With the lockout holding strong and the start of spring training and possibly the Rockies season opener on March 31 in Los Angeles against the Dodgers in doubt, it’s hard to start previewing the 2022 season. So instead of looking ahead, this series will look to the past at the vast and diverse history of baseball in Colorado. Part 1 looked at 2022 Hall of Famer Bud Fowler and the shifting color line.
Imagine it’s the early 1930s. You live in Denver and want to catch a baseball game.
You might jump on a trolley or go for a walk and head to 600 S. Broadway, just south of Alameda, to Merchant Park. Close to where Denver’s famous “French Fry Tower,” aka the Articulated Wall sculpture, stands today, you could have taken a seat in the first ballpark in the Rocky Mountains to have lights and witnessed some darn good baseball.
To get a better feel for what it looked like, the Denver Public Library has some great pictures in its Western History Collection, much of which is digitized and available for viewing like this picture from Broadway and Center Street and this action shot from inside the park.
You might see the Denver Bears, a storied team that dates back to 1885 and served as a minor league team for the St. Louis Cardinals, among others, in 1932. Long before Larry Walker, Rocktober, and beautiful sunsets and brews from the rooftop at Coors Field, you would have planned your schedule around and saved your money for (it was the Great Depression after all) for tickets to the Denver Post Tournament.
Held annually from 1915 into the mid-1940s, the Denver Post Tournament brought the best semi-pro teams from around the country and beyond to play each other. The tournament was so famous for drawing top-notch talent that it was called the “The Little World Series of the West.”
In the 1930s, Denver Post sports editor Poss Parsons was so serious about making sure that the tournament fielded the best competition out there he invited teams and players from the Negro Leagues, as well as sports writers from around the country to come and watch them play. In doing so, he challenged the Jim Crow segregation attitudes that dominated the day and fielded a more competitive bracket.
This led to historic tournaments, starting in 1934 when teams from the Negro Leagues, like the Kansas City Monarchs, as well as the longtime barnstormers the House of David, a team from Michigan who followed strict Israelite House of David rules like not shaving, came to town. House of David also began hiring pro players, even if they didn’t strictly follow all the tenets of the religious community, to be even more competitive. In 1934 that included Satchel Paige, who played for the National Negro League’s Pittsburgh Crawdads at the time. As MLB.com’s Thomas Harding notes, Paige either grew a temporary beard or wore a fake one to join the team.
The “Game Changers” episode of History Colorado’s podcast Lost Highways, brings one game in the 1934 tourney to life. In his first game, Paige pulled his famous, crowd-pleasing stunt of bringing the outfielders into the infield. They were just wasting their time out there since no opposing hitter could get a ball to them. It worked. Paige and the House of David ended up facing the Monarchs in the championship, with House of David emerging victorious, 2-1.
On his way to the finale, Paige didn’t allow a run for 23 straight innings and he finished with 44 strikeouts in 28 innings. Each player was awarded $406, which would be over $8,000 in today’s world.
Two years later, Paige was back as a member of the Negro National League All-Stars. This time, he was joined by fellow Hall of Famers Josh Gibson behind the plate, “Cool Papa” Bell in center field, and Buck Leonard at first base. As Lost Highways senior producer and host Noel Black asserts, “they may have been the best baseball team that has ever played in Denver.”
The team went 7-0 on their way to the championship, beating the all-white Eason Oilers from Oklahoma after Paige struck out 18 and only gave up two hits in the title game. That year, over 55,116 fans crammed through the gates at Merchant Park to catch the action of the Denver Post Tournament.
Jason Hanson, the chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research at History Colorado, as well as the author of “Game Changers: 100 Years of Negro League Baseball,” explains the importance of the Denver Post Tournament in an interview with 9News: “Denver was, believe it or not, the first place in the country where people could see high-level, professional baseball played on an integrated field.”
In 1937, with some of the same players like Paige and Bell, the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo All-Stars won the tourney title. Sponsored by the Dominican Republic’s dictator, the team continued the trend of Black players showcasing enormous talent. These players were some of the best of the era, but were banned from MLB because of the color of their skin.
Harding quotes Bob Kendrick, president of the National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, who best encapsulates the importance of the integrated play of the 1930s in Denver: “Those events, like barnstorming games against Major League teams or competing in the Denver Post tournament in many ways helped to validate the talent of these players, in the minds of white baseball fans.”
A decade later, on April 15, 1947, hoisted by those who came before him and played alongside him, Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier for good. Robinson’s No. 42 will forever be cemented next to Larry Walker’s No. 33 and Todd Helton’s No. 17, as well as Keli McGregor’s initials at Coors Field. Except for on Jackie Robinson day when everyone wears No. 42, the number is the only to be retired by MLB.
As legendary Colorado baseball historian Jay Sanford told the Denver Post, “Denver was the beginning of the integration of baseball because Jackie Robinson certainly would have not have integrated the league in 1947, had The Denver Post Tournament not done so in 1934. After 1934, these teams that were all-white teams started playing against Black competition, and went home and began integrating in Texas, Florida, California, and back east. It was a grassroots integration movement that began right here.”
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By looking at Larry Walker’s long trudge to the Hall of Fame via Baseball Writers Association of America voters, Nick Groke shows why Helton is trending in the right direction. It took Walker nine years to hit the 50 percent mark before he finally got over the 75-percent bar that is required. Helton has hit it in four and has Walker to thank for starting to shatter the Coors Field/altitude bias held by some writers and fans. With many MLB superstars from the steroid era coming off the ballot in 2023 like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Shilling, there will be more space for voters to make Helton one of their 10 picks moving forward.
In a more real-world view of the current lockout, this timeline from Mike Axisa gives possible deadlines for a new CBA to be in place and the consequences of missing those targets. For example, he estimates that a deal by Feb. 7 could help spring training games still start on time, which means on Feb. 26. It also has helpful historical context for past labor disputes. Then it gets more and more depressing as what missed dates would be a delayed season, a 100-game season, or worse.
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