There is a photo in the Library of Congress of a gentleman handing a gift to a ballplayer at home plate. The caption reads, “Yankee outfielder gets remembrance from Laurel, MD fans. Washington, D.C., Aug. 18. Jake Powell, New York Yankee outfielder, was presented with a wallet today as a token of esteem from fans of Laurel, MD, where he played as a semipro. Brig. Gen E.E. Hatch, U.S.A. retired, now mayor of Laurel, is shown making the presentation.”
So, who was Jake Powell? And why was Laurel’s mayor presenting him with a gift?
Who was Jake Powell?
Born Alvin Jacob Powell in 1908 in Silver Spring, he was one of the best baseball players in the area while growing up. He caught the eye of Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith back in the day when team owners would also sometimes scout potential players. As Powell worked his way through the Senators’ minor league system, his true nature became well-known. He was a hustler, thief, liar and, most notably, one of the worst racists in baseball.
While playing for the Dayton, Ohio, Ducks in 1933, Powell and his wife made their home there. Although he talked about becoming a police officer in Dayton during the off-season, he never did.
Powell’s thievery started early. According to Chris Lamb’s book, “Conspiracy of Silence, Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball,” “During a road trip to Zanesville, Ohio, he tried to leave his hotel room with a circular fan, the drapes, and the bedspread, but was caught. ‘He probably would have taken the mattress if he could have got it in his suitcase,’ his Dayton manager remembered.”
After spring training in 1935, Powell was named to the Senators’ major league roster as an outfielder, but he got off to a bad start by missing the team’s train north to Washington. Being fined $200 didn’t seem to curb his behavior as he continued to make trouble for the team. It also didn’t help, according to Lamb, “when his creditors in Dayton threatened to sue the team to settle the ballplayer’s debts.”
His violence, especially against Jewish players, escalated with his promotion to the major leagues. Shortly after the start of the season, on what should have been a routine run to first base, Powell ran over the Detroit Tigers’ Jewish star and future Hall of Famer, first baseman Hank Greenberg, breaking Greenberg’s wrist and ending his season.
In an unrelated incident a few weeks later, in a game against the Chicago White Sox, Powell intentionally ran over two players on two different plays, second baseman Zeke Bonura and then first baseman Jackie Hayes. The White Sox pitcher, Ted Lyon, hit him with a pitch after the second collision. Powell was well acquainted with pitchers throwing at him in retaliation.
In June 1936, Powell was traded to the New York Yankees for outfielder Ben Chapman. It was an interesting trade, as the Yankees were as anxious to unload Chapman as the Senators were with Powell.
As characterized by Lamb, it “was a racist-for-racist trade, straight up.” Up to that point, though, Chapman was much worse than Powell. While still with the Yankees, Chapman provoked a fistfight on the field with a Jewish second baseman. After the benches emptied and order was restored, Chapman was ejected from the game. As he was being escorted from the field, he sucker-punched the opposing pitcher. He commonly made anti-Semitic comments and Nazi salutes to Jewish fans at Yankee Stadium.
Powell’s behavior continued with the Yankees. He was hated by fans and even his own teammates, as displayed in a game in Washington against his former team, the Senators. Powell pulled his trademark cheap move, this time running over Senators’ first baseman Joe Kuhel.
As Powell and Kuhel starting swinging at each other, several former teammates from the Senators ran in and pummeled Powell before the umpires broke it up. When Powell took his position in the outfield the next inning, Washington fans pelted him with pop and beer bottles. He threw some back at the fans.
The worst — much worse — was yet to come for Powell with the Yankees.
Laurel Day at Griffith Stadium
Before that, though, in August 1936, the radio announcer for the Senators, Arch McDonald, came up with an idea for “Laurel Day” during a series with the Yankees. The voice of the Senators for over 20 years, McDonald is credited with giving Joe DiMaggio the nickname “The Yankee Clipper” and was one of the best baseball announcers to recreate ongoing away games from dry ticker-tape descriptions, a common practice in baseball’s early days. Crowds would gather outside the People’s Drug Store on G Street, NW during Senators’ away games to watch and listen to McDonald recreate the games through the store’s front window, where his studio was located.
Part of the Laurel Day pregame ceremony was for the fans from Laurel to honor Maryland native son Powell, who now played for the visiting Yankees. Contrary to the caption on the photo in the Library of Congress, Powell never played in Laurel, and there was no connection between the ballplayer and the town. It was apparently a random pairing for the sake of the promotion.
The promotion, co-sponsored by The Washington Post and People’s Drug Store, was a big success in Laurel. According to The Post, a delegation of several hundred fans left Laurel “in a long automobile caravan behind an escort of Maryland State police.” At the D.C. line, the caravan was taken over by “members of the Metropolitan Police motorcycle corps and whisked to Griffith Stadium by direct route.”
The large contingent attending the game left Laurel “a virtually deserted township,” according to the Post. McDonald met the Laurel contingent at the D.C. line and rode the rest of the way with them “to get acquainted with his fans from the Maryland town.”
Led by Mayor Hatch, the delegation from Laurel also included J.F. Curtin, Laurel American Legion Post Commander; J.H. Fetty, Laurel Lions Club; William F. McCormick, American Legion; and Lee Whitmore and Ernest Stanton, Laurel Fire Department.
“Marching into Griffith Stadium behind the stirring rendition of the American Legion junior drum and bugle corps, the Laurel contingent proceeded to home plate for the pregame ceremonies,” according to The Post. In the Library of Congress photo, the Laurel fans and the American Legion drum and bugle corps are watching the presentation.
Mayor Hatch (incorrectly naming Takoma Park) “lauded Powell for his success as a big leaguer, cited the pride with which Maryland fans regarded him, and presented to the Takoma Park lad a handsome leather wallet,” according to The Post. It was an interesting choice, to say the least, to honor the despicable Powell.
Helping toward desegregation
Strangely, Powell is credited with helping baseball move toward desegregation, albeit in a perverse way. In an interview broadcast live on WGN radio at Comiskey Park in Chicago before a game in July 1938, , announcer Bob Elson asked Powell how he stayed in shape during the off-season. Powell, who had falsely claimed for years that he was police officer in Dayton, replied that he kept in shape “by cracking n-----s over the head with my nightstick.”
According to Lamb, “As soon as Powell made his derogatory remark, the station cut off the interview. Unaware he had said anything offensive, Powell went to the team’s dressing room to change into his uniform.”
The firestorm was immediate. Black leaders and newspapers kept up a barrage of coverage, demanding Powell be banned from baseball. Powell initially denied making the remark, despite hundreds of outraged callers to the station as soon as he said it.
The uproar put Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in a quandary. This was the same commissioner who abetted baseball’s segregation and who once said with a straight face, “If a Negro player was ever to show the kind of talents necessary to play in the Major Leagues, there is no rule to stop it.” Now, he had to act concerned and respond to the public’s outrage appropriately. His response was to suspend Powell for 10 days for making racist comments. Meanwhile, it took baseball almost another decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color line.
The Morning Sun
The Yankees also had business reasons to be concerned. Owner Jacob Ruppert owned a brewery and faced a boycott of his beer in black neighborhoods. Even though Yankees General Manager Ed Barrow didn’t understand the fuss — he told sportswriters that “his two colored servants thought it was an unfortunate mistake” — the team ordered Powell to make amends by going to bars in Harlem, offering his apologies to customers and buying the house a round. It didn’t work, as the pressure continued all season. Baltimore Afro-American columnist Leon Hardwick wrote of Powell, “It’s the unguarded moments that show a man for what he is.”
The uproar over his interview pulled the curtain away from baseball’s hypocritical attitude toward integration and exposed it for all to see. It is felt by many historians to have united some of the factions clamoring for baseball to desegregate and helped sway public opinion.
The sad end
Powell played sparingly for the Yankees for the next two seasons, then spent two years in the minor leagues. In a fitting end to his career, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies midway through the 1945 season. The manager of the Phillies was none other than Ben Chapman. Chapman never changed his ways, either. As manager of the Phillies, he was famous for his race-baiting of rookie Jackie Robinson in 1947 and encouraging his pitchers to throw at the first black player in the major leagues. After 48 games with the Phillies, Powell’s major league career was over.
In 1948, Powell lived in a hotel with his mistress in the Washington area. He passed a series of bad checks until the DC Metropolitan Police arrested him at Union Station. He interrupted his interview with detectives and asked if he could speak to his waiting mistress.
When the mistress told Powell she decided against marrying the already-married Powell and going home to Florida, he said he would kill himself. Then, as described by Lamb, “the ballplayer suddenly said, ‘Hell, I’m going to end it all,’ and pulled a .25 caliber revolver out of the pocket of his sport coat and shot himself twice — once in the chest and once in the right temple. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.”
He was 39 years old.
Richard Friend and Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.