Harry Passon: Philadelphia Baseball Entrepreneur
This article was published in the 2013 The National Pastime.
Semi-professional baseball, black and white, flourished in Philadelphia in the first half of the twentieth century. Harry Passon (1897–1954), a Jewish owner of Philadelphia’s leading sporting goods store, played a strategic role in organizing and promoting it. In his youth, Passon played first base for a variety of local baseball teams and was a well-respected basketball player for the renowned South Philadelphia Hebrew Association team (SPHAS). He also coached evening school basketball at the University of Pennsylvania as well as basketball, baseball, and football in the Army.1 Newspaper reports described him as “the well-known local all-around athlete.”2 However, after World War I his interests turned to the business side of sports. Along with Ed Gottlieb, his childhood friend, teammate, and eventual business associate, Passon was responsible for making Philadelphia a leading center for semi-professional sports, especially baseball. This essay will examine Passon’s experience in and contribution to the segregated world of black baseball in Philadelphia.
Passon’s involvement in sports management began when he, Gottlieb, and Hughie Black, founders and stars of the basketball (and baseball) SPHAS, opened PGB Sporting Goods in 1920. They reported having done so because they wanted better uniforms for their teams than the sponsoring organization would provide.3 Passon saw the financial and social benefits of supplying good-looking uniforms and high-quality equipment to local teams. Running and promoting the sporting goods store became his central focus. Before long Passon bought out Gottlieb and Black and brought his younger brothers in to help him run the business.4 Passon’s Sporting Goods, located at 507 Market Street, was the hub of the Philadelphia semi-professional sports world for decades. Gottlieb maintained offices for his own sports promotion enterprise in the building through the mid-1940s. Passon’s Sporting Goods was the home base of the Passon Athletic Association, a member of the Amateur Athletic Union. The Union sponsored all the Passon Clubs (baseball, basketball, boxing, track and field, and soccer).5 The store also housed a booking service and served as a place where managers, players, and umpires came to meet and find one another to talk sports, purchase equipment, make deals, and schedule contests. Passon was appointed State Commissioner of semi-professional baseball in 1936, organizing the tournament that selected the team that would represent Pennsylvania in Ray Dumont’s National Baseball Congress Tournament in Wichita. Passon also maintained and rented out Passon Field at 48th and Spruce Streets. He was among the first baseball entrepreneurs to install lights for evening games, and he played a key role in challenging Pennsylvania’s Blue Laws that were finally overturned in 1934. He also organized semi-pro leagues and owned several baseball teams, both white (Passon’s Athletic Club) and black (the Bacharach Giants).
Passon had a complicated relationship with the black teams he owned, operated, and scheduled. Beginning in the 1920s, African Americans ran most black teams—it had become a mark of racial pride. White ownership became a point of contention between the newly-developing leadership of the Negro Leagues, Rube Foster and Ed Bolden. The best team in Philadelphia in that era, the Hilldale Daisies, was the project of Bolden, a middle-class black man who worked for the Post Office. Although Bolden also identified himself as a “race man,” he understood that in order to finance his team, he would need the support of powerful whites who had access not only to capital but to playing fields and other teams to play. Foster also relied on white financing, but was less public about it. As organizer of the Eastern Colored League, Bolden had made peace while working with Nat Strong, the man who controlled black baseball in New York City. Passon became acquainted with Bolden through the world of semi-professional baseball in Philadelphia, and the Daisies were among Passon’s first clients in the sporting goods store. When Bolden was having difficulties keeping Hilldale afloat he initially turned to Passon for help and support. But when Bolden’s efforts did not make it off the ground, Passon started his own team, the Bacharach Giants. Bolden then turned instead to Passon’s friend and rival, Ed Gottlieb, who became Bolden’s silent partner with his newly organized team, the Philadelphia Stars.
As early as 1923, when Passon was in his mid-twenties, he was identified in the black press as the manager of two local black baseball teams, the Texas Eagles and Philadelphia Giants.6, 7 As many athletes played baseball in the summer and basketball in the winter, most of Passon’s connections derived from his experiences in the basketball world. Apart from his work with the SPHAS, he also coached the Panthers, a black basketball team that often practiced with the SPHAS.8 A few years later, Passon was no longer associated with the SPHAS, but began to operate his own white team in the American Basketball League. Passon became the league’s leading scorer in addition to managing the team.9
Passon’s business acumen developed and he decided it would be a good investment to become the proprietor of a baseball field as well. By 1929, he had taken over the popular field at the northwest corner of 48th and Spruce Streets in West Philadelphia and renamed it Passon Field. Formerly called Lit Brothers Field and Elks Field, the grounds were in need of improvements. By May, Passon had added 1,500 new seats in hopes of making the location an even more popular attraction for black and white audiences. With good access to public transportation and in the midst of a middle-class white neighborhood with a very small African American population, this field had the potential to provide Passon with a regular source of income, although he only rented the land. Making sure the arena was popularly known as Passon Field also created another opportunity to advertise the brand that was becoming a household word in the Philadelphia sports community.
From the opening of the 1929 season Passon used the field as a location from which to challenge the Blue Laws, scheduling his (white) Passon Athletic Club for Sunday games. The Passon Club, managed by his associate Malcolm McGowan, was playing against a black team, the Broncos, managed by the well-known Negro League player Louis Santop. Both managers were arrested and, oddly, charged with disorderly conduct.10 Passon testified in court to how peaceful the game was. Passon repeatedly challenged the blue laws in order to, as he said, “find out just where amateur baseball stands in Philadelphia.” He resented the fact that other sports (like miniature golf) were not shut down, but only subject to “summons and fine.”11
Before the 1930 season commenced Ed Bolden sought Passon’s help. Bolden assumed that the collapse of the American Negro League (a league organized in 1929 from teams that survived the collapse of Bolden’s Eastern Colored League the year before), coupled with the stock market crash, meant the end of the Hilldale team. Planning to start a new club in Philadelphia, he did not renew the lease on the ballpark in Darby, the suburb where the team had played for many years, and shipped the team’s equipment to Passon Field. It was rumored that Passon would be financing a new Hilldale team that Bolden would be organizing.12 Three members of the old Hilldale Corporation blocked Bolden from dissolving the club and secured themselves a new lease to continue to operate the original club in Darby. Bolden’s plan to develop a new team with Passon did not come to pass, although rumors continued to surface about Bolden organizing a new team, operated by former star John Henry “Pop” Lloyd and sponsored by “the Passon interests” in the winter of 1931.13
Instead, Passon went out on his own and began to organize an independent black team. Passon did not use his own name for the black team. Rather, he appropriated the name of the Bacharach Giants, an old Eastern Colored League team from Jacksonville, Florida, that had been playing in Atlantic City until the collapse of the American Negro League. The Giants had been a successful franchise but, like other teams, were undone by the Crash and played their last games in 1929 to meager attendance. Ironically, the Bacharachs were named after another white Jew, Atlantic City mayor Harry Bacharach. Bacharach himself was supportive of the team, but had no official affiliation with it. Passon’s Bacharachs would be based in Philadelphia, and play at Passon Field on Monday evenings, where Passon had installed lights to his refurbished field. The team planned to travel on Wednesdays and Saturdays. To assemble the Bacharach team, Passon drew on many players who had been successful with other teams, including Hilldale and the St. Louis Stars. Otto Briggs, who was close to Bolden, managed them. Former stars “Sleepy” Joe Lewis also signed on to play for the team, as did Turkey Stearns, Jesse “Nip” Winters, Pop Lloyd, and Obie Lackey.14 The Bacharachs played well against highly-skilled opponents like the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays, New York Black Yankees, Hilldale, and the Lincoln Giants. Rumors circulated in the black press about the possibility of a new league forming, or at the very least a round-robin tournament to determine a champion, although in 1932 the teams continued to play independently.15
In 1933, as interest in the Bacharachs grew, Passon made improvements to the field, adding a grandstand, clubhouse, and a more sophisticated lighting system.16 Ed Bolden, meanwhile, started a new independent black team, the Philadelphia Stars. Instead of working with Passon, Bolden’s co-owner was Ed Gottlieb. Bolden and Gottlieb would own the Stars together, with Gottlieb remaining the financial power and silent partner, until Bolden’s death in 1950 when Gottlieb took control. For the 1933 season, the Stars played at Passon Field. The Bacharachs and Stars, the top two black teams in the area, were billed as rivals.17 In addition to games against each other, both teams played against Passon’s own white team, on which at least one of the Passon brothers, probably Chickie, continued to play first base.18 They also battled Gottlieb’s Jewish team, the SPHAS, as well as popular traveling teams that Gottlieb booked, like the House of David.19 The black press built up the rivalry, probably at Gottlieb’s urging, to encourage fan interest.20
Although Passon’s teams did well and received a fair amount of media attention, he was not sure that he wanted to continue running the Bacharachs. He told Rollo Wilson that independent co-plan baseball was causing problems and, if he were to continue with the Bacharachs, he would want to pay the players on salary and be part of a league. The problem was that some of the players were taking advantage of the access to goods in his store. He told a reporter:
They came into my sports goods store, got radios, clothing and other articles and never paid for them. Not all of the men did this, understand, but some of them did, and I am stuck for plenty. I have had my experience in that line and I am through.21
In 1934, however, things changed for the better on several counts. First, due to Passon’s earlier efforts and the influence of Connie Mack, the Pennsylvania legislature opened the Sunday blue laws to the possibility of playing games on Sunday afternoons and charging admission without fear of arrest or having to pay bribes.22 Second, a new league was being formed.
Passon was recruited by sportswriter and entrepreneur Cumberland Posey to join Gus Greenlee’s newly established National Negro Association of Baseball Clubs (that would later become the Negro National League). The Bacharachs applied for league membership and Passon attended several organizational meetings during the winter. Nevertheless, the Bacharachs were denied membership because, as the Pittsburgh Courier reported, Stars owners Bolden and Gottlieb refused to join if the Bacharachs were included. Bolden said that he made this move against Passon because he did not believe that the city could support two teams. In response to the opposition from his rivals, Passon withdrew his request for full membership. To the press he expressed surprise, not anger. Randy Dixon reported that he was also shocked by Bolden’s move and Passon’s acquiescence, as Passon appeared to be prepared to post forfeits and assume obligations of membership. Cum Posey, who was both an owner and a columnist for the Courier, expressed his disappointment with the decision. In his column, he argued that as long as the clubs did not play in Philadelphia on the same date, the Bacharachs—who could draw on the road—would be an important attraction for the league.23
Passon, the black press, and other team owners like Cum Posey had difficulty understanding Bolden’s opposition. They did not agree with the assessment that Philadelphia could not support two league teams. It is unlikely that Bolden worried about attracting fans, because he committed to having the Stars play at Passon Field, and convinced Passon to make more improvements to the field. Passon did so, adding another 4,000 seats. The Stars played their weekend home games there for the season as did the Bacharachs. Bolden’s opposition may have stemmed from his anger at Passon for starting his own team rather than working with Bolden. Bolden would also have been unhappy had the Stars not been the top Philadelphia team, and having the Bacharachs in the league could have threatened the Stars’ status. It is also possible that Gottlieb’s rivalry with Passon contributed to the problem. Bolden chose Gottlieb, not Passon, as the white man he would work with. The relationship among the three was complex.24 The Bacharachs were subsequently accepted to associate membership, which meant they would play games against league teams and would be protected against being raided for players (insofar as the league could control its members) in exchange for a 50 percent franchise fee.25
The Stars began their season in the new league at Passon Field against the Newark Dodgers. Articles about the event boasted about the refurbished stadium with the additional seating. An officer of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission threw out the first ball and the Octavio Catto Band entertained.26 Coverage in the black press noted that fans were pleased by the new field arrangements and praised Passon for providing them.27 The Bacharachs had a strong first-half season as associate members. Former Hilldale star Otto Briggs was managing and the team won 22 of its first 27 games. Sportswriters spread rumors that Passon was trying to obtain the services of Satchel Paige.28 The “big hearted” Passon won the admiration of the black press for how he handled himself in the context of the business of black baseball. Rollo Wilson, who was both a sportswriter and the commissioner of the league, devoted an entire column to praising Passon’s “sportsmanship” and “intestinal fortitude.” Wilson appreciated how Passon handled his players who “overdrew accounts, went into his store and bought stuff and didn’t pay and didn’t deliver baseball of which they were capable.” And many of them didn’t play well and left at the end of the 1933 season, making it difficult for Passon to put together a team for the following season. Yet Passon paid salaries, met obligations, and vowed to put together a better club in 1934.29 Based on their first-half performance, Passon’s team, despite Bolden’s objections, was awarded full membership in July 1934. At that league meeting, the team was represented by Harry’s brother Chickie, Otto Briggs, and Malcolm McGowan, Passon’s chief assistant and general manager.30
Unfortunately for Passon, these successes were short-lived. The Bacharachs did not do as well in the second half of the season, compiling a record of 3–11 by mid-August.31 And several episodes of violence at Passon Field marred the rest of the season. In one case, a player assaulted an umpire.32 Later that season a detective was injured arresting men accused of beating a park attendant. The newspaper noted complaints all season about a gang of alleged “hoodlums” who waited in left field and kept the balls knocked out of the park. Passon had retained a man named Henry Taylor to retrieve the balls. One night the detective caught the men as they were beating up Taylor.33 The neighbors raised concerns about safety, and it was clear that Passon did not have the situation under control. In addition, visiting teams complained that Passon had set the admission price too low. He raised the fees when the league played some of the “World’s Colored Championship Series” there in September.34 But Bolden and the Stars would move their “home” games to the nearby Penmar Field at 44th and Parkside the following year. The park had a larger seating capacity and was under Gottlieb’s control.
The following January when the league owners met, Passon was ready to rejoin. He and Malcolm McGowen, along with new manager Phil Cockrell, another former Hilldale player, represented the Bacharachs.35 Although Passon was once again praised in the national black press for being among those owners who “caught the vision and pledged unstinted efforts toward making a permanent and abiding organization for Negro baseball,” Passon had decided to quit.36 He offered to sell the franchise for $400, which was the amount that he had advanced in player contracts. One of the owners suggested that it really wasn’t necessary for the other owners to make good on those contracts and suggested that they “just go on and sign them up anyway.” Passon went away disappointed with the way the league owners treated him and his players.37 Passon continued to field the Bacharachs as an independent semi-pro team that still played against (and served as a source of young players for) the Stars and other league teams. Passon continued his association with the league in another way—his sporting goods store supplied equipment to the league and the Worth ball that he sold remained the official ball of the National Association in 1935 and 1936.38
Nineteen thirty-five was also a tumultuous year in Harry’s personal life as his wife, Bessie Greenbaum, died at 34, leaving Harry alone with a young daughter. Nonetheless, he took on a new project, turning his attention to the white, semi-professional game as the Pennsylvania Commissioner in 1936. Under his leadership, Pennsylvania became the first state to organize championship games for entry into Ray Hap Dumont’s national showcase for semi-pro teams, the National Baseball Congress in Wichita.39 Passon also sponsored international soccer matches, welcoming the Maccabee Tel Aviv F.C. soccer team in 1936 from Palestine to play against his own Passon soccer team.40
Passon Field was at the center of another controversy in 1937 when Joe Louis brought his “Brown Bombers” softball team to play against a white Philly All-Star team that Passon organized. A crowd estimated at 30,000 wanted to see the contest—but the park only seated 4,000. As people were entering, the grandstand collapsed. Five people were hurt in the crush. The white press reported they were “all Negroes,” although the crowd was integrated. The game was moved to another time and location.41
Passon continued to have his teams, the black Bacharachs and the white Passon team (often called the “storeboys”), play at Passon Field through the 1930s. He also sponsored football, soccer, and tennis at the location. By 1937 Tom Dixon, a former Negro Leagues player and Passon’s employee in the sporting goods store, was managing the Bacharachs. Along with Malcolm McGowan, Dixon has been credited with bringing the young Roy Campanella into professional baseball. The Bacharachs would be the first team he played for, and they continued to serve as a “feeder” team for other Negro League teams through the mid-1940s, although they no longer played at Passon Field.42
Unfortunately, pressures in Harry’s life continued to be difficult for him, and family members reported that Harry was depressed and had threatened suicide. In February 1954 he was found dead in the ammunition vault of his store, a gun at his feet from which one bullet had been fired.43 Although he could not compete with Ed Bolden or Ed Gottlieb for prominence or power, Harry Passon was an important part of what made black baseball in Philadelphia strong and prosperous for many years—and his store and field left an important legacy in Philadelphia baseball history.
REBECCA T. ALPERT is Professor of Religion at Temple University. Her most recent publication is "Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball" (Oxford University Press, 2011). Her areas of specialization are Contemporary American Religion, Religion and Sexuality, and Religion and Sport.
- 1. “Passon Coaching Evening School,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 29, 1918.
- 2. “Plenty of Activity on Independent Baseball Fields,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 11, 1918; “Harry Passon to Coach Camp Jackson Athletes,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 12, 1918, 12.
- 3. Rich Westcott, The Mogul: Eddie Gottlieb, Philadelphia Sports Legend and Pro Basketball Pioneer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 26.
- 4. According to Passon’s niece’s recollection, funding came from Passon’s father-in-law, Benjamin Greenbaum. (He was also Passon’s brother Sam’s father-in-law). They brought their brothers Henry (Chickie), Morris, and Nat into the business. Posted at Ancestry.com, 19 December 2010, http://boards.ancestry.com/surnames.passon/10.3/mb.ashx. Passon’s sister Gertrude [Silverman] and her husband also worked in the store. Harry’s other sister, Bertha, became a pharmacist, and other brother Morris later became an attorney. Sam left the sporting goods store in the 1950s and opened his own electronics business. The store moved from the Market Street location in 1953 when Philadelphia purchased the property to create a site for the Liberty Bell and relocated to 733 Arch Street, relocating to 1028 Arch in 1960 and remaining there through the 1970s. The brothers began a mail-order business that they subsequently sold. It remains in business to this day. (Bonnie Silverman, personal communication, September 30, 2012; Barbara Joyce-Jones, telephone conversation, October 6, 2012; “Building at 731 Arch is Sold to Stationers,” Evening Bulletin, February 9, 1960.)
- 5. “Passon Club in A.A.U.,” Evening Bulletin, March 4, 1932.
- 6. “Texas Eagles are Setting a Dizzy Pace,” Philadelphia Tribune, August 2, 1924.
- 7. W. Rollo Wilson, “Eastern Snapshots,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 27, 1925.
- 8. “Panther Five to be Formidable Foe This Season,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 4, 1924.
- 9. “Borgeman Threatens Goal-Tossing Leader,” Washington Post, March 10, 1927.
- 10. “Broncos Leading By One Run When Police Break Up Game,” Philadelphia Tribune, September 5, 1929.
- 11. “Three Sentenced for Sunday Ball Game in Philly,” Syracuse Herald, August 5, 1930; “3 Men Get 30 Days for Sunday Ball,” Evening Bulletin, August 4, 1930.
- 12. Neil Lanctot, Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910–1932 (Jefferson, NC, McFarland and Co., 1994), 203. See also Pittsburgh Courier, April 12, 1930; April 19, 1930.
- 13. Randy Dixon, “Money Man Aligns with Hilldale Team,” Philadelphia Tribune, February 26, 1931.
- 14. Evening Bulletin, June 12, 1931; W. Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 9, 1932; no author, “The Bacharach Giants” Colored Baseball and Sports Monthly in Art Carter Files, box 12, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
- 15. Dick Sun, “Negro World Series Gets Underway,” Philadelphia Tribune, September 10, 1931; W. Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 1, 1931; September 12, 1931 and Randy Dixon, “Randy Says,” Philadelphia Tribune, August 20, 1931.
- 16. “Quaker Team to Open Soon,” New York Amsterdam News, April 5, 1933.
- 17. “Bolden’s Stars and Bacharachs Start Five Game Series,” Philadelphia Tribune, June 22, 1933.
- 18. “Negro Clubs to Oppose Passon ‘9’” Philadelphia Tribune, July 13, 1933.
- 19. “Bolden’s Nine Trims Bearded Clan by 5 to 1,” Chicago Defender, May 13, 1933; “Passon Outfit Set to Check Bolden’s Stars,” Philadelphia Tribune, July 6, 1933.
- 20. “Boldenmen at Passon’s Wed.” Philadelphia Tribune, August 17, 1933; “Bacharachs and Boldenmen Settle Dispute Saturday,” Philadelphia Tribune, August 24, 1933; “Passon Nine to Meet Bacharachs and Boldenmen,” Philadelphia Tribune, August 31, 1933.
- 21. Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 9, 1933.
- 22. See David Jordan, “Another Quaker City Champion: The 1934 Philadelphia Stars” Black Ball, 5:1 (Spring 2012), 24–32.
- 23. “Baseball Owners En Route to Philly Pow Wow,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 10, 1934; Randy Dixon, “Baseball Magnates Convene in Parlay Here,” Philadelphia Tribune, February 15, 1934; “Blacksox, Grays Not Included,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 17, 1934; Cum Posey, “Posey’s Pointed Paragraphs,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 3, 1934.
- 24. Although the newspapers attribute the concerns to Bolden, it is hard to imagine that Gottlieb was not somehow involved. The meetings began at Passon’s Sporting Goods Store (and Gottlieb’s office) but were moved to the Citizens Republican Club at 25th and Lombard. Gottlieb, not Passon, appears in the photo that was taken of the owners at the meetings. “Moguls ‘Talk Shop’ in Baseball Pow-Wow,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 24, 1934.
- 25. “Bolden’s Team to Play All Games at New Passon Field,” Chicago Defender, March 24, 1934.
- 26. Advertisement, Philadelphia Tribune, May 10, 1934.
- 27. W. Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 19, 1934.
- 28. “Otto Briggs Revamping Bacharachs,” Philadelphia Tribune, June 14, 1934.
- 29. W. Rollo Wilson, “Sport Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 13, 1934.
- 30. “Bees and Black Sox Join National League,” Philadelphia Tribune, July 5, 1934.
- 31. “Philly Drubs Yanks,” Chicago Defender, August 11, 1934.
- 32. “Players Pay for Offenses,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 4, 1934.
- 33. “Crack Detective is Hurt Nabbing Man,” Afro-American, August 18, 1934.
- 34. “Display Ad,” Philadelphia Tribune, September 20, 1934.
- 35. G. Fleming, “Men Admit Two New Members,” Afro-American, January 19, 1935.
- 36. Chester Washington, “Sez Ches,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 9, 1935.
- 37. William Jones, “Sidelights on League Meeting,” Afro-American, March 16, 1935; “Oust Wilson as Baseball Czar,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 14, 1935.
- 38. “League Will Open,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 26 1936.
- 39. “National 1936 Championship,” The Sporting News, April 23, 1936.
- 40. "Display Ad," Jewish Exponent, October 30, 1936.
- 41. “14 Hurt in Crash of 2 Grandstands,” Evening Bulletin, September 21, 1937; “Joe Louis in Game at Stadium Today,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 1937; “Joe Louis Mobbed by Crowd of 30,000,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 25, 1937.
- 42. See Neil Lanctot, Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).
- 43. “Harry Passon is Found Dead,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 17, 1954. The story of Passon’s death was front page news in the daily paper. He was described as a former sports star, founder of the SPHAS, a leader in organizing sandlot sports, co-owner of Passon Sports Company, and as active in Jewish charities. An obituary that did not mention the suspicion of suicide appeared in the Jewish Exponent. Passon had become involved in the Jewish community, sponsoring the Maccabiah soccer team and becoming a leading contributor to the Jewish Theological Seminary and Germantown Jewish Center in Mt. Airy where he resided with his second wife, Tillie (he remarried in 1938) and their two daughters from prior marriages, Dorothy and Marcie. “Harry Passon,” Jewish Exponent, February 26, 1954.