Marie L’Overture: For my friend Will

 

A long, long time ago, I was an 18 year-old art student spending my summer not like all my well-to-do classmates backpacking across Europe or sailing in the Caribbean, but in a sweltering garment factory in Passaic, New Jersey earning the cash for my second year of school. One afternoon on my lunch break I was flipping through a copy of Sports Illustrated and came across an article about a guy in upstate New York who was making these absolutely beautiful baseball caps. They weren’t the stiff-crowned, mesh-backed adjustable ones you found in the store back then, but hand-crafted the old way. Those little works of art were recreations of the pre-World War II kind of caps you only saw in black and white pictures. The guy behind those caps was Will Arlt, a former vintage clothes dealer, record producer and baseball fiend. After reading the piece I wanted one of those caps, bad. But the price was just more than I could pay, a whopping $38 if I recall correctly. I decided to try something – I wrote Will and asked if he would be willing to make a trade – I’ll create free artwork for his catalogues and in lieu of cash I’ll get paid in ball caps. Much to my surprise Will agreed and I not only had a steady flow of the greatest ball caps ever made, but I had my first client for my work.

That was well over 30 years ago and Will is still a client, as well as an old friend. Much to the joy of baseball history aficionados everywhere, Will is still making those beautiful ball caps. His company is called the Ideal Cap Company and you could see the great selection of headgear on his website. I can’t stress enough the quality of these things, and they just get better with age.

One of the best things about meeting up with Will every year is that he has a knack for digging up great old caps from long forgotten teams and leagues. Want to know what the caps worn in 1951 by the team sponsored by the Manhattan jazz nightclub Birdland on 52nd Street looked like? Ask Will. When you want to see what a 1929 Baltimore Black Sox cap (for my money, one of the classiest hats ever to grace a diamond) looked like, all you have to do is drop Will a line. Turn-of-the-century caps? Will Arlt knows all about them. Some he finds himself from painstaking research and others are passed along to him from fellow travelers on the path to baseball Valhalla. One of my favorite discoveries of his was related to me over a couple double bourbons at the bar in the Hotel Congress in Tucson. The way Will related it started off like this and I was instantly hooked:

“You’re not going to find it in any record book…”

It was called the Trans-Caribbean League. Evidence of this lost league is anecdotal and even at the time it was considered “outlaw” – a word applied to any organization raiding players from the established baseball cartels. And in this case the League raided players from everybody: the majors, the minors, the Negro Leagues and all of the local Latin organizations. Most players adopted assumed names to avoid censure because official baseball used all of its collective denial to eliminate the Trans-Caribbean. From the earlier experience with the Federal League, Major League Baseball and its autocratic commissioner Judge Landis, pulled out all the stops to stamp out this menace from down south.

Before the winter season of 1934-35 a group of wealthy agrarians and industrialists, most of whom were friends, met at Alex Morales’ Tampico ranch to form a league which would endure, by design, only one season. It was really a bet among proud men: Who could assemble the best baseball team? There was an agreement to hold salaries at 75,000 U.S dollars; yet wild spending on the accouterments was encouraged, as if style was to count as much as runs. Teams traveled by steamship (the S.S. Ciudad Panama had a small practice field on the quarter deck) and every team had a band which could be heard blaring out its particular musical idiom as their boat chugged into harbor. The arrival of the steamships at various Caribbean ports was accompanied by dancing and holidaying among a populace only too needful and willing to celebrate. Latin band leaders who later became well-known in the States in the 1940’s and 50’s, were musicians or conductors in the team bands. The orchestras rumbaed or meringued (depending on their particular nationality) from pavilions in the rickety throbbing ballparks each inning before their team came to bat. To someone unfamiliar with Latin baseball it must be pointed out that this ritual adds to the game a sense of festival further enhanced by fans who beat on drums, blare tattoos on trumpets or intone strange homemade instruments as their favorites mount or snuff out rallies.

And then there were the uniforms, of which Will was particularly interested. No chance to out-do the other fellow was missed. The Havana team, consisting mainly of banana workers from Ernesto Bahia’s experimental organic plantation, supplemented with Negro Leaguers, wore yellow satin uniforms so that the club, whose real name was Los Trabajadores de Platanos, was more often called the Havana Bananas by well to do vacationing yankees.

Besides the imported players, there were, according to Will, a few unknowns who became standouts in their own right. The one which was most intriguing was the Port au Prince Skulls’ second baseman, Marie L’Overture – the only woman to ever play a full season of professional baseball.

She was born in the northern Haitian town of Acul-du-Nord in 1910, only daughter in a family of seven boys. Her father was locally well-known musician who composed and played patriotic tunes, hiring out to whichever bandit leader was in power at the moment. His was a dangerous game and there was many a time when the head of the house was kidnapped at gunpoint only to turn up weeks later half-starved from living in the jungle but with reams full of new musical compositions. When Marie was five, U.S. Marines led by famed Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler fought their way to her part of the island in pursuit of Cacos rebels. In a nighttime hand-to-hand bloodbath of a battle, the Marines assaulted and conquered Fort Riviere which was a mile from Marie’s village. The coming of the American leathernecks brought not only stability to the region but a strange game called baseball. Tired of playing amongst themselves, the Marines garrisoned in the area went about teaching the locals how to play the game, and soon a few local teams were cobbled together. Not one to be left out, young Marie grew up playing the game with her older brothers and soon gained a little recognition as a first-class infielder.

As Marie grew older she continued to play on the local men’s teams, the only woman granted that unique privilege. An undated clipping Will Arlt located reported her 3 for 4 performance against a visiting Navy team from the USS Texas, the team that won the fleet championship of 1932. The pitcher that afternoon wasn’t some nameless sailor but Lefty Mills, who would be pitching in the majors by 1934. The article mentioned her spectacular play at second base as well as remarking on her “major league beauty.”

Chances are that small, insignificant article would have been the last anyone would have heard of Marie L’Overture if it wasn’t for the timely advent of the Trans-Caribbean League. When Pierre Besson bought into the league and based his team in Port au Prince, it was only natural that he sent for Marie.

From the start Marie fit right into what the league’s founders had envisioned for the circuit – L’Overture was by all accounts a natural in both beauty and ball playing. Refusing Besson’s request for her to wear a modified low-cut custom uniform, Marie instead donned the same togs (all be it finely tailored) as her male teammates. However, Marie was not one to hide her feminine appeal, she regularly sported modest but alluring makeup and let her long luxurious dark hair flow free from beneath her Skulls cap and cascading down over the shoulders of her fitted jersey.

The Port au Prince Skulls were a miserable aggregation from the start of the season – unlike all the other Caribbean countries where baseball was almost a religion, French-speaking Haiti was unfortunately a mostly soccer-playing nation and the pool of ball players was considerably shallow. Besides Marie, the only other bright spot on the Skulls roster was a shadowy ex-U.S. Marine lieutenant by the name of C.X. Boyles who was Marie’s double-play partner at shortstop. Not much is known about Boyles except that he was the second-best hitter on the team behind Marie and was deported to Cincinnati, Ohio half-way through the season on smuggling charges and running a juke-box/slot machine monopoly racket.

With the team’s only other good player gone, the Skulls and their fans reverted to psychological tactics to try to eek out a win. Knowing full well of the reputation Haiti has for voodoo and the occult, the Skulls fans developed a unique and disquieting practice to upset the opposing teams – while the ball players stood in front of their dugout the fans chanted somnambulist spells which terrified the other teams. With the stadium engulfed in a hypnotic pulse of the crowd’s chanting, the ball players simultaneously ripped off the “P” logo on their caps to reveal an evil-looking, red-eyed skull. In a story later picked up by sports pages in rival cities, the Port au Prince L’Actualité newspaper claimed the spells guaranteed at least 2 to 3 extra runs each time it was used in league play. It was all very theatrical but the superstitious among the opposing ball clubs none-the-less complained to Trans-Caribbean League officials. The practice eventually ended but not because of any league ruling but because it didn’t seem to help – the Port au Prince Skulls were permanently entrenched in last place.

With the rest of the team not worth a second glance, it was natural that all eyes focused on Marie. Although she could not hit for power, her ability to drop fly balls just over the head of opposing infielders ensured her a hardy batting average. L’Overture had a talent for swiping bases as well, and Skulls manager “Heck” Dessalines gave her a permanent green light to run the bases at her own discretion. At least one sportswriter claimed her high tally of steals was due to her being of the fairer sex and the unwillingness of a male ballplayer to block her attempts. This may have been true early in the season, but the fact that Marie was sidelined for 2 weeks in December for “multiple infected spike wounds” tells a different story. Requests for a trade were logged in from every single Trans-Caribbean League ball club, and each one was in turn refused. Her unrivaled combination of beauty and talent made Marie one of the circuit’s most popular players. The English-language Panama City Telegram and Tribune-Times ran a snippet claiming Marie received an average of 35 marriage proposals a day via airmail and telegram from all over the Caribbean. None other than the great Satchel Paige was reported to have proposed the Haitian beauty, only to be rebuffed time and again. Paige told a teammate that his poor Spanish skills were to blame, clearly not realizing that L’Overture spoke only French and probably had no clue what the future Hall of Famer was asking of her.

True to their original charter, the Trans-Caribbean League disbanded after the last afternoon of scheduled games. Major League Baseball and Judge Landis, who’d spent the winter months consulting lawyers and carefully drafting an injunction jointly filed with the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, found that their hired representative could find no remaining offices or officials of the league and after 3 weeks of traveling in vain around the Caribbean, returned to Chicago with all his cease-and-desist orders unserved. He was summarily fired by a humiliated Judge Landis. Although no statistics were published at the conclusion of the season, L’Overture was reported to be in the top 10 in batting average. Steals were not recorded either, but from the surviving box scores it is easy to see she was among the league’s best, if not the actual leader in that category.

Most likely due to Marie not knowing either English or Spanish, she never appeared in another professional ballgame. It is alleged that Tom Wilson, owner of the Nashville Elite Giants made an effort to sign her, but nothing appears to have come from it.

According to Will Arlt, who found her obituary by chance while combing the archives of La Dépeche du Midi newspaper while on an unrelated philosophy research project in the south of France, Marie L’Overture emigrated to Europe sometime before 1940 and made her living as a fitness instructor to the wealthy. She was one of first proponents of Pilate’s body conditioning, and that is what merited her the modest obituary in La Dépeche du Midi when she passed away at her farmhouse outside Toulouse in May of 1987.

When Will decided to launch the Ideal Cap Company he made sure that at least one of the Trans-Caribbean League teams were among his first offerings, and as you can see here it is the terrifying but unforgettable headgear of the Port au Prince Skulls. It’s available in all its glory, red wool crown, black 3” firm visor, black-red-black braid, with a black on white felt appliqué logo, all hand-made, just as Marie L’Overture’s was, way back in 1935.

For Will Arlt, 1945-2019. I’ll remember you every time I draw an obscure ballcap, my old friend.

3 thoughts on “Marie L’Overture: For my friend Will

  1. Ah ha! That was your artwork on the cards I’d receive from Cooperstown Ball Cap Company back the late 80s / early 90s. I couldn’t afford the caps then either. My children’s new shoes held priority. But I now have three of the Ideal caps and they are all you say they are. Having spoken to Mr. Arlt a few times over the years I’m sorry to hear of his death.

    1. Thanks for writing Daniel – yes some of those old Cooperstown Ballcap cards were my artwork. Those caps were expensive, but man, were they worth it! I was proud to be a part of that company and even prouder to be a friend of Will’s. I guess his legacy will live on through the thousands of lucky people who bought one of those caps and continue to cherish the workmanship that went into them. As it said in the catalogue: “The Greatest Ballcaps in the World”

  2. I once ordered a home 1920 Cleveland Indians cap from Will. While visiting friends in Columbus, I went to see a vintage ball game between Columbus and Cooperstown. After the game, I approached him, never having met him before. He took one look at me, looked at my cap, and after a couple of seconds of what I assumed was him mentally calculating my head size, said “Suntala, right?”

    Incredible.

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