Doc Sykes: Spitballs, Civil Rights, and Dentistry

 

THE AUDIENCE in the courtroom let out a collective gasp when attorney Samuel Leibowitz called his next witness: Dr. Frank Sykes, D.D.S.

Dr. Sykes breezily walked through the packed chamber, ignoring the searing stares of the spectators, and took his seat on the witness stand. The trim, elegantly attired Dr. Sykes sitting upright in the witness stand was in marked contrast to the burly, sloppily dressed men in the audience. Some expectorated loudly into large spittoons while others slumped on the benches with their legs disrespectfully propped up on the brass rail that separated the spectators from the participants.

The reaction in the courtroom was not due to the defense calling a dentist as a witness in a rape trial but because Dr. Sykes was Black. The date was March 30, 1933, and this was the infamous retrial of the Scottsboro Boys. This trial and the injustice served up by not one, but several juries, played a key role in the growing Civil Rights Movement.

But before this afternoon in 1933, when he was front and center in the fight against racial inequality, Doc Sykes was a professional ballplayer.

FRANK JEHOY SYKES was born in Decatur, Alabama in 1892. He was the seventh of eight children (three others did not reach adulthood). As Sykes related to historian John Holway, his father Solomon owned a saloon and encouraged his sons to pursue an education. One of his older brothers opened a funeral parlor, and several of the Sykes boys, including Frank, apprenticed in the mortuary business. The Sykes were also good ballplayers, and Frank learned the basics of the game by copying his oldest brother, Newman.

Frank moved to Chicago in 1909 to learn embalming and also played ball in a church league. He inadvertently discovered his pitching talent one day when his team’s pitcher was knocked out of the box, and he took over. In 1910, Frank enrolled in Atlanta Baptist College, now called Morehouse College, and in 1912 transferred to Howard University for dentistry. Frank and his brother Leo played both varsity baseball and basketball. Because of the lax enforcement of college eligibility in those days, Frank had more than seven years to hone his pitching skills.

Sykes stood well over 6’-3” and weighed in at 185 pounds, which was very impressive for the time. He had developed a devastating spitball to go along with an overpowering fastball, both of which were delivered with a sidearm motion. Beginning in 1915, Frank’s success on the college circuit led to his being invited to play with two of the best professional Blackball teams at the time, the Brooklyn Royal Giants and New York Lincoln Stars. Appearing with these clubs enabled Sykes to further hone his skills by watching Smoky Joe Williams and Cannonball Dick Redding, two of the greatest pitchers outside the major leagues.

In 1915 Sykes and the Lincoln Stars beat a White team led by future Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Chief” Bender. Although several modern Negro Leagues books put the date of the game as November 6, my research shows the game as being played on Sunday, September 19 at the Lenox Oval. The game story in the September 23, 1915 New York Age called it “one of the best played games this season,” and indeed it was pretty exciting. “Bender’s Stars” were winning 3-1 going into the 9th, but a rally started by Lincoln Stars catcher Louis Santop tied the game, sending the contest into extra innings. After Sykes held Bender’s Stars scoreless in the bottom of the 10th,  the Lincoln Stars rallied again to push across the winning run. Both Chief Bender and Sykes pitched all 10 innings, each giving up eight hits. Bender recorded six strike outs while Sykes whiffed two. Both pitchers exhibited great control with Bender walking one and Sykes none.

In 1917, Sykes began playing with Hilldale, an up and coming club based in the Philadelphia suburbs. Frank, now nicknamed “College,” was one of the team’s first star players, and the club would steadily improve, becoming arguably the best Negro League team of the mid-1920’s.

THOUGH HE WAS CARVING out a nice career in baseball, Sykes doggedly pursued his college studies, earning his D.D.S. degree in 1918. Because he was young and unattached, Sykes spent the next several years skipping around from team to team, hiring out his right arm to whomever paid his price. At one point, Sykes was reported to have drawn a monthly salary of $150 from Hilldale, quite a sum in its day.

The spitballer had also radically changed his style of pitching, foregoing his fastball for a collection of tantalizingly slow pitches that baffled batters. Sykes described his metamorphosis to author John Holway in his 1988 book, Blackball Tales: “I was a strikeout pitcher until I learned better: There was an easier way to beat teams than trying to throw it by them. We played the Chicago American Giants, and I don’t think I threw one ball up there that would have broken a pane of glass. Rube Foster, the Chicago manager, said, “Well, College, I see you’re learning some sense.” According to a 1990 Baltimore Sun feature story on him, Sykes was described as, “a spitball pitcher who threw at three speeds – slow, slower and slowest.”

After passing his medical boards in 1918, Sykes opened up a dental practice in Anniston, Alabama, but soon relocated to Baltimore. Besides tapping into a much larger Black population with whom he could grow his practice, his move to Charm City allowed him to play ball with the Baltimore Black Sox on weekends.

The Black Sox had been around since the turn of the century but had only recently made the shift into becoming a professional team. All the top local Black players flocked to the team, and they played games against all the great traveling Blackball clubs from up and down the east coast.

Soon Sykes was making $300 a month pitching for the Sox, and Frank, now known as “Doc Sykes,” became the team’s ace. On August 29, 1920, Doc took a no-hitter into the 9th inning of a game but lost on a pair of infield errors and his own misplay of two bunts.

EACH FALL, the Black Sox traditionally hosted a series of games against an all-star team of White major and minor leaguers. These games were extremely popular with the fans and gave the Black players a chance to show what they had against their White counterparts. Because there was so much on the line, the honor of pitching for the Black Sox always went to the club’s top ace; in 1921, that was Doc Sykes.

On October 30, 1921, Sykes started the first game of a Sunday double header featuring the Scranton Internationals, a team of mostly local minor leaguers and professional semi-pros from the local shipyards headlined by big leaguer Ben Mallonee of the Philadelphia A’s.

In the top of the 8th, Baltimore was leading, 7-3. Scranton’s shortstop Cox led off with a single and then went to second on another single by first baseman Hickman. Now with two men on and no outs, Scranton catcher Whalen hit a grounder to second baseman Buck Ridgely. Ridgely scooped up the ball and fired it to third baseman Scrappy Brown, who tagged the base and then sent it over to George Grayer on first to get Whalen. Meanwhile, Cox tried to take advantage of the excitement of the double play and was racing for home plate. Grayer took notice and threw a strike to catcher Joe Lewis, who intercepted a surprised Cox two feet in front of the plate. According to the game story in the Baltimore Afro-American, the “1500 spectators rose to their feet and cheered themselves hoarse.” Sykes collected the win while scattering eight hits and whiffing two in the 8-3 final. The second game was called at the end of the third on account of darkness, with the Internationals ahead 2-0.

NOW 30 YEARS OLD in 1922, Doc Sykes began the best year of his career. The Black Sox, led on offense by future Hall of Famer Jud Wilson, finally gelled as a team. The Sox went 52-19 and took the title of “Champions of the South.” Sykes started 27 contests, winning 22 and losing just 4. Six of those wins were shutouts, with one of them being a no-hitter.

Doc Sykes’ no-no came on September 11 during the first game of a Saturday doubleheader against the visiting Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. The Bacharachs were an independent team at the time and boasted star shortstop Dick Lundy and ace left hander Sam Streeter, who was on the mound opposing Sykes that day.

The game turned out to be a pitcher’s duel. Streeter pitched a magnificent game, striking out five and allowing just 4 hits, but one of them was Black Sox left fielder Wyman Smith’s 2-run homer in the bottom of the second. Sykes’ no-hit bid almost came to a close early when a 3rd inning error by third baseman Red Miller allowed a runner to reach base. However, the base runner was erased when he was caught stealing.

For the next six nail-biting innings, Sykes defended his 2-run lead. In the top of the ninth, Sykes retired Preacher Davis for the first out. Then J. Smith was sent in to pinch hit for catcher Charles O’Neil. Smith smacked a fly ball down the right field line that was misplayed by Blainey Hall for an error. That brought up Sam Streeter. Though renowned as one of the better-hitting pitchers in the Negro Leagues, Streeter only managed a grounder to shortstop where Possum Poles started a double play that ended the game.

The no-hitter serves as a perfect example of Doc Sykes’ pitching style. Of the 27 batters he faced, Sykes’ pinpoint control was such that he allowed no free passes. He struck-out only two, but his slowballs and spitters kept most of the batted balls on the ground, allowing his fielders to do most of the work. According to the game story in the Baltimore Afro-American, only five balls were hit to the outfield, one was popped up and nineteen were grounders.

I have to note that although several sources claim Doc Sykes’ 1922 masterpiece was a “perfect no-hit game,” technically it was not. According to the accepted MLB standards, a perfect game is “a game by a pitcher (or combination of pitchers) that lasts a minimum of nine innings with no batter reaching any base.” In Sykes’ case, though he faced the minimum 27 batters, two batters reached base on errors, necessitating the substitution of the title “near-perfect game” for “perfect game.”

With a no-hitter under his belt, Sykes was a much sought after arm-for-hire. He made special exhibition game appearances with the Harrisburg Giants and Hilldale during the summer of 1922, so his tally of 22 wins might have been even higher had he stayed with Baltimore for the entire season.

On October 15th, Sykes was on the mound facing a team made up of what newspapers claimed were “Big Leaguers.” Led by Red Sox first baseman George Burns, the team included Pep Young of the A’s and Frank Parkinson of the Phillies. The rest of the lineup was filled with minor league journeymen who were presumably under some sort of contract with the big league clubs they were listed as representing. While it wasn’t a full big league aggregation that Sykes faced that Sunday, these were nonetheless all seasoned professional ballplayers who knew their trade well.

Jud Wilson’s bat pounded hit after hit off Cleveland Indians pitcher Dave Keefe while Sykes kept the White pros off balance and scoreless. The Sox won 4-0 with Sykes scattering just 8 hits.

SALARY DISPUTES with the Black Sox owners and a sudden inability to win ballgames led to a miserable 1923 season for Sykes. His record stood at 4-7 on August 17 when the Baltimore Afro-American had a front page blurb about Sykes being suspended from the Sox “because he had been unable to pitch winning ball.” Apparently, Doc still had something left because a week later he pitched first place Hilldale to a 5-2 exhibition game win over a semi-pro team from Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

In September, Sykes took out a mocking ad in the Baltimore Afro-American declaring his independence from the Black Sox and his intent to devote his full attention to his dental practice.

He mended fences with the Black Sox management and came back for a few games in 1924 but was knocked around pretty hard. After going 3-2, Doc Sykes called it a career.

Now 33, Doc Sykes downshifted into the life of a respected dentist. Once an avid gambler at the track, Sykes quit the ponies and began reinvesting in his practice. He met Alice West, a teacher in the Baltimore school system and former athlete at Temple University. The two married in 1926 and began a family that would grow to include three boys and a girl. When Sykes’ father passed away, he relocated his practice and family to Decatur, Alabama, where he took on the care of his aging mother and younger sister. It was back home in Decatur where Doc Sykes became part of one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in American history: The Scottsboro Boys Trial.

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS were nine Black youths between the ages of 13 and 19. In March of 1931, they were riding a southbound freight train when an altercation broke out with a group of White boys and two White women. The White boys got the worst of the battle and were thrown off the train near Paint Rock, Alabama. The boys located a sheriff, and soon a posse was formed, which led to the arrest of the nine boys. The two White women were also taken into custody, and they quickly accused the nine boys of rape.

Because the train had crossed state lines, the nine were charged with violating the Mann Act: crossing state lines for immoral purposes. The first trial was held in Birmingham amidst an atmosphere ripe with lynch mobs and hysterical racial animosity. Even though there was no evidence pointing to rape and one of the women recanted her testimony, an all-White jury convicted the nine, and all except the 13 year-old were sentenced to death. The obvious injustice of the trial led to an appeal, and the Supreme Court ordered a second trial.

Because of the strong feelings in Birmingham, the trial was moved to Decatur. Due to the outrage everywhere outside the South over the all-White jury in the first trial, defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz wanted to seat Black citizens on the jury. The judge and prosecutors were perplexed by this move – no one had even considered that a Black citizen was qualified to serve on a jury.

The defense turned to one of the most respected members of Decatur’s Black community: Dr. Frank Sykes. There, in front of an all-White courtroom, Sykes presented a list of 200 Black residents who were qualified to serve on a jury. Sykes’ high profile in court led to death threats and hate mail. Doc Sykes didn’t back down – he went so far as to house Black journalists from northern newspapers covering the sensational trial and drive them around between safe houses as they were pursued by the local Klansmen. The breaking point came when a cross was burned outside the building that housed his dental practice and the Sykes family’s mortuary. Doc Sykes began preparing for a move to a friendlier locale, and in 1937 he and his family returned to Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Sykes’ testimony did help to get a single Black jury member for the boys’ third trial, but again the jury returned a guilty verdict. Eventually, most of the sentences were overturned, but not before the group spent several years in Alabama’s tough prison system.

DOC SYKES spent the remainder of his life in Baltimore, first as a well-respected dentist and later as the elder statesmen of Negro League ballplayers. Sykes was modest when it came to his part in the Scottsboro Boys Trial, but his example of standing up for what was right against overwhelming odds and physical danger has influenced generations of Americans to fight for a better society.

The old spitballer passed away at the age of 94 in 1986; his ashes were scattered on the campus of his alma mater, Morehouse College.

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I first heard of Doc Sykes in the summer of 1988, right after I moved to Baltimore to attend art school. One afternoon while visiting the impressive Enoch Pratt Free Library, I came upon a small glass display case in a stairwell landing that would forever change my life. Among the mementos highlighting Baltimore’s Negro League history were replica flannel jerseys and wool caps from both the Black Sox and Elite Giants. I was immediately taken with these beautiful pieces and, little did I know, the two men who made them would in time have a huge impact on my career as an artist: Will Arlt of Cooperstown Ballcap Co. and Jerry Cohen of Ebbets Field Flannels. Within a year Will Arlt became my very first “client” (and life-long friend), and to this day I still design many of the T-shirts sold by Ebbets Field Flannels.

Also found in that display, and more pertinent to this story, was a photo of the recently deceased Frank “Doc” Sykes, along with a note detailing his baseball career and later life. Although Sykes was the subject of several short newspaper features throughout his life, no full length piece has ever been written on this amazingly interesting man. Fortunately, in the 1980s, Doc Sykes was interviewed by the pioneering Negro League historian John Holway and was preserved in his 1988 book, Blackball Stars.

Ever since living in Baltimore, I always lamented that no one took on the duty of writing a history of the Black Sox. There had been well-researched histories of Hilldale, Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs, but the Black Sox got no ink. Finally, about five years ago, Blackball researcher Bernard McKenna told me he was putting together the story of the Black Sox.

McKenna has written for years about Black baseball in Baltimore and had done ground-breaking research on the lost ballparks where the Black Sox played their games. In 2020, The Baltimore Black Sox: A Negro Leagues History, 1913-1936 hit the bookstores. As someone who has read every Negro Leagues team history out there, I can honestly say this is one of, if not THE finest, work in that genre ever written. McKenna’s writing skills brings his dogged research to life, and for the first time baseball history fans have an in-depth study of the Baltimore Black Sox franchise. If you haven’t already gleaned it by my words above, I highly recommend McKenna’s book and don’t believe any Blackball library is complete without a copy.

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This week’s story is Number 42 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.

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