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A short, incomplete history of Negro League baseball in Cincinnati

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Cincinnati didn't have much to do with the Negro Leagues, but it did have one trailblazing native son.

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As we all know by now, the city of Cincinnati is steeped in baseball history. Despite that, however, the city does not seem to have had much of a presence in black baseball prior to 1947, either among the organized Negro Leagues or among the many independent and barnstorming teams that existed in that era. I’ve never been able to determine exactly why that is, especially since other cities of similar size and who were home to Major League teams were well represented in the Negro Leagues (Pittsburgh – a hugely important city in Negro League history – leaps to mind). But for whatever reason, Cincinnati was never a big part of Negro League baseball history.

This isn’t to suggest that Cincinnati never had any Negro League teams The Cincinnati Browns were a member of the very first attempt at a formal league for players banned from "organized" baseball due to the color of their skin, the League of Colored Baseball Clubs. That league was formed in 1887, and folded after just one week and a total of only thirteen games played league-wide, and proved a financial disaster for all involved.

Later, during World War II, the well-known "clowning" team the Indianapolis Clowns was briefly known as the Cincinnati Clowns (sometimes lengthened to the Cincinnati Ethiopian Clowns). Their antics have been described as a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters, although when they dropped the act and played it straight, they proved they were a legitimate team that could compete with anyone. In fact, it was during the Cincinnati Clowns era that they competed in the Negro Major Baseball League in 1942, the only year that league existed. The Clowns are believed to have won the league’s championship that year, even though no standings were kept and no records are now available. They became the Indianapolis Clowns for good soon after, despite the fact that they were primarily a barnstorming team with no home park.

Probably the most successful Negro League team based in Cincinnati was the Cincinnati Tigers, and that team only lasted for three years, from 1934 to 1937. The Tigers played their home games at Crosley Field, and wore used Cincinnati Reds uniforms. The 1937 team in particular had a few stars on the roster, including Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, who played for thirty years and earned his nickname by catching the first game of a double header and pitching the second. Unfortunately, the Tigers finished in third place in the Negro American League in 1937, and then folded the year after. It seems that the Tigers didn’t have enough impact on Negro League history to warrant more than a single passing reference in Robert Peterson’s influential 1970 history Only the Ball Was White. Probably the most interesting part of their history was the backstory of their founder, DeHart Hubbard.

William DeHart Hubbard was born in Cincinnati in 1903. After graduating from Walnut Hills High School, Hubbard attended the University of Michigan. He graduated with honors and was one of only eight African Americans in his graduating class of 1,456. During his time at Michigan, he participated in track and field, and at one point held the world record for the long jump and tied the world record for the 100 meter dash. He went on to represent the United States in the Olympics in 1924 and 1928, and during the 1924 games in Paris, he made history by becoming the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event when he won for the long jump.

After college, Hubbard returned to Cincinnati and became the supervisor of the Department of Colored Work for the Cincinnati Public Relations Commission. He later worked for the Federal Public Housing Authority in Cleveland, and stayed involved in athletic competition, becoming president of the National Bowling Association during the 1950’s.

Hubbard was obviously a baseball fan, if not a player, given his founding of the Tigers. Unfortunately, details of how and why that founding happened, and Hubbard’s involvement, if any, with the team during its three year existence don’t seem to exist. Also unclear is exactly why the team folded. As indicated by the fact that two short-lived Cincinnati based teams participated in leagues that lasted a single season or less, and by the fact that nobody even knows whether the Clowns even won their league in 1942, the history of the Negro Leagues is a difficult subject to study. It can be frustratingly short on detail, and the sheer number of teams, leagues and players over the years is daunting.

However, we do know that Hubbard was a great athlete in his own right, so we can assume that his founding of the Tigers was an attempt to provide opportunity for athletic competition for a younger generation. Also, given his experiences as a collegiate athlete and Olympian, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that he believed the best athletes should be competing with and against each other, regardless of race. Sadly, this is all speculation due to the lack concrete evidence. Whatever his motivation, however, as the founder of the Cincinnati Tigers, DeHart Hubbard deserves his place in Cincinnati baseball history.