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Mudville: July 14, 2024 1:45 pm PDT

The Bill Yancey Experience

BY DAVE KAPLAN

At 76, Larry Hisle is one of baseball’s revered elders, a soft-spoken sage who has empowered at-risk children and troubled teens in the Milwaukee area over the last three decades.

Mentoring young people, helping them conquer personal hardship and self-doubt remains his inner passion.  Actually, Hisle’s well-known strength in kindness recalls his own long-ago mentor.

“I can’t help but smile whenever I think of Bill Yancey,” said Hisle, who played 14 productive seasons with the Phillies, Twins and Brewers before retiring in 1982.  “The man could not have been more encouraging, more motivating, more inspiring to me.”

Hisle, who grew up an orphan in southern Ohio, was once an insecure rookie with the Phillies, a team flaring with racial tensions. He lived alone and suffered acute anxiety and hepatitis.

Enter Bill Yancey, a genial veteran of the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and ‘30s, and later a pioneering Black major-league scout in the 1950s. He had just returned to his native Philadelphia in spring 1969 for his second stint as a Phillies area scout.

Yancey, who navigated racism and structural unfairness his entire life, saw in Hisle a fragile young man who’d been the target of a Ku Klux Klan rally in the minors. He saw a potential casualty to the racism that ultimately victimized Dick Allen, the franchise’s first Black star.

So he invited Hisle to live with him and his wife in their Moorestown, NJ house that season.  Hisle savored Louise Yancey’s home cooking, and her husband’s unshakable lessons in resilience. Yancey’s guidance, he said, probably saved his career.

“He taught me so much,” said Hisle. “I think every human being in this country would be proud to have someone like Bill Yancey as their father.”

Hisle’s appreciation notwithstanding, Bill Yancey is mostly unremembered. His remarkable life and legacy are overshadowed by bigger names in Negro Leagues’ history,  Few, though, had a more lasting influence …. or a more wide-spreading resume:  Brilliant dual-sport professional athlete, international baseball instructor, Negro Leagues manager, Philadelphia restaurateur, liquor salesman, boxing judge, trailblazing major-league scout, trusted mentor, raconteur of Black baseball history.

“Bill Yancey certainly should be more appreciated and remembered,” said Dr. Layton Revel founder of the Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham, Ala.

Before America fell in love with Buck O’Neil as storyteller extraordinaire  in Ken Burns’ 1994 “Baseball” documentary , Yancey was the valued source for firsthand stories about the Negro Leagues, notably legends such as Cool Papa Bell, Martin Dihigo and Josh Gibson. He was a favorite of Black newspaper columnists, and a primary voice in Robert Peterson’s groundbreaking 1970 book Only the Ball Was White – tales of the forgotten Negro Leagues.

Around that time, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tapped Yancey to serve on a special committee to belatedly recognize Negro League players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, albeit in a separate section.

Yancey was conflicted by what seemed like another racial affront. “Lord, it’s so unfair,”  he said of the separate wing. Yet upon reflection, he acknowledged it was progress, which in baseball is always slow.  “It’s a start,” he told Claude Harrison of the Philadelphia Tribune. “Once we get our foot in the door, we can apply more pressure and it will open wider.”

In February 1971, Satchel Paige, one of the few living Negro Leaguers recommended by the committee, received a phone call from Yancey. “You’re in the Hall of Fame, Satch,” he told the great pitcher.

Yancey died two months after that call. He was 69 and did not live to see Paige go into the Hall as the first Negro Leaguer inductee. Or his own mentor John Henry (Pop) Lloyd, the legendary shortstop, enshrined in 1977.  Or Major League Baseball, nearly 50 years later in 2020, eventually classify the Negro Leagues as “Major League.”

The 1934 New York Black Yankees (Yancey is fourth from left in front row). Photo courtesy of Larry Hogan.

Few, however, did more to champion the excellence inherent in the Negro Leagues, or embody its pride and spirit.  Yancey also happened to be one of its stars.

Born in 1902 in a family of 10 children in a South Philadelphia tenement, Yancey found refuge in the city’s sandlots and Christian Street YMCA.  He grew up during the Great Migration of the 1910s, which doubled the African-American population in Philadelphia and caused “up south” racial oppression. Attending boys-only Central High School, Yancey was banned from playing team sports due to his race.

He was a skinny teenager when Andrew “Rube” Foster in 1920 founded the Negro National League, the nation’s first viable enterprise for Black baseball. After playing semipro ball in Virginia, Yancey joined the 1923 Philadelphia Giants, who despite their name mostly barnstormed through New England.  A quick-handed 5’9” 165-pound infielder, Yancey  would embody the fast-paced, vibrant style of play in the Negro Leagues; he soon became one of its most gifted shortstops.

Though a major source of cultural pride in African-American communities, Negro League teams’ finances fluctuated. Some players like Yancey moved from team to team at will.  “You signed for a year …. but if you felt like jumping the next year, you jumped,” recalled Yancey,  who would also play for the Lincoln Giants, Hilldale Club, New York Black Yankees, Brooklyn Eagles, New York Cubans and Philadelphia Stars, in “Only the  Ball Was White.”

One of Yancey’s biggest highlights was historic; he was the first Black player to set foot in Yankee Stadium. Ironically, his nickname was “Yank,” but that came before July 5, 1930, when his Lincoln Giants played the Baltimore Black Sox in the first-ever Negro Leagues game in the House That Ruth Built, a benefit for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.  So excited upon arrival, Yancey raced onto the field to mimic Babe Ruth’s swing at the plate, then shag imaginary flies in right field.  The game’s success prompted the Yankees to institute a policy of renting the stadium to Negro League teams when they were on the road.

Yancey played with and against greatness everywhere. He relished interracial exhibitions against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and Dizzy Dean’s All-Stars and others.  “If we could have selected the best of the colored leagues and gone into the major leagues,” he said, “I’d say we could have won the championships.”

The Rens, or New York Renaissance Five. From left: Clarence ``Fats`` Jenkins, Bill Yancey, John Holt, James ``Pappy`` Ricks, Eyre ``Bruiser`` Saitch, Charles ``Tarzan`` Cooper and Wee Willie Smith. Inset: team founder Bob Douglas.

Yancey’s basketball prowess, though, probably overshadowed his 14-year baseball career. A speedy and deadly two-handed set-shooter in the pre-NBA era – he was described as the “best guard in the basketball world” by the Philadelphia Tribune – Yancey played professional baseball and basketball simultaneously for six years.

Along with Negro Leagues teammate Clarence (Fats) Jenkins, Yancey was part of a brilliant backcourt on the legendary Harlem-based New York Renaissance – more familiarly called the Rens – the nation’s first all-Black pro basketball team and popular barnstorming attraction.  In 1932-33, the Rens went 120-8, including an astounding 88 consecutive wins (that Rens team was collectively enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame 30 years later).

The Rens often beat the Original Celtics, the dominant white team of the day, laying claim to the mythical world basketball title. Playing before hostile crowds, their teamwork and skill were notably superior. Once after defeating the Indianapolis Katsukys of the National Professional Basketball League, Indy’s star guard and future coaching icon was particularly awed by Yancey. “One of the greatest shooters I ever saw,” said John Wooden.

Yancey’s basketball/baseball career coincided with the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural movement of the 1920s and ‘30s and epicenter of African-American pride and identity. Yancey personified the era. Self-confident and a stylish dresser, he married Louise in 1928, a former Cotton Club dancer. Distinctively accomplished, he was a model of what was possible in Jim Crow-era America.  And when his Negro Leagues career was nearing the end, he showed what was possible in Central America.

Yancey was contracted by the Panama government to prepare a baseball team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Though Panama ultimately did not participate in the Nazi propaganda Games, Yancey inspired a surge of enthusiasm for baseball and basketball in the republic. He was a beloved instructor, “wielding unprecedented influence,” according to the Associated Negro Press (ANP), while creating two national baseball squads, and helping establish the Panama Professional Baseball League in the mid-1940s. Moreover, he also shepherded a dozen Panamanian players – barred from the majors due to the color line – to the Negro Leagues. He kiddingly called himself “the official scout of the Negro National League.”

Black Yankees and New York Rens teammates Fats Jenkins (left) and Bill Yancey (right). Photo via Syracuse.com

Unofficially, Yancey laid the groundwork for the first Panama-born major-leaguers in the mid-1950s.  (Ever since Panama has developed players at a rate far beyond its population; from 1955-2023, it’s sent almost 80 players to the game’s highest level including Manny Sanguillen, Rod Carew and Mariano Rivera.).

Though gone from the States, Yancey was still something of a celebrity.  In 1945, near the end of World War II, Amsterdam News editor Dan Burley courted him and Kenny Washington – the UCLA star who would integrate the NFL a year later – to entertain Black and white troops in Southeast Asia on a “Parade of Champions”  USO tour.

The war seemed to be accelerating social change. In 1946, Washington and his college teammate Jackie Robinson were readying to integrate major American sports. Yancey, meanwhile, was hired as manager of the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Negro Southern League.

Yancey and his wife, who never had children, soon longed to return home.  Still a prominent sports figure in post-war Philadelphia, he opened a restaurant, “Bill Yancey’s” on South Broad Street, then became a popular salesman for Ortlieb Brewery; he was often featured in the company’s print advertising, targeting African-American middle and upper classes.

Yet Yancey, buoyed by the end of baseball’s racial ban in 1947, badly wanted to get back in the game. Though integration hastened the demise of the Negro Leagues by the late 1940s, not all of the 16 teams were eager to sign players of color or hire Blacks for non-playing jobs.

Yancey wrote to almost every team, offering his services as a scout. Finally in 1950 (one year after John Donaldson became baseball’s first Black scout with the White Sox), the Boston Braves hired him as a “bird dog”- an unpaid scout who receives a fee if a player he recommends becomes a major-leaguer.

As one of a few African-Americans in Organized Baseball in the early 1950s, Yancey learned harsh truths:  Early Black scouts had to deal with institutional racism. Relatedly, Black ballplayers were usually undervalued.

Yancey did get off to a good start, though.  Tipped off by his friend and old Negro Leagues teammate Judy Johnson, Yancey pushed for the Braves to sign speedy outfielder Billy Bruton, which they did. Bruton would play 14 seasons, was a stolen base champion and a key contributor on the Milwaukee Braves’ pennant winners in 1957 and ‘58.

Ortleib Brewery ad featuring Bill Yancey

But when he also urged the Braves to sign an intelligent Negro League infielder named Jim (Junior) Gilliam, they didn’t.  Yancey’s persistent lobbying for Gilliam “was nearly the end of me with the Braves,” he told the Pittsburgh Courier.

Instead, the Dodgers signed Gilliam, who succeeded Jackie Robinson at second base in 1953, was named Rookie of the Year and played 14 seasons in Dodgers blue.

By now, the Philadelphia Phillies’ ignominious racism couldn’t be ignored. In the mid-1950s the Phillies were the only National League team without a Black player on its roster. Owner Bob Carpenter vowed to change his organization’s regressive attitudes. The Phillies hired Yancey as their first-ever Black scout in October 1954.

Yancey was eager to work for his hometown team albeit its shameful history. There was little pretense about his intentions.  “I want to make it clear I’m not restricted to signing Negro ballplayers,” he said, “but of course I’m more interested in our own boys.”

The Phillies, though, essentially kept its system of racial exclusion. Yancey recommended several players to no avail. A 1956 Philadelphia Tribune chided the team with an article titled, “Negroes That Make Phillies Must Be Superhuman”.  When infielder John Kennedy, the team’s first Black player (another Yancey recommendation) debuted in 1957 after an impressive spring training, he was demoted to the minors after five games and never saw the majors again.

Frustration surely mounted. After Yancey helped former Negro League veteran Mahlon Duckett get a job as the first Black usher in Connie Mack Stadium in 1958, Duckett was fired by the Phillies for “favoring his colored friends.” A white usher decried the accusation as false. No matter.

Yancey’s patience wore out in spring 1959.  After happening upon a hard-throwing Trenton teenager named Alphonso Downing at a high school all-star game, he knew he found a gem. The Phillies’ scouting department thought otherwise. Downing was “too short,” Yancey was told.

Out of that crushing disappointment came a relationship that changed Downing’s life, and Yankee history.  Yancey quit the Phillies. He called up the Yankees, another team with an inglorious racial history.  (The Yankees debuted their first Black player, Elston Howard, eight years after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color line).

Fortunately, Yancey knew new general manager Roy Hamey from his time with the Braves. When Hamey offered him an opportunity to be the team’s first Black scout, Yancey accepted under one condition: The Yankees had to sign Al Downing.

Clipping from the Camden Courier-Post, April 14, 1971.

Downing was signed for $15,000, a modest sum in those days, becoming the first Black pitcher in Yankee history.  Downing, now 82 and living in Valencia, Calif., would become a league strikeout champion and pitch 17 years in the majors before becoming a broadcaster. Most remembered for yielding Hank Aaron’s record 715th home run, he’s also one of baseball’s “Black Aces,” one of 15 African-American pitchers who won 20 games in a season.

“Without Bill Yancey, I can’t imagine my life otherwise,” said Downing.

Downing still recalls Yancey’s nurturing influence. He remembers his stories about the Negro Leagues and New York Rens, and road trips that Yancey planned to the homes of his former teammates, including future Hall of Famers Judy Johnson and Pop Lloyd. “Hey Yank,” they’d say, “is this the kid?”  To Downing there was something special listening to these old men who found baseball, albeit racially exclusionary in their time, as the greatest thing in the world to them. Downing knew he owed it to them to succeed.

“I’d go to his house and say, “Where are we going today, Uncle Bill?” Downing said. “Through him I learned the history of Black baseball. He made me aware of my responsibilities; he stressed to me the importance of being a good example and presence in Harlem.”

A decade later, Yancey returned to the Phillies. In the summer of ‘69, he signed another prospect from Trenton, the last ballplayer he would ever sign. He was a white outfielder named Rick Giallella, who attended Rider College and had no inkling about the past of the Black gentleman who scouted him.

Yet Giallella remembers “an air of dignity” about Yancey. He was touched by his positivity and support, especially when he considered quitting baseball. But Giallella persevered and became MVP of the Carolina League in 1970, before embarking on a long career as a South Jersey teacher, coach and school administrator.

Over 50 years later, whenever he and his wife look back at their wedding album, a strikingly well-dressed man and his wife stand out.  “Bill Yancey and his wife were the only Black couple there,” Giallella said. “Everyone that night kept asking, ‘Who’s that?’”

Hopefully they now know.

Dave Kaplan was a reporter and editor for the Associated Press and New York Daily News before becoming the founding director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, on the campus of Montclair State University, in 1998. He is currently helping establish a museum at historic Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, NJ.

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