less flamboyant than Johnson, Foster, or Pollard, Ransom was no less a hero in his quest for racial equality. He had entertained, even fascinated, whites with his athletic abilities. His former teammate, Walter Eckersall, who had become a prominent sportswriter of national status by 1918, rated Ransom with All-Americans Bob Marshall of Minnesota and Fritz Pollard as the best black players up to that time. Six years later he was still described as “the greatest high school colored athlete.” Carl Cobelli, a Hyde Park gymnastics teacher and coach since 1893, declared Ransom to be the greatest Hyde Park athlete ever. Ransom had earned sixteen varsity letters in four years and greatly contributed to a multitude of city, county, state, western regional, and national championships. Hyde Park High School named him to its all-time football team. In 1973, three years after his death, Beloit College informed his wife, Queen, that it had elected him to its Athletic Hall of Honor. But his athletic successes proved fleeting compared to his civil rights work, which endures. An obituary recognized Ransom as “a great man among the great.”39
Sam Ransom had played at a time when great wasn’t good enough. Blacks might be lauded for their physical abilities, especially if they won greater social capital for white communities, but few won full respect or the equality they sought and deserved. Perhaps Sam Ransom best summarized his own life when he wrote to a friend that “I might have been a greater athlete had I gone to Chicago, but by going to Beloit, I am a better man.”40
7. Hyde Park High School, The Libethrian (Chicago: Windemere Press, 1904), n.p.; Walter Eckersall, “Sam Ransom Fearless in War or Sport,” Anaconda Standard, July 21, 1918, 2.
8. Hyde Park High School, Libethrian, n.p.
10. Cited in Oboler, Oski-Wow-Wow, 99.
38. Mary J. Kyle, “A Man to Remember,” Twin Cities Courier, February 21, 1970 (clipping in the Beloit Archives); letter form Joseph P. Kobylka to the Ransom family, February 18, 1970, in Beloit Archives (quote).
39. Oboler, Oski-Wow-Wow, 17, 99, 102–3; Eckersall, “Sam Ransom Fearless in War or Sport”; Robert G. Nicholls to Mrs. Ransom, June 18, 1973, in Beloit Archives; Kyle, “A Man to Remember.” Bob Marshall earned All-American honors in 1905 and 1906 and played in the nfl until 1927 at the age of forty-seven. No black players were signed to nfl contracts from 1934 to 1946.
40. Sam Ransom to Francis J. Platt, February 19, 1967, in Beloit Archives.