The Sykesville Giants
This is a baseball story. Sort of. But not like any baseball story you’ve ever heard. This is the story of the Sykesville Giants. And no, you can’t read about the Giants in any history book ever written, and you can’t read about the Giants in old issues of the Sykesville Herald or Carroll County Times.
Man, you can’t read about the Sykesville Giants anywhere, because most likely, no one’s ever published a word about them. And it’s pretty safe to say that all the remaining information about the Sykesville Giants resides in one place — the 92-year-old gray matter of Mr. Warren Dorsey.
Warren and I are friends, which in itself is kind of interesting. He’s 92 and black. I’m 58 and white. But Warren and I get together a lot, he in his home in Frederick, I in mine in Sykesville, both sitting in front of web cams, talking over Skype, while Warren tells stories, and I record them. Someday, hopefully, we’ll have a book. Warren wants something to leave behind for his family. I want to learn about the past and Sykesville and the poor folks on Oklahoma Hill.
Warren’s been retired a long time. He graduated from college against real stiff odds, served in the army during World War II, worked for years at Fort Detrick, then had a second career as an educator and principal of a school.
But once, Warren was a poor African-American kid, delivered by his grandmother in the house where he grew up. His grandmother was a slave once. Warren spent his early years in a fly-infested home on a farm up a hill in Sykesville, attended the Sykesville Colored Schoolhouse in hand-me-downs, clothes made by his mom, and the modified rejects of white people. He wore underwear cut from the feed sacks used to feed the family’s chickens. He slept in a bed with two brothers, on mattresses filled with straw, the whole thing smelling of the gasoline his mom used to kill the bedbugs once a week.
His father was an amazingly talented man whose response to being black in a white society was to buy a home and a farm from a white man named A.C. Brown, and strive for self-sufficiency, then withdraw somewhat into himself, unable quite to reconcile himself with the segregated American world and his place in it.
Warren’s mother was uniquely amazing, uneducated, and talented in a different way. She was the beautiful daughter of a freed slave. She spent the years from 18 into her 30s mostly pregnant, raising 12 children, in many ways on her own, while holding her huge family together through organization, resourcefulness, and an incredible power of will. Hers was a life where almost every moment was dedicated to the struggle to keep her children fed and clothed.
Yep, there’s all that to tell. But today, we’re going to talk about baseball, and the team Warren remembers vividly to this day as one of the brightest things in a childhood that didn’t seem very bright at all.
Black Sykesville’s Field of Dreams
So let’s go to Sykesville, Maryland in the 1920s. The town is pretty much as segregated as any place in the South, where separate and unequal is the prevailing practice. I’ll let Warren set the scene. (From here on out, if it’s in quotes, that’s Warren talking.)
“Sykesville was sort of a trading center for an agricultural area, and the enclave where the African Americans lived was a sort of appendage to the town, identified as Oklahoma Hill. There was a row of houses along the ridge, and at the bottom were a few others, most owned by one man. Only two or three of the properties were owned by the people who lived in them, and my family was one of those.”
Oklahoma Hill is still there, of course. The first house on the hill belonged to Dr. Sprecher. As I pointed out in my story about Wade Warfield, some of the remains of Sprecher’s house are still visible, and the house nearly perished in the fire that took down Warfield’s massive flour mill. Warren says the doctor was a kindly man, who treated both white and black patients at a time when that was unusual.
After the doctor’s house, came the home of the Chipleys, another white family, and after that were the shacks where the black people lived.
The man who owned most of these places was Asa Hepner, the second mayor of Sykesville, a man with a moustache so bushy, it puts the moustache of Sykesville Police Chief, John Williams, completely to shame. Warren refers to Hepner as “the original slum lord, because he used to get whatever rent he could, but he never did anything to upgrade the houses.
“The people who lived there were dirt poor. The only work was day work or yard work or cleaning up around the stores or any kind of menial tasks for very little pay. Scratching out a living was a daily challenge and very stressful for the people who weren’t as privileged as my family. We had land and were able to raise food.
“And a respite from this terrible stress was provided by THE SYKESVILLE GIANTS.”
I put Sykesville Giants in all caps, because when Warren mentions them, his voice gets loud, he smiles and sits up straight, and even over a Skype connection, his face lights up with joy and pride and happy memories.
“At that time, baseball was a universal pastime in every black enclave that could gather enough young men to form a team. Anywhere you’d go, any African American community, if they had enough young men, they had a team.”
And Sykesville was no exception. In fact, Sykesville was exceptional. The team started organizing in 1915. Each player bought his own glove and uniform. People saved what they could to help supply equipment. And soon the Giants “developed a far-flung reputation as the team to beat.”
Of course, in those days, black teams didn’t play white teams, but it didn’t matter. They built themselves a field “carved from a woodland bordered by the black community itself, the railway that ran into the Springfield mental institution, and two farms, one owned by a dairy farmer, and one by a man who raised crops.
“Nobody knows who the land belonged to. It was never developed. It was just there. So the men of the community got together and cleared a playing field.”
Before long it was a popular gathering place. There would be picnics and reunions, and the main attraction was almost always a Giants game.
“The site provided a sort of relief valve, where people could watch their youth play ball in very heated competition. And it became more interesting when they played visiting teams that heard about us and traveled from miles around to challenge Sykesville. So, for a few hours on the weekend, mostly Sundays, all the cares of this daily struggle were sort of forgotten. And it came to be a source of pride. They were poor, but they could always speak about their home team.”
“Our pitcher was one of the phenoms in that part of the state, and he happened to be my cousin. We always called him Cousin Clendan. He could set up a batter with slow curves and fastballs. He had a sharp breaking pitch that seemed to say, ‘now you see me, now you don’t.’
“He called it ‘Old Henry.’ Today it’s called the slider. Cousin Clendan could throw a slider before there even was a slider.”
Clendan was a righty in his twenties and a first cousin of Warren’s dad, Ed Dorsey. When he pitched, Clendan would go the full nine, and the Giants seldom lost. Except Clendan wasn’t always on the mound, you see, because well…
“Clendan had a problem with the consumption of spirits. And if you caught him when he was in the spirit, he couldn’t pitch. But when Clendan wasn’t in the spirits he was invincible.
“He pitched to a man named Gene Norris. Gene was a tremendously good catcher. His main job was directing the pitcher, of course, and that was easy, because most games were pitched by Clendan. Most of the time the batter was dazzled by the hardballs and curves, but Gene also knew this would set up the batter for the coup de grâce.
“Gene kept up a constant chatter, and any time he’d say, ‘this batter has a notion,’ that was a signal to Clendan. Time for Old Henry. Regular fans knew that, and they were just waiting for the pitch. The result was usually a swinging strike-out or a weak grounder to the infield, and back to the visitor’s side trotted the batter.”
Down a bit from Oklahoma Hill is Sykesville’s Historic Colored Schoolhouse, where Warren, in his homemade duds, started his education. After the schoolhouse fell out of use, it was converted into a home, and for many years, a member of the Norris family lived there. That was Gene’s brother, Earl Norris.
Which brings us to the father of Gene and Earl, the only guy on the team who could not be described as a youth, their father, Jim Norris.
The Old Dude at Third
“Jim Norris played third base. His name was James, but we called him Mr. Jim. He was probably around 40. They looked to him as the father of the team. He had the father image and was indeed the father of the catcher. But also, he was the surrogate father of all the young players.
“Mr. Jim was the keystone of our little church. Through his contacts in the white community, he would raise funds, and he controlled all the business of the church so it could stay open.
“He was a groundskeeper for a wealthy family that owned a property along the Patapsco down below our church, the old Brooks property. There was a mansion there that the owner only occupied on occasion in the summer.
“Mr. Jim was the overseer for the property. He also was sort of a handyman called upon by the white community; but in addition, he was the gravedigger at the Springfield Presbyterian Church where most of the people in my day were buried.
“All the graves were hand dug then. Mr. Jim and his boys, Gene and Earl, dug the graves. I don’t know how much they were paid per grave, but that was part of the income that kept his family going.
“He was one of the only few who owned property. We had some 40 acres. Mr. Jim had about 25, which he sort of farmed on a very small scale.
“He was the source of inspiration, not only to the team, but the whole community. He was the old dude, as they called him, at third base, but staying in playing shape was never a problem for Mr. Jim, because of how he made his living. And he could hit, and he could play.”
Brother Russell – The Giant
“Another position was played by somebody who was not only an excellent player, but very dear to me, my brother, Russell. We just referred to him as Brother Russell.
“Russell was only about five-feet-four and 135 pounds. Physically he was the team midget. He made up for it by his tremendous skill. He was the shortstop, and with his enthusiasm, devotion, and passion, Russell personified the nickname of the team. He was the giant of the team.
“He batted for high average. And he loved the game. He loved the aura of it all. His wife said that even to his dying days, Russell would talk about the glory of playing shortstop for the Sykesville Giants.
“Russell was the third child, born in ’09, 11 years older than I am. During the week, he was a laborer in the maintenance gang for the B&O Railroad. That was very demanding work. It was a real challenge for these young men to get up to play on the weekend. But Russell was always ready.”
The Right Side of the Diamond – The Poster Boy and His Brother
“First base was handled by a big, powerful young man named Raymond Lewis. He towered over his teammates and the opposing players. Everybody called him Big Raymond. He batted cleanup and was the poster boy of the Sykesville Giants. Everyone after playing them would say, ‘Do you remember the man who played first base? Oh, yeah, that was Big Raymond.’
“At second was Big Raymond’s brother. I don’t know his first name. All we ever knew was Kick. Kick Lewis.
“Often we didn’t know the real names of people. Almost everyone had a nickname. A lot of people never knew my real name. They only knew Tom. My father used to recite a nursery rhyme. ‘Little Tommy Tittlemouse lived in a little house. He caught fishes in other men’s ditches.’ And somehow I got stuck with that name, and it got shortened to Tom.
“Not long ago, one of the older members at my church saw on the program one Sunday that someone named Warren Dorsey was scheduled to sing a solo. And he was asking, ‘Who is Warren Dorsey?’ Most of the people now at the church, since I am the oldest there, they call me Uncle Tom.”
Right Field and Lost Balls
“David Grooms played right field. David was about the same age as Russell and worked in the same labor gang for the B&O. He was probably the fastest man on the team. That enabled him to play sort of shallow to prevent pop flies just over the infield turning into hits. David could corral some of these, but with his speed he could also go very deep on balls hit into the outfield.”
There were no fences in that outfield, no bleachers or scoreboard or fancy billboards. It was surrounded by trees.
“A baseball was a valuable commodity. It wasn’t like if a foul ball went into the crowd you could keep it as a souvenir. The balls were returned. And balls hit into the wooded area that bordered the field often got lost, but there was always a group of boys who went into the underbrush and tracked them down. Balls were used till the covering was just about knocked off.
“We got the balls from Devries down on Main Street. He sold a lot of stuff. He sold baseballs. He sold shells the hunters used. He sold bats. I think he sold gloves, too.”
The Centerfielder and the Banjo Player
“Clarence Green played center field. Clarence lived in the house my family lived in before we moved into the place where I grew up. He was one of only two people who played on that team, who lived out their lives on Oklahoma Hill. Clarence was one and Gene Norris was the other. Clarence was the ideal team player. He was never rattled and nothing seemed to take his attention off the game.
“He worked on the railroad, too, but no matter how demanding his job, he was ready on Sunday.
“Now, left field was played by Roger Anderson. Roger was larger than anybody except Big Raymond. He was agile of foot, although not as fleet-footed as David. He was a skillful player and above average power hitter.
“He spent the week working odd jobs and used to spend his after hours in the evenings in sort of pickup games with smaller kids to keep his skills up.
“He also had what he considered musical talent. He’d gotten an old banjo from someplace and used to play the banjo. He probably got the inspiration from his daddy, Mr. Wes Anderson, who was the only man in the community who kept and trained coonhounds.
“Everybody else, including my father, hunted mostly rabbits and birds. Mr. Wes hunted coons. He’s probably the only one in the family who would eat a coon. But he also played a guitar, and would sit out on his front porch, and you would hear him playing on his guitar and singing.
“I don’t know what you’d call the music. All kinds of made-up stuff about life. He wasn’t what you’d consider a skilled musician. He was sort of self-made. But Roger played the banjo, and on weekends he played ball.
“The Sykesville Giants were an inspiration. In fact, there was a team in the old Negro league in Baltimore called the Baltimore Black Giants and on one occasion, in their exhibition series, they played the Sykesville Giants. We lost, but we did very well.”
The Jouster and the Dump
“But the days of the Sykesville Giants wound down. Most of the men ventured off because of no employment. The last I heard of Roger Anderson, he was long deceased, but he died in the city of New York. Russell lived most of his life in Baltimore.
“But another reason was the advent of the local white power. It started with a jousting enthusiast. The man was looking for a practice area where he could prepare for statewide jousting events. He became aware that the property used by the black community didn’t belong to the community. But it had open areas ideal to set up a jousting run. And he did just that.
“Originally, it was to the right of the first base line. So, it didn’t encroach on the playing field. He usually wasn’t active when there was a game, but this was the beginning.
“There was no regard for the effect on the people who lived next to the property and labeled it a playing field. The standard regard by the white community and its sensibility toward people of color, where the questions of rights and privileges was concerned, was that your concerns are no concern of ours.
“And since this property is there, and it’s abandoned, anybody who has the power or determination can take it. Soon, town merchants were looking for a place to dump their refuse. It started with the grocery stores dumping their spoilage. At first, they dumped it at the back of the playing field, but then in the area the community had cleared. Soon it became attractive to people who had other kinds of waste, and eventually it became a dumping area for the town.
“It was still a town dump when I left in 1937. Sometime later, it was sold and developed. And so were all the other adjacent areas. Sykesville, nowadays, is not the town I remember growing up.”
The Slave’s Daughter
“My family was involved because Russell played, but my mother almost never came. Well, occasionally, she might have seen a game on a Saturday. You see, my mother grew up under the tutelage of a mother who considered any kind of activity on a Sunday that wasn’t necessary a sacrilege.
“So she would not go to the games, but she never prevented us. She never questioned Russell’s participation. She had a set of values carried over from her mother that guided her in raising her own kids. But she was a realist. She didn’t try to prevent us from participating in the activities that were acceptable in that day.”
Warren’s maternal grandmother, Catherine, started life as a slave in nearby Marriottsville, long before the local tycoon, Wade Warfield, bought up that whole town along with most of Sykesville. They called the area where Catherine lived “Little Africa.” She was freed in 1864.
Warren’s mom, Carrie, was the ninth child of this former slave, and Warren was Carrie’s ninth child. Warren wasn’t expected to survive the night his grandmother helped him into the world, but did somehow, to tell us this baseball story 92 years later.
Gravediggers and Giants
It’s interesting to think that many of the graves over in Springfield, with fading stones and names of long-forgotten people, were dug in the 1920s by the old third-baseman of the Sykesville Giants, his catcher son, and another son who lived in what is now Sykesville’s restored Historic Colored Schoolhouse.
When the Sykesville Giants started play, France, Germany, Britain, and Russia were locked in the early days of a death struggle that would change the world forever. By 1930, as the Great Depression took hold, the Giants were already a thing of the past, and the field of dreams they’d carved out of abandoned ground was no longer a happy place where poor blacks cheered their boys and forgot their cares, but a town dump. And most of the players were off searching for work at a time when work was a very hard thing to find, especially if you were poor, barely educated, and black.
Warren has an older sister, and a younger sister, too, but Warren’s the one with lifelong fond memories of a short-lived baseball team that buoyed the spirit of a poor community and filled it with pride.
He says, “The Sykesville Giants were a formidable team of kids, and the thing that unified them was the determination to have an outlet from trying to scratch out a living. It attracted all of the adults as a place to forget about the woes of everyday life for a few hours. The crack of the bat was a welcome respite from the daily struggle to survive.”
They’re all gone now. Big Raymond, the slugging first baseman, the speedy David Grooms playing shallow in right, the old dude at third, and Russell Dorsey, the slick-fielding 5-4 Giant at short, who would someday remember his days with the Giants as the happiest of his life.
All gone, but no longer forgotten.
Because now you know. Sykesville had a team of Giants, and a pitcher who, when the spirits weren’t with him, threw a biting slider that black players from miles around came to swing at with all their might and miss by a mile.
Imagine. Sunday afternoon. Summer, 1927. Sykesville, Maryland. Down the hill on the white side of town, a desperately ill Wade Warfield is in the process of losing everything. But here, on a hot summer afternoon at the field where the Giants play, a 40-year-old man, who digs graves for dead white people, crouches at third. Brother Russell crouches at short. The Lewis brothers crouch on the right side of the infield. The count’s full. Cousin Clendan’s on the mound.
Behind the plate, a young man who digs graves with his dad, a great catcher named Gene Norris, chatters away. “Come on, Clendan. Come on Clendan. This batter’s got a notion.”
And the young grandson of a slave standing on the sidelines in his feed-sack underwear smiles. Because Tom Dorsey knows. Here comes Old Henry. And this batter is out.