Many of them came north from Kentucky. One of them came from North Carolina. And some of them were native Hoosiers.
But the dozen or so African-American men who came together in Indianapolis in the spring of 1889 — 125 years ago — to form the Hoosier Blackstockings were all so devoted to the still-evolving sport of baseball that they toiled as common laborers and servants during the day. Somehow they still found the time and energy to contribute to a key facet of the history of baseball — and ultimately, black culture.
While organized African-American hardball leagues didn't exist until 1920, by the 1880s the color line had largely been drawn in baseball, forcing black players, managers, owners and fans to establish and support their own segregated teams.
The late 1880s were a heyday for the sport in the black community. Hall of Fame player, manager and scribe Sol White — in his landmark study of early African-American hardball, 1907's History of Colored Base Ball — wrote that while few professional black teams existed in the late 1880s, it still became big business.
"This year  saw the close of a period in colored base ball which may well be called the money period," the trailblazing White penned. "From 1885 to the close of 1890, colored base ball flourished."
Enter the Hoosier Blackstockings (or, alternatively, the Black Stockings or Black Socks). The team apparently coalesced around April 1889. By May, the squad was garnering attention in the local African-American press — namely, The Freeman newspaper, which triumphantly announced on May 18, 1889:
"Indianapolis can now boast of a first-class colored nine which though recently organized, is composed of first-class ball-tossers. It has been named the 'Hoosier Black Stockings,' and it herewith challenges any amateur club in the country, black or white. A stock company will soon be formed and the club proposes to cross bats with the colored clubs of St. Louis, Louisville, Chicago, Cincinnati, or any other places holding strong nines."
- A cover of The Freeman newspaper
(The challenge included a dare to the Cuban Giants, one of the few professional "colored" hardball teams in the country. The Cubans apparently didn't respond.)
On May 25, 1889, The Freeman reported that '[The] Indianapolis club will return here June 11th" from a tour of the Midwest and that the squad, officially called the "Hoosier Blackstocking B.B.C. [Base Ball Club], was comprised of the following players: William Craven, James Anderson, George Thomas, Jno. Barbour, Elzy Hart, George White, Bud Banks, Bud Cooke, Moses Allen, Wm. Shelton, Noah Moore."
There was a reason for the coverage: The influential publisher of The Freeman, Edward E. Cooper, was a crucial figure in the formation of the Blackstockings and "imagined himself as a baseball magnate ..." according to Northern Illinois professor James E. Brunson in The Early Image of Black Baseball. That personal vision, ironically, directly contradicted the relatively conservative Cooper's disdain for the freewheeling "Dude" culture — an attitude and carriage of black sporting enthusiasts that today might be called "swagger."
Indeed, the development of the Blackstockings was so intertwined with The Freeman and Cooper that all correspondence for the franchise was directed through the newspaper's office. Dr. Leslie Heaphy, in her book, The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960, wrote that by using The Freeman newsroom as its home base, the team "saved the expense of hiring a team secretary and paying for an office."
The Indianapolis "base ball" crew was a young bunch, ranging in age from late teens to mid-20s. They were mainly a blue-collar crew — many were day laborers, factory workers, coal diggers, house servants. A good slice of them lived in what was known as "Center Township."
The Blackstockings hosted some of the best amateur black teams in the country, among them the West Ends of St. Louis, probably the preeminent African-American Midwestern aggregation, one The Freeman called "A Crack Colored Club," hoping to hype the West Ends/Blackstockings matchups in Indy. In order to draw fans, the Hooiser squad needed to look like a genuine challenge for St. Louis.
But a late-spring road trip didn't go as well as hoped by the Blackstockings, and both the team and its followers were, according to The Freeman, relieved when the squad returned home in early June.
"[The Stockings] club is still playing in hard luck," the paper stated. "It has some of the best players in the league" — presumably a local city league — "and a good many attribute their bad luck to other than inability to play ball."
The squad immediately set about playing a relatively less-known Center City team, the Whens, on June 5th. The Freeman, in its June 1 edition, did its best to hype the match, perhaps revealing Cooper's self-interest in promoting the local black hardball scene:
"The When club is one of the strongest in the city league and as the Blackstockings are the best colored ball tossers in the State É much interest is centered in the game. Everybody will be there."
From there, the Blackstockings took on the visiting West Ends — who by that time had "lost but one game this season ... A large crowd will no doubt witness the contest between these giants," according to the paper.
It's worth noting that the results of games were rarely recorded, even by the team's de facto PR arm, The Freeman; no scores or outcomes for the Whens or West Ends contests could be found in the paper.
But the Indianapolis crew saved the best for last — a scheduled clash with the New Orleans Pinchbacks, who for two years had crowed about being the best amateur "colored" team in the nation, a boast The Freeman (and, therefore, the Blackstockings) took seriously. The publication claimed that the Pinchbacks "still hold their title as 'champions' in New Orleans" and "are champions of the colored clubs [in the] South."
The Pinchbacks, perhaps more than any other baseball team, represented the blossoming of African-American pride in the late 19th century, an evolution that occurred at the same time that Reconstruction was fading to an end and formalized segregation was spreading across the South.
The implementation of "Jim Crow" law was finalized with the Supreme Court's landmark 1896 ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that infamously declared constitutional the existence of "separate but equal" racial legal and educational systems.
But the Pinchbacks defied that trend by boldly naming themselves after P.B.S. Pinchback, who became the first person of color to hold the governorship of a state when he took the reins of Louisiana briefly in late 1872 and early 1873.
While many mainstream, i.e. "white," papers — including The New York Times — opined Pinchback's brief rise as calamitous, African-American publications rejoiced in the development in Louisiana and hailed Pinchback as a hero. That was especially true of Edward Cooper and The Freeman, who held the Louisiana governor as a shining light in the struggle for civil rights.
Strangely enough, however, the Pinchbacks ball club was formed, owned and managed by Walter L. Cohen, a nationally known (and somewhat notorious) gambler and shadowy entrepreneur with political and business connections throughout the South and Midwest. The roster was topped by pitcher George Hopkins as the squad embarked on a grand tour of the North that included stops in St. Louis and Chicago.
And, allegedly, in Indianapolis to cross bats with the Blackstockings. The clash was scheduled for Sept. 11 at Indianapolis' Athletic Park. An ad in The Freeman trumped up the contest as a "Colored Championship game" and lauded the Big Easy aggregation as "the strongest colored base ball team in the country [with] several members from the Cuban Giants." Admission was set at 25 cents and 15 cents, although ladies were free.
Unfortunately, the Pinchbacks were apparently delayed by two ill members and failed to turn out for the Sept. 11 game. The clash was rescheduled for a two-game series Sept. 16-17. The result of the match — or even whether it was actually played — was not reported.
And that apparently ended the Hoosier Blackstockings' story — nothing about them was reported in The Freeman for the rest of 1889 or anytime after that, a fate that seemingly reduced the club to little more than an historical blip.
But the Blackstockings were much more than that. They were the nascence of a long, proud tradition of black baseball in Indianapolis that included the great ABC teams in the early 1900s; the birthing of Indy native and Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston; the first woman owner of a Negro Leagues franchise, Olivia Taylor; and the Indianapolis Clowns, who served as the first professional gig for a tender Alabama youth named Henry Aaron.
Indianapolis thus became one of the traditional centers of African-American baseball during the long, arduous and tragic existence of segregation, both formal and informal. And it started 125 years ago with a bunch of ragtag but noble collection of blue-collar workers named the Blackstockings.