By Jay Berman Special to The Herald
Herbert Simpson was a first baseman in Seattle more than 30 years before the Mariners played their first game.
He played in Sick’s Stadium, as did the Pacific Coast League’s Rainiers in those days, but because he was black at a time when African-American players were barred from professional baseball, he was a member of a team and a league that is all but forgotten today.
In the summer of 1946, Simpson played for the Seattle Steelheads of the West Coast Baseball Association. Simpson, who’s approaching his 93rd birthday, may be the only former WCBA player still alive.
After the league failed halfway through its only season, Simpson spent several years in newly integrated minor-league baseball, including one season in Spokane, before retiring in 1954 and returning to his home state of Louisiana.
The WCBA was the last of several leagues created because organized baseball banned African-Americans. Most were in the Midwest, the South and the East, but the WCBA was formed to give black athletes on the West Coast a place to play.
The Steelheads and Portland Rosebuds were the two northern franchises. They were joined by the San Francisco Sea Lions, Oakland Larks, Los Angeles White Sox and Fresno Tigers.
Simpson recalled the quality of play as “very good,” and he enjoyed “every moment” of his time in the league. Unfortunately, as a business, “it just didn’t hold up.”
Leslie Heaphy, a history professor at Kent State University in Ohio, has written that the WCBA was created by Abe Saperstein, best known as founder and coach of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. In her book, “The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960,” Heaphy says Saperstein wanted “to show that black baseball still had life” after the Dodgers’ signed Jackie Robinson in October, 1945.
Saperstein knew former Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens and persuaded him to get involved. Saperstein, Owens and other investors met in Oakland to set up the league. They drafted a constitution, outlined a budget and prepared an 18-week, 110-game schedule. They were goals that would not be realized.
Saperstein, who owned the Seattle franchise, was named league president, and Owens, who purchased the Portland team, was vice president.
It was rare for mainstream newspapers to mention the league, but Bill Leiser, sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, devoted a column to it. He quoted a member of the Sea Lions as saying: “We don’t want anyone to watch us just because we are Negroes. We want to show you baseball that you’ll want to pay to watch.”
Seemingly, one advantage was an agreement with the owners of Pacific Coast League teams in each city to use their stadiums when they were on the road. That agreement did not work out in practice as well as it had in theory.
When opening day arrived, two of the three scheduled doubleheaders were played in non-league cities. While Los Angeles opened in San Francisco’s Seals Stadium, Oakland played Fresno in Stockton, and Seattle and Portland met in El Paso, Texas. Seattle had held its spring training in New Orleans and it was common in those days for baseball teams, both white and black, to travel across the country in what were known as barnstorming tours.
By early June, the Fresno team had been sold and moved to San Diego. The Tigers were scheduled to play Portland in Yakima on June 2, then move to Portland for the Rosebuds’ home-opening weekend that coincided with the Portland Rose Festival.
Seattle made its home debut the same weekend. The Steelheads’ first game was seen by 2,500 fans in Sick’s Stadium.
Whether Sick’s Stadium was not always available or perhaps because Saperstein was accustomed to moving from town to town with his Globetrotters, the Steelheads also played home games in Tacoma, Spokane, Bellingham and Bremerton.
By June 21, Oakland, at 14-3, had opened a 41/2 game lead over Seattle, which was 11-9. San Francisco was 12-12, followed by Portland at 7-9, San Diego at 4-6 and Los Angeles 3-12.
About the same time, another newspaper article raised what was meant to be a rhetorical question, asking “Is the West Coast Baseball Association, Negro baseball’s newest circuit, going to make the grade?” The answer, as the next paragraph explained, was “YES,” in capital letters.
Keeping records sometimes takes a lower priority when survival becomes the top priority, and this appears to have been the case with the WCBA.
There had been no mention of the schedule being divided into halves until a late June article that reported that the Oakland Larks were not likely to be caught “before the first part of the league race ends July 4.”
On July 6, the Steelheads defeated San Diego, 6-2, in Seattle, and a newspaper story said “a fair-sized crowd that braved threatening weather apparently liked its first peek at the colored brand of professional ball, staying on to the finish.”
That “fair-sized crowd” was witnessing one of the final games of the WCBA. The league disbanded that month.
Why the league failed isn’t entirely clear. It was 67 years ago, everyone involved in its administration has almost certainly died, and it received little notice in the pre-TV news media. Lionel Wilson, an Oakland pitcher who later became the city’s mayor, told the Chronicle years later that at least half the Larks’ squad could have succeeded in organized ball.
It was also a time when black players were leaving to join the previously all-white leagues. Even the Negro National League, the largest black league, would be gone before the decade ended.
Sometimes, you see something for a moment, then blink, and it’s gone. Such is the case with the West Coast Baseball Association. By the time of its demise, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella had been signed and were working their way toward the majors, and several others weren’t far behind.
The days of segregated baseball were coming to an end.