SABR

Fran Matthews

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

A black first baseman who played portions of five seasons between 1938 and 1945 with the Newark Eagles in the segregated Negro National League, Fran Matthews began and ended his baseball career playing for teams in integrated amateur leagues in the Boston area. “Lefty would have made it to the majors in the 1930s as a first baseman, but bucked the intolerable color line of his day,” Jerry Nason wrote of Matthews in the Boston Globe in 1972.i “Lefty was really something.”

The closest the left-handed-hitting Matthews got to playing in Organized Baseball was one game in 1944 when he, as a member of the Boston Colored Giants, reportedly played a few innings with the Lynn (Massachusetts) team in the all-white, semipro New England League. Twenty months later, in 1946, the New England League returned to full professional status as one of the first integrated minor leagues in Organized Baseball, when two blacks, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, joined the Nashua Dodgers and played their first game in Lynn.

Francis Oliver Matthews was born on November 2, 1916, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is across the Charles River from Boston.ii Despite the fact that many baseball reference works list his birthplace as the Barbados (the Caribbean island was his father’s homeland), there is indisputable evidence that Matthews was born in Cambridge. He was the only son of Oswald Matthews and Judith Jackson, who were married in Cambridge in February 1909.iii He had an older sister, Ruth.iv His father worked as a blacksmith in an automobile factory.v

Matthews grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Cambridge, at 60 Kinnaird Street, which had a mix of both black and white residents.vi He attended an integrated high school, Rindge Technical School, which was Cambridge’s vocational public high school; Cambridge Latin was the college-prep public high school (the two later merged to form today’s Cambridge Rindge & Latin School). As a teenager, his baseball idol was white, not black. “My hero was Lou Gehrig,” Matthews told writer David Cataneo in a 1993 interview, indicating that he didn’t worship slugging black first basemen like Mule Suttles or Buck Leonard.vii

Matthews excelled on the baseball field for Rindge Tech, as a smooth-fielding first baseman and consistent batter. In June 1933 he was named captain of the baseball team following his sophomore season; he captained the team both his junior and senior seasons.viii In his junior year, 1934, he batted .400 and was named not just to the Suburban League all-star team (the only black player) but also was a second-team pick on the regional All-Scholastic team selected by the Boston Globe.ix The first-team first baseman was Elbie Fletcher, of Milton High School, who signed with the Boston Braves immediately after his high-school graduation and appeared in eight games for the Braves that September. The Fletcher-Matthews controversy over who was actually the better high-school first baseman reached a national audience a few years later. In his senior year, 1935, Matthews compiled a .515 batting average and was named first-team All-Scholastic by the Globe.x Although the Globe never mentioned his race in its article, an analysis of the photographs of the individuals selected reveals that Matthews was the only black player.

After graduating from Rindge Tech in June 1935, the 5-foot-8-inch, 180-pound Matthews played first base for a segregated semipro team, the Philadelphia Giants, which was actually a barnstorming team that was based in Boston. Headlining the Giants were pitcher Will “Cannonball” Jackman, known as the Satchel Paige of New England, and catcher Burlin White.xi The Boston Globe wrote in 1964, prior to an old-timer’s game, that “if civilization had moved more swiftly, today’s fans would be watching several former major leaguers.”xii Matthews played for the Giants in a number of games staged from Connecticut to Maine during the three summers from 1935 to 1937.xiii In 1938 the team was renamed the Boston Royal Giants.

Art Carter, a writer for the Baltimore Afro-American, one of the largest nationally circulated black newspapers, used Matthews in early 1938 as a prime example of the racial inequities in baseball. “Talking about baseball ability and opportunity to earn money with it, the case of Francis Matthews is ironical, although typical of the trend in the great ‘American’ pastime,” Carter wrote, comparing the situations of Boston-area natives Elbie Fletcher and Matthews. “Fletcher is a regular with the Boston Bees of the National League, drawing a salary of approximately $7,500 annually for seven months’ work, while Matthews is struggling for subsistence in his hometown. Matthews’s color deprives him of a similar chance in the loop.”xiv

For the 1938 season, Matthews did get a chance to play in the Negro National League, when Newark Eagles owner Abe Manley signed him to eventually replace Newark’s iconic but aging first baseman, Mule Suttles. Matthews got his first taste of life in segregated America that spring. After riding day and night on the Eagles’ bus to Florida, the bus stopped on a back road in the Deep South to negotiate a creaky bridge. “We were in some swamps that looked like something out of a horror movie. There was fog on the water and all this Spanish moss hanging down. Out of the woods comes this tall Georgia cracker, with his rifle and his hunting dog,” Matthews recounted in 1993. The man walked around the bus a few times. “Then he spits upside the bus and walks off into the woods,” said Matthews. “That was my introduction to the South.”xv

Matthews didn’t play much for the Newark Eagles in 1938, as Suttles anchored Newark’s “million dollar infield” that consisted of Suttles at first base, Dick Seay at second base, Willie Wells at shortstop, and Ray Dandridge at third base. Matthews had just 20 official at-bats in 1938, according to the reconstructed statistics compiled by the Negro Leagues Researchers and Authors Group in 2006, which covers only league-sanctioned games, not exhibition contests against other teams.xvi Matthews had no official at-bats for Newark in 1939, although he likely played in several nonleague contests to spell Suttles at first base.

When Suttles was shifted to the outfield for the 1940 season, Matthews finally got his chance to play first base full time for Newark. He produced a .291 batting average in 1940, which ranked him among the top 25 hitters that season. It was the best season of his Negro National League career. That August the Baltimore Afro-American ran a large photo of Matthews on its sports page, with this caption: “Francis (Fran) Matthews, youthful first baseman of the Newark Eagles, whose spectacular play has been one of the contributing factors in the Eagles’ victory streak of eight straight [Negro] National League games.”xvii

After Suttles was traded in 1941, Newark manager Biz Mackey inserted Matthews into the leadoff spot in the Newark batting order to take advantage of his spray-hitting ability to get on base frequently. On Opening Day in 1941 at Newark’s Ruppert Stadium, Matthews hit a home run in his first at-bat to win a stadium giveaway, whose value exceeded his monthly salary. “I got $100, suits, hats, clothes, from the stores which had prizes for the opening day firsts,” Matthews recalled. “It was against Dave Barnhill, who told me, ‘You young so and so, you’ll never get another hit off me.’ And I didn’t.”xviii

Matthews then got the opportunity to play a few games in Yankee Stadium, as Newark nabbed two early-season dates (the Memorial Day holiday and Sunday, June 8) in four-team doubleheaders that were staged there by black teams while the Yankees were on the road. As Matthews later said, “I remember the first time I played in Yankee Stadium. I went over and stood on first base, because my hero was Lou Gehrig. I hit a couple into those right-field seats.”xix Newark lost on Memorial Day to the New York Black Yankees before a crowd of 23,000; on June 8, after a tribute to the recently deceased Gehrig, Newark lost to the Philadelphia Stars before 12,000 spectators.xx

In between the two games, the New York Times gave Matthews a plug: “Francis Matthews, hard-hitting first baseman, will be one of the Newark Eagles’ chief hopes in their baseball game with the Philadelphia Stars on Sunday.”xxi Other than for Satchel Paige, it was unusual for a white newspaper to tout a black baseball player. Newark finished in second place in the first-half standings in 1941. Matthews was the second leading vote-getter to be first baseman for the Negro National League in the annual East-West All-Star Game; he was edged out by Buck Leonard of the Homestead Grays.xxii After a strong start, though, Matthews sputtered to the end of the season, finishing with a .193 batting average.

By 1941 Matthews acclimated to segregated living conditions in Newark, which differed from his more integrated life back in Boston. He garnered more respect as a ballplayer in Newark, which staged home games in a minor-league stadium, than he did in Boston, where his team played virtually all its games on the road and few at home. Matthews recalled that “we were popular” among the black population of Newark, both male and female.xxiii Like many of the Eagles players, he resided during the season in Newark at the Grand Hotel, a black hotel which had a dining room where, Matthews fondly recalled, women looking to meet the players would have them paged by uniform number.xxiv One oft-told tale involving Matthews, who had just made a throwing error, was his embarrassment at being cheered up by another set of female admirers, workers in a local house of prostitution, whose madam shouted to him, “Don’t worry, baby, we’re all with you.”xxv

These incidents were etched in Matthews’s memory 50 years after they occurred because he remembered Abe Manley’s morality policy for the Eagles players. “He had the Jack Armstrong, All-American boy idea about the ballplayers – no drinkin’, no smokin’, no women,” Matthews told writer James Overmyer. “He’d say, ‘I don’t want any lovers on my ball club, you can sacrifice for five months.’ It looked like he was going to cry when he saw a ballplayer with a girl.”xxvi The thrifty ways of Abe and his wife Effa, the business manager of the Eagles, were also etched in Matthews’ memory. During one of his at-bats in Ruppert Stadium, Matthews had fouled off several pitches into the stands, causing the Manleys to use more new baseballs, at which point Abe sent word to the dugout: “The next time one goes into the stands, it’s going to cost him whatever the ball costs.”xxvii It wasn’t just the cost of baseballs where the Manleys pinched pennies; they also stubbornly negotiated contracts with the Eagles players to keep expenses down.

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Matthews balked at returning to the Newark Eagles for the 1942 season. He preferred instead to stay in Boston to work at a defense job, where he could make more money than playing with the Eagles (and protect his draft status to avoid serving in the segregated US armed forces).xxviii He tried to negotiate for more money, writing to Effa Manley: “I believe we could come to better terms.”xxix When that didn’t work, he played hard-to-get, writing: “I have a very good job and while I’d much rather play ball, I’m only wondering if it would be worth while to quit. … My heart is in baseball but I’m getting no younger and must look out for myself.”xxx

But Mrs. Manley did not like to negotiate with the players, so she refused to budge from her initial offer to Matthews. Effa wouldn’t even negotiate with the team’s biggest star, 23-year-old outfielder Monte Irvin, who sought a $25 raise to his $150 monthly salary for the 1942 season, or else he’d go play ball in Mexico. “I wanted to stay,” Irvin recalled later in life. “She said she couldn’t afford the other $25, so I left.”xxxi Effa eventually sent Matthews transportation money to report to Baltimore in late May.xxxii After Matthews played a few games with the Eagles in 1942, however, he returned to Boston, thinking, incorrectly, that he had severed his relationship with the Newark Eagles.xxxiii

During the summer of 1942, Matthews worked at the Watertown Arsenal, where he was a tractor operator and played on the company’s “otherwise all-white baseball team.”xxxiv Watertown played in the Boston Twilight League in 1942, but then moved up to the more prestigious Boston Park League in 1943, when restrictive gasoline rationing severely limited recreational driving.xxxv For the 1943 season, the Boston Royal Giants temporarily disbanded and several of its players, including Jackman, joined the Arsenal team.xxxvi

On August 12, 1943, Matthews played first base for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. They played the Fore River Shipyard team, which competed in the all-white, semipro New England League, in the first interracial baseball game ever played at Fenway Park.xxxvii Matthews was 1-for-3 in the game. His one hit was a double, which came with a large dose of embarrassment for Matthews. “A lot of people I know were there. I hit one out to Williamsburg [the right-field bullpen], but the ball hit at the base of the wall.” He tried to stretch the hit into a triple. “It was a close play at third,” Matthews recalled. “They could have called me safe, but they didn’t. I felt like it took me two hours to walk off the field.”xxxviii

Matthews’ presence with the Monarchs provided a local attraction to draw black fans to watch Satchel Paige pitch at Fenway Park. However, when Matthews tried to continue playing for Kansas City in a game in Washington, D.C., against the Homestead Grays, the owners of the Newark Eagles successfully argued that he was still under contract with Newark and prevented him from joining the Monarchs. “Just before the Star Spangled Banner, here comes [Grays owner] Cum Posey with a telegram from Effa [Manley], stopping me from playing,” Matthews remembered.xxxix

In 1944, with travel restrictions loosened, the Boston Royal Giants were resurrected as the Boston Colored Giants to barnstorm throughout New England and New York. On July 25 the Colored Giants played the Lynn Frasers of the New England League in a game that “proved to be a pivotal event in baseball race relations in Lynn.”xl Matthews was ejected from the game in the sixth inning by umpire Tony Routhouska, ostensibly for swearing at the umpire.xli The ejection was followed by a near-riot, “with the cops restoring order in the nick of time as there was a bat somewhere dangling from a player’s hand ready to be used just in case.”xlii Before the altercation in the sixth inning, as the Lynn Telegram-News later reported, Matthews had switched teams to take a few turns at first base for the Frasers.xliii

The Frasers’ use of a black player precipitated a racist-oriented letter to sportswriter J.F. Williams at the Lynn Telegram-News. “Lynn fans are extremely tolerant,” Williams wrote in response to the racial tirade. “Hardly anywhere else is the colored ball player better received than by Lynn fans at Fraser Field. How many times have the fans applauded the brilliant plays of the [black] opposition? … And speaking of intolerance, Matty Matthews, a colored boy, covered first base for the Frasers. What city, in even this state, can show more tolerance. The local fans greeted him as any other player.”xliv The local black newspaper, the Boston Chronicle, confirmed that Matthews had played first base for Lynn: “Hats off to the Fraser Club for giving one of our boys a chance at big time baseball.”xlv Matthews responded to Williams with a very articulate letter that was printed verbatim in the Telegram-News on July 30. He wrote that “the Lynn fans as a whole have received me very well,” and then focused on baseball-related issues rather than “the color question which to me didn’t enter the discussion and therefore is needless.”xlvi

A few weeks after the incident in Lynn, Matthews returned to Yankee Stadium one more time, when the Colored Giants played the Black Yankees there on September 10.xlvii For Matthews, playing on the hallowed grounds of his boyhood idol, Lou Gehrig, one more time may have rekindled the desire to return to the Negro National League with the Newark Eagles. He rejoined the Eagles for the 1945 season, after a three-year hiatus. Pitcher Don Newcombe was a teammate. No doubt aware of the several tryouts that black players had with major-league teams during the war, including the sham workout of Jackie Robinson with the Boston Red Sox, the 28-year-old Matthews likely returned to Newark for a potential shot at Organized Baseball once the color line was finally broken. However, his dream was shattered, both metaphorically and literally; his arm was broken that summer when he was hit by a pitch.xlviii

After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in October 1945, Newcombe was in the next wave of black players signed to play in Organized Baseball. He played with the Nashua Dodgers in 1946 in the New England League, where Lynn was one of the other seven cities in the league.xlix While Newcombe was playing in the now-integrated minor leagues in 1946, Matthews returned to Boston to play for the segregated Colored Giants, which now played a regular schedule as a member of the predominantly white Boston Twilight League, a notch below the Boston Park League.l Matthews played with the Colored Giants until 1950.

In that year, Matthews enlisted in the US Army, which President Harry Truman had integrated in 1948.li In 1952 he was stationed in Germany and wrote a letter to sportswriter Sam Lacy, who quoted portions of it in his column in the Baltimore Afro-American: “I see by the AFRO that Big Don [Newcombe] is about to be inducted. … wouldn’t it be cute if he should wind up in my outfit? … Boy would I give that guy a going-over!”lii Matthews served in the military for more than two decades, which included a tour of duty in the Vietnam War, where he was awarded both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals.liii In 1972 he was medically retired from the Army at Fort Riley in Kansas, at the rank of first sergeant.liv Following his military retirement, Matthews lived in Los Angeles.

During the 1990s Matthews was active in promoting the history of the Negro Leagues, after he was interviewed by James Overmyer for his 1993 book Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles. Much of what we know today of Matthews’ thoughts about his baseball career stems from the interviews with Overmyer. Additional insights from Matthews come from his interviews with David Cataneo for his “Peanuts ’n’ Crackerjack” columns in the Boston Herald in 1993; interviews with various writers in Los Angeles at his public appearances with former Negro Leaguers Sammie Haynes and Merle Porter; and information uncovered in the business records of the Newark Eagles that are archived at the Newark Public Library.

In 1993 Matthews threw out the first pitch before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park in a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the first interracial ballgame played at Fenway, in 1943, when Matthews played his one game for Kansas City.lv Back in Los Angeles, he participated in card-show signings and memorabilia auctions to raise money to help needy former Negro Leaguers.lvi At an elementary-school ceremony for Black History Month in 1993, Matthews talked about playing baseball in the Negro Leagues. “Black baseball is one of the best-kept secrets of black history,” Matthews told the children. “I played with 10 people who should be in the Hall of Fame. I played. I loved it. I’m proud of it.”lvii Weeks later at a card show, Matthews remarked, “We played as well or better than anyone [white].”lviii He also participated in events during 1997 at Dodger Stadium to honor the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first season in the major leagues.

Fran Matthews died on August 24, 1999, in Los Angeles.lix He is buried at the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery in Riverside, California.lx

 

Sources

Books

Luke, Bob, The Most Famous Woman in Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues (Washington: Potomac Books, 2011).

Overmyer, James, Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1993).

Journals

Bevis, Charlie, “Barnstorming Black Ballclubs vs. White Semi-Pro Lynn Frasers in 1944,” Black Ball: A Negro Leagues Journal, Spring 2011.

Newspapers

Carter, Art, “From the Bench,” Baltimore Afro-American, April 16, 1938.

Cataneo, David, “Peanuts ’n’ Crackerjack,” Boston Herald, February 8 and March 1, 1993.

McDonnell, Patrick, “Remembering Their League and Their Own Sports,” Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1993.

Nalick, Jon, “Tips on the Game of Life: Former Negro League Players Visit School to Educate and Inspire,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1993.

Nason, Jerry, “Around and About,” Boston Globe, January 29, 1972.

Williams, J.F., “Letter from Mr. Matthews,” Lynn Telegram-News, July 30, 1944.

Websites

Baseball-Reference.com, Fran Matthews playing record.

Archives

Boston Public Library, Cambridge City Directory.

Massachusetts State Archives, Boston, Massachusetts, birth, death, and marriage records prior to 1920.

US Census Bureau, federal census records for decennial years from 1910 to 1940.

 

Notes

i Jerry Nason, “Around and About,” Boston Globe, January 29, 1972.

ii Birth records for 1916 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 635, Page 493).

iii Marriage records for 1909 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 587, Page 354).

iv 1930 federal census (Series T626, Roll 916, Page 19A).

v 1910 federal census (Series T624, Roll 596, Page 92) and 1930 federal census.

vi Cambridge City Directory, 1923 through 1937; an analysis of families on Kinnaird Street in the 1930 federal census shows that two-third were white and one-third were black (race was then data-collected by census takers).

vii David Cataneo, “Peanuts ’n’ Crackerjack,” Boston Herald, February 8, 1993.

viii Boston Globe, June 9, 1933.

ix Boston Globe, June 11, 1934.

x Boston Globe, June 19, 1935.

xi Dick Thompson, “Cannonball Bill Jackman,” The National Pastime, 2007.

xii “Phil. Giants Play Old-Timers’ Game,” Boston Globe, August 30, 1964.

xiii Matthews is listed in articles and box scores during this period in the Hartford Courant (July 5, 1935, and May 17, 1937) and the Boston Chronicle (July 20, 1935, and June 20, 1936).

xiv Art Carter, “From the Bench,” Baltimore Afro-American, April 16, 1938.

xv Cataneo, “Peanuts,” March 1, 1993.

xvi Fran Matthews playing record at Baseball-Reference.com website. All Negro National League statistics of Matthews cited in this article are from this source.

xvii “He’s Making Good,” Baltimore Afro-American, August 10, 1940.

xviii James Overmyer, Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1993), 112.

xix Cataneo, “Peanuts,” February 8, 1993.

xx New York Age, June 7 and 14, 1941.

xxi New York Times, June 5, 1941.

xxii Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 171.

xxiii Overmyer, Effa Manley, 66.

xxiv Overmyer, Effa Manley, 66-67.

xxv Overmyer, Effa Manley, 66.

xxvi Overmyer, Effa Manley, 73.

xxvii Overmyer, Effa Manley, 77.

xxviii Overmyer, Effa Manley, 152.

xxix Bob Luke, The Most Famous Woman in Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues (Washington: Potomac Books, 2011), 84.

xxx Neil Lanctot, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 119.

xxxi Steve Jacobson, Carrying Jackie’s Torch: The Players Who Integrated Baseball – and America (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2007), 15.

xxxii Luke, The Most Famous Woman, 84.

xxxiii Baltimore Afro-American, May 30, 1942.

xxxiv Art Carter, “Baseball Bits,” Baltimore Afro-American, April 13, 1943.

xxxv Boston Globe, August 27, 1942, and June 8, 1943.

xxxvi Jerry Nason, “Jackman Ranked in Paige’s Class as Negro Pitcher,” Boston Globe, July 10, 1943; Baltimore Afro-American, May 29, 1943.

xxxvii Boston Globe, August 13, 1943.

xxxviii Cataneo, “Peanuts,” February 8, 1993.

xxxix Overmyer, Effa Manley, 153.

xl Charlie Bevis, “Barnstorming Black Ballclubs vs. White Semi-Pro Lynn Frasers in 1944,” Black Ball: A Negro Leagues Journal, Spring 2011.

xli Lynn Telegram-News, July 26, 1944.

xlii Lynn Daily Evening Item, July 26, 1944.

xliii Lynn Telegram-News, July 28 and 29, 1944.

xliv Lynn Telegram-News, July 28, 1944.

xlv Boston Chronicle, August 26, 1944.

xlvi J.F. Williams, “Letter from Mr. Matthews,” Lynn Telegram-News, July 30, 1944.

xlvii New York Age, September 9, 1944.

xlviii Baltimore Afro-American, July 21, 1945.

xlix Bevis, “Barnstorming.”

l Boston Globe, June 25, 1946.

li US Department of Veterans Affairs record at Ancestry.com website.

lii Sam Lacy, “From A to Z,” Baltimore Afro-American, February 12, 1952.

liii Medals indicated on his cemetery marker at Riverside National Cemetery, at Findagrave.com website.

liv Nason, “Around and About” and US Department of Veterans Affairs record.

lv Marvin Pave, “A Tie from the Past: Old-Timers Square Off, Negro Leaguers Share Nostalgic Stage,” Boston Globe, May 30, 1993.

lvi Patrick McDonnell, “Remembering Their League and Their Own Sports,” Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1993; Erin Aubry, “Negro League Players Reminisce at Fund-Raiser,” Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1994.

lvii Jon Nalick, “Tips on the Game of Life: Former Negro League Players Visit School to Educate and Inspire,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1993.

lviii McDonnell, “Remembering Their League.”

lix Social Security Death Index.

lx Riverside National Cemetery records.

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