Jocko Maxwell

This article was written by Donna L. Halper

Jocko MaxwellWhen radio came along in the 1920s, it brought sports, including baseball, directly into people’s homes. Radio also created a new type of sports reporting: now, fans could not only read about the game in their favorite print publications but also listen to play-by-play announcers telling the story of the game in real time. In addition, fans could listen to sports commentators, who talked about the teams and interviewed the players.

But the 1920s were a time when America was still segregated, and major league baseball was years away from the arrival of Jackie Robinson. Some cities had a team in the Negro Leagues, but radio stations did not carry their games, nor were their players interviewed on radio sports programs. The emphasis was on major and minor league games, where all the players were white.

While there were a few black entertainers on the radio in the 1920s, most of the performers were white, and so were all the announcers — with two exceptions. One, Jack L. Cooper, was on the air in Chicago, beginning around 1929. He played popular songs, performed in comedy skits, and publicized events in the black community. (Many historians believe Cooper was the first black announcer to have his own radio program.)1

The other, Jocko Maxwell, was a freelance sportswriter and the manager of a semipro baseball team in Newark, New Jersey. Maxwell got his own radio program in that city circa 1930.2 The newspapers of his time often referred to him as the only black sports announcer in America.3 They sometimes added that he was the nation’s first black sportscaster.4

But Jocko Maxwell was more than just a “first.” He went on to have a distinguished career as a radio broadcaster that lasted for more than three decades.5 As a sports commentator on New York radio, he became known for interviewing the biggest names, including major-league baseball players, coaches, and managers. He had an equally long career as a freelance sportswriter, covering New Jersey sports, including minor league and semipro baseball, for both local and national publications. He also covered Negro Leagues games, especially his hometown Newark Eagles. Maxwell’s work ethic and his encyclopedic knowledge of sports earned him praise from his peers and from millions of fans.

Sherman Leander Maxwell was born in Newark on December 18, 1907. He was the oldest of three children born to William Hunter Maxwell and his wife Bessie (Harris). His first name came from the Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman.6 According to family lore, the nickname “Jocko” came from a popular movie performer of the 1920s, “Jocko the Monkey.”7 While there may indeed have been such a movie character, “Jocko” was already a part of the popular culture, as far back as the late 1890s. It had become a common name for a trained circus monkey who was able to perform acrobatic tricks that required great agility.8 When young Sherman Maxwell first got the nickname, he had just leaped high to catch a fly ball (by other accounts, he climbed a tree), causing those who saw him do it to compare him to Jocko the Monkey.9

His father was a well-respected journalist. In an era when many reporters of color could get hired only by the black press, William Maxwell rose to become the features editor for a white-owned publication, the Newark Star-Ledger. He was also a role model for his children, all of whom entered media-related occupations.10 But during Jocko’s childhood, his dream was to become a professional athlete. He was especially interested in baseball, and while attending Newark’s Central High School, he became the team’s star third baseman. By his senior year, he was also managing the local semipro club, the Newark Starlings. The Starlings were an integrated team, with players from many ethnic backgrounds.11 They had developed a reputation for winning a lot of games; some of their players were even signed by minor league teams.

He wanted to attend college, as his father had done.12 However, the school of Jocko’s choice — the Panzer College of Physical Education and Hygiene, which had recently moved from Newark to East Orange, New Jersey — did not accept black students.13 So, after graduating from high school in 1928, he remained a player-manager for the Starlings for the next few years. A versatile athlete, he began as an infielder, then moved to the outfield by the early 1930s.14 And as the team’s manager, his duties included recruiting and mentoring new players, and helping to publicize the team in local and national newspapers. In addition, he sought opponents for the Starlings to play.

Because he lived in the era when baseball was still segregated, no major or minor league team would give young Jocko Maxwell a chance, much to his disappointment.15 Of course, we will never know if he might have succeeded in a different time, but reporters who watched him play frequently praised his athletic skills. For example, John M. Flynn of the Berkshire Eagle described him as “one of the best outfielders in semi-professional circles in New Jersey.”16 Newark Star-Ledger reporter Jerry Nussbaum remembered him as “a flashy fielder and a good batter.”17 Evidently, he was better than just “good” — another reporter said that in his twelve years of playing semipro, his batting average was .320.18 While Maxwell’s first love was baseball, he also enjoyed other sports. In the off-season, he spent several years as the manager of a Newark youth basketball team, the Third Ward Athletic Club.19

During Maxwell’s high school years, he began listening to baseball on the radio. To us today, this does not seem noteworthy, but it was very significant to fans of the 1920s. Radio was a new mass medium back then, and it offered fans their first chance to listen to the games live, as they were happening. Although Jocko was happy to hear major league baseball from the comfort of his home, he found the announcers disappointing. They made a lot of mistakes and didn’t seem to know much about the players, nor did they seem comfortable doing the play-by-play. He later told a reporter about his first impression of then-famous New York announcer Graham McNamee: “I didn’t think he was a good sportscaster, but I liked his enthusiasm.”20 Convinced that he could do a better job of calling the games, Maxwell decided to try getting on the radio himself.

By some accounts, his radio career began in 1929, when he persuaded Herman Lubinsky, the owner of Newark radio station WNJ (later known as WNJR), to give him a sports program.21 There is general agreement that Maxwell made his broadcasting debut on WNJ, but whether this occurred in 1929 is uncertain. Although his sister Berenice would later assert that 1929 was the correct year,22 there is little available evidence to document it. Newspapers back then printed the schedules of the various stations, but those listings rarely gave the names of the weekend announcers, unless they were famous — and Jocko Maxwell was an unknown who did a once-a-week, five-minute broadcast of sports scores. Further, some sources, including Walter Kaner of the Associated Negro Press (which syndicated articles to black newspapers nationwide), placed the year of his first broadcasts as 1930.23

Circa 1932, Maxwell began freelancing for The Sporting News, covering the Newark Bears of the International League.24 Meanwhile, his WNJ radio show had been expanded: he was now a sports commentator, broadcasting several nights a week. He not only read the major- and minor-league scores but also covered local semipro and schoolboy teams. In addition, he sometimes interviewed local players, including some who were in the major leagues. In early 1933, for example, he spoke with Joe Medwick, from Carteret, New Jersey, about 15 miles from Newark, who was then playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. Another interviewee was Bill Urbanski of the Boston Braves, from Perth Amboy, about 20 miles away.25

Maxwell also hosted a sports program on New York’s WRNY.26 Then, WHOM (a New York station licensed to Jersey City, New Jersey) hired him around the summer of 1933.27 At WHOM, he hosted a 15-minute program called “Sport Hi Lites” on Saturday nights. While he covered all sports, including football, boxing, and track, he continued to focus on baseball as much as possible.

Sportswriters began to take notice of his baseball commentaries, especially in the black press. For example, on one of his programs in May 1934, Jocko praised New York Black Yankees’ first baseman Dave Thomas as one of the best fielders he had ever seen. His commentary was then quoted by columnist Romeo L. Dougherty of the Amsterdam News.28 In addition to boosting Negro Leagues players, Maxwell continued to get interviews with white major leaguers, including another son of New Jersey, Montclair-born George “Mule” Haas. They spoke in early February 1935, when Haas was playing for the Chicago White Sox. Maxwell also followed the careers of up-and-coming locals, like Bob Miller, a former semipro pitcher with the nearby Verona Athletic Club, who had just been signed by the Newark Bears.29

By that time, Maxwell was so well-regarded that black sportswriters said he was as good as Ted Husing, a popular white sportscaster for CBS Radio.30 And they expressed their disappointment that because of his race, Maxwell wasn’t on any network.31

During 1935, Maxwell began covering New Jersey sports for the New York Age. His on-air schedule at WHOM also changed: he was heard not only each Saturday night but again on Sunday afternoon.32 And he continued to interview some of baseball’s biggest names, including the Detroit Tigers’ Hank Greenberg.33 Among the other players heard on his show was Pinky Higgins of the Philadelphia Athletics,34 which is ironic in light of subsequent depictions of Higgins as an overt racist.35

Then, sometime in 1936, Maxwell began hosting a sports program for WLTH in Brooklyn, New York. On “Sports Parade,” he featured interviews, sports scores, and commentary; he also gave listeners a chance to weigh in. Call-in programs were still rare in the 1930s, and a few announcers had begun encouraging fans to send telegrams or letters to express their opinions. Maxwell was one of them: during the 1937 baseball season, he invited his listeners to send their predictions about the pennant races, and read some of their comments on the air.36

Unless an announcer was under contract with a network like NBC or CBS, it was not uncommon for on-air personalities to move from one station to another. Maxwell was no exception. By mid-1937, in addition to broadcasting at WLTH, he was on the air at another New York-area station, WWRL, with studios in Woodside, Long Island.37 His popularity continued to grow: sportswriters at mainstream publications were now giving him regular mentions and singing his praises. Said one, who listened to him on WLTH, “The sports world should be grateful for having…a man of such a pleasing personality,” noting that Maxwell was “a splendid sports commentator.”38 Another, who enjoyed his “Five Star Sports Final” on WWRL, said that Maxwell was “doing a fine job” keeping the audience informed and sharing his vast knowledge of sports — a result of reading “ten sports papers each day, from which he gathers his interesting comment.” The writer even invited readers to listen to the Jocko Maxwell sports program: “Tune him in…You’ll like him.”39

In addition to working for several radio stations and freelance writing about northern New Jersey’s local sports scene, Maxwell somehow found time to write a book. In 1938 he completed Thrills and Spills in Sports, which was published by New York’s Fortuny Press.40 Some sources have said it came out in 1940, but reviewers were already praising it in 1939. The book featured excerpts from interviews Maxwell had done with players from various sports, including baseball, as they recalled some of their most exciting, and most amusing, experiences.41

One other important aspect of Maxwell’s journalism career was his devotion to Negro Leagues baseball. He often covered Negro Leagues games, especially when the Newark Eagles were playing. At Ruppert Stadium in Newark, he became the Eagles’ public address announcer, and publicized the team on his WLTH and WWRL radio programs.42 His coverage of the Eagles was published in the Newark Ledger (precursor to today’s Newark Star-Ledger), as well as in several black newspapers, including the Baltimore Afro-American. And fortunately for baseball historians, he kept thorough records and box scores — not just for the Eagles, but for other teams whose games he watched. This meticulous approach helped to preserve some Negro Leagues history that would otherwise have been lost.43

In 1942, Maxwell was promoted to Sports Director of WWRL, becoming perhaps the first African-American to ever hold that position in radio.44 Then, in 1943, he married the former Mamie Bryant, a social worker. Years later, in 1964, they would adopt two Korean orphans, a boy and a girl.45

Maxwell’s media career was interrupted by World War II: he served in the Army in Europe and the Philippines. But even overseas, his knowledge of sports came in handy. He was assigned to the Special Services Bureau, where his duties included arranging sports-related events, along with entertainment shows, for the troops in his unit.46

After the war, he returned to WWRL, where he continued interviewing the biggest names in sports. He was also a contributor to Baseball Digest.47 And in the early 1950s, while still on the air at WWRL, he began hosting a program called the “Sports Page” on Newark’s WNJR Radio. Maxwell was so well-respected on the New York sports scene that in late 1951, veteran New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers, who also hosted a televised sports program on WPIX-TV, invited Maxwell to be a guest.48 In 1954, Maxwell was named an officer in the New York Sportscasters Association.49

But as prolific as he was on air and in print, most of his readers and listeners were undoubtedly unaware that Maxwell was not being paid much for his work. In fact, on radio, he wasn’t paid at all, except by an occasional sponsor.50 He supported himself by working for the post office and did his announcing and reporting just because he loved sports. When he was asked about this situation years later, he did not seem upset by it. “There was no money involved,” he told an interviewer. “No salary ever in any sports. Never asked. They never gave me any.”51

On the other hand, in a 1954 letter to the editor of a black newspaper, Maxwell commented that “it has been a tough road. I’ve gotten the run around innumerable times simply because of my race.”52 And at times, in the era of segregation, when he went to cover a game, he was forbidden from eating at the team’s hotel. But overall, he told a reporter years later, he encountered little overt racism, and he sat in the same press box as the white reporters.53

By the late 1950s, Jocko Maxwell had spent more than 25 years in broadcasting. He was now the sports director of WNJR in Newark, and some newspaper sources estimated that during his many years on the air, he had interviewed more than a thousand sports celebrities (many of them baseball players).54 He also continued to do freelance reporting and commentary. For example, nearly two decades after major league baseball integrated, he wrote a series of articles for the black press about his recollections of the Negro Leagues. He called it “Old Time Negro Baseball Players — A Major League Loss.” He paid tribute to some players and managers whose achievements, he believed, had been unfairly ignored by major league executives.55

By the time Maxwell retired from announcing in 1967, he expressed some disappointment that modern sportscasters were now being discouraged from giving their honest opinions for fear of offending the fans.56 But although he was no longer on the air, Maxwell continued his involvement with sports. Circa 1970, he researched and wrote a 96-page reference guide to black sports history, called Great Black Athletes.57 It came out in several subsequent editions.

At some point in the 1970s, after writing a few more freelance magazine articles, Maxwell finally retired. He spent much of his time watching sports on TV or listening to it on the radio. He also enjoyed talking sports and reminiscing with local reporters. For example, when asked which baseball player was the best hitter he ever saw, Maxwell named Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson first, with Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox second. As for which sportscasters from the old days were the best, he named Red Barber and Ted Husing.58

Maxwell received many awards after he retired, including a lifetime achievement award from the Garden State Association of Black Journalists in 1998, and induction into the Newark Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994. His induction was championed by Newark Star-Ledger sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, who had been especially impressed by Maxwell’s thorough reporting on the Negro Leagues.59 And in his later years, Maxwell was able to reconnect with an old friend — the legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, with whom Maxwell had corresponded when Harwell was an up-and-coming broadcaster in the 1940s. The two fell out of touch for 50 years, but finally got to see each other in 2001, when Harwell was giving a talk at Cooperstown, and Maxwell was in attendance.60 That visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame fulfilled a lifelong dream for Maxwell, who had always wanted to go there, but never made the trip till he was 93 years old.61

On July 16, 2008, Jocko Maxwell died due to complications from pneumonia. He was 100 years old. He was praised by former Negro League players, his former colleagues, and many fans who had enjoyed listening to him or reading his articles. Because he lived during the era of segregation, he never received the national recognition (or the pay) that he deserved. But it is certainly true that what Jocko Maxwell accomplished during his long career paved the way for the next generation of African-American reporters, commentators, and play-by-play announcers. A man with boundless energy and a passionate devotion to sports, Maxwell was somehow able to host numerous radio shows, write for various newspapers, and coach and mentor young local athletes — while holding down a day job at the post office. But this came as no surprise to those who knew him. As Ernie Harwell explained to a reporter, “[Jocko] was an amazing person.”62

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

Thanks also to Leslie Heaphy, whose Maxwell biography appeared in The Newark Eagles Take Flight: The Story of the 1946 Negro League Champions (SABR, 2019).

Photo credit: Author’s collection.

 

Notes

1 Derek W. Vaillant, “Sounds of Whiteness: Local Radio, Racial Formation, and Public Culture in Chicago, 1921-1935,” American Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 1, March 2002: 38.

2 Some online sources say this occurred as early as 1929, but Who’s Who in Colored America (Yonkers, New York: Christian E. Burckel & Associates, 1950): 360, says 1930.

3 For example, Walter Kaner, “Jocko Maxwell, America’s Only Negro Sportcaster [sic],” New York Age, April 19, 1941: 11.

4 “Twenty Years on Radio,” (Montgomery) Alabama Tribune, June 27, 1952: 3.

5 Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” New York Daily News, December 31, 1967: 37C.

6 Christine V. Baird, “Breaking Racial Barriers on Radio,” Newark Star-Ledger, October 15, 1998: 1.

7 Bruce Weber, “Sherman L. Maxwell, 100, Sportscaster and Writer,” New York Times, July 19, 2008: A 15.

8 For example, “Carnival Court Has Program of Novelties,” Buffalo Sunday Morning News, July 27, 1913: 39. The article is about Roberta’s Circus, and on that same page is an advertisement that notes the circus features “Jocko, the Monkey Who Dives 55 Feet.”

9 Bruce Weber, “Sherman L. Maxwell, 100, Sportscaster and Writer,” New York Times, July 19, 2008: A 15.

10 “W.H. Maxwell, 93, Star-Ledger Ex-Editor,” Newark (New Jersey) Star-Ledger, July 19, 1974: 38.

11 “Newark Starlings Are After Games,” Passaic (New Jersey) Daily News, March 2, 1928: 20.

12 “W.H. Maxwell, 93, Star-Ledger Ex-Editor,” Newark Star-Ledger, July 19, 1974: 38.

13 Christine V. Baird, “Sherman Maxwell, Sportscasting Pioneer,” Newark Star-Ledger, July 17, 2008: 20.

14 “Newark Starlings Invade Rockaway,” Rockaway (New Jersey) Record, June 15, 1933: 7.

15 Jocko Maxwell, “Sports Biggest Thrill in 1934,” New York Age, December 29, 1934: 7.

16 John M. Flynn, “The Referee’s Sporting Chat,” (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) Berkshire Eagle, July 18, 1935: 15.

17 Jerry Nussbaum, “Weekend Pot-Pourri,” Newark Star-Ledger, November 29, 1947: 14.

18 “Maxwell To Be in Game,” Berkshire Eagle, July 20, 1935: 12.

19 “Newarkers Claim Title,” Matawan (New Jersey) Journal, December 14, 1928: 1.

20 Gavin Dance, “Jocko Looks Over his Career as Pioneer in Sportscasting.” Newark Star-Ledger, October 13, 1980: N4.

21 David Hinckley, “For the Record, A Pioneer Sportscaster,” New York Daily News, August 25, 2008: 78. See also, Gavin Dance, “Jocko Looks Over his Career as Pioneer in Sportscasting.” Newark Star-Ledger, October 13, 1980: N4.

22 quoted in Christine V. Baird, “Sherman Maxwell, Sportscasting Pioneer,” Newark Star-Ledger, July 17, 2008: 20.

23 Walter Kaner, “Jocko Maxwell, Sportcaster [sic] Liked by Radio Fans,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 10, 1941: 14.

24 Jocko Maxwell, “Zitzmann Suffers Broken Leg,” The Sporting News, May 19, 1932: 3.

25 “Caught on the Fly,” The Sporting News, March 9, 1933: 6.

26 Walter Kaner, “Jocko Maxwell, America’s Only Negro Sportcaster [sic],” New York Age, April 19, 1941: 11.

27 “Newark Starlings Invade Rockaway,” Rockaway (New Jersey) Record, June 15, 1933: 7.

28 Romeo L. Dougherty, “Sports Commentator Over Air Praises Work of Dave Thomas,” (New York City) Amsterdam News, June 9, 1934: 10.

29 “Bob Miller to Be Interviewed on Air,” Montclair (New Jersey) Times, January 11, 1935: 20.

30 “Jocko Maxwell, Only Sports Commentator on Air, Station WHOM,” New York Age, April 28, 1934: 5.

31 Joe Bostic, “The Radiograph,” New York Age, February 22, 1936: 8

32 Jocko Maxwell, “Garden State Sports,” New York Age, March 9, 1935: 5.

33 “On the Airlines,” The Sporting News, September 26, 1935: 7.

34 “On the Radio Airlines,” The Sporting News, May 21, 1936: 5.

35 Paul Doyle, “Owners Privilege,” Hartford Courant, December 30, 2001: E4.

36 “Ball Fans Get Break on WLTH,” Radio Daily, April 9, 1937: 3

37 “Jimmy Herbert on the Air,” New York Age, March 20, 1937: 8.

38 Joe Charmello, “Diamond Dust,” South Amboy (New Jersey) Citizen, August 6, 1937: 7.

39 John Ross, “Queen’s Island Sports,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 7, 1941: L2.

40 Leon H. Hardwick, “The Sport Broadcast,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 23, 1938: 22.

41 Harold G. Hoffman, “Of All Things,” (Camden, New Jersey) Morning Post, November 29, 1939: 28.

42 Bob Luke, The Most Famous Woman in Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues, (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011): 61.

43 Matt Rothenberg, “Maxwell was A Pioneer in African-American Baseball and Broadcasting History,” National Baseball Hall of Fame, February 1, 2016: https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/baseball-history/jocko-maxwell-voice-of-negro-leagues

44 “Jocko Maxwell Made Sports Director of Station WWRL,” Chicago Defender, April 11, 1942: 20.

45 Jerry Nussbaum, “Personally Speaking,” Newark Star-Ledger, March 27, 1964: 11.

46 “Roundy Says,” (Madison) Wisconsin State Journal, May 21, 1944: 28.

47 For example: Jocko Maxwell, “Robinson’s the Name for 1947,” Baseball Digest, April 10, 1946: 57-58.

48 “Air Lanes,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951: 44.

49 “N.Y. Sportscasters Name Miller,” The Sporting News, June 9, 1954: 38.

50 Christine V. Baird, “Breaking Racial Barriers on Radio,” Newark Star-Ledger, October 15, 1998: 1.

51 Matt Rothenberg, “Maxwell was A Pioneer in African-American Baseball and Broadcasting History,” National Baseball Hall of Fame, February 1, 2016: https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/baseball-history/jocko-maxwell-voice-of-negro-leagues

52 “First Negro Sportscaster Sends Congrats,” Amsterdam (New York) News, December 11, 1954: 4.

53 Christine V. Baird, “Breaking Racial Barriers on Radio,” Newark Star-Ledger, October 15, 1998: 1.

54 “Tuning In,” The Sporting News, March 18, 1959: 26.

55 Among Maxwell’s articles was “Ol’ Satch, Josh Gibson Symbols of Yesteryear,” (Norfolk, Virginia) New Journal and Guide, September 3, 1966: 22.

56 Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” New York Daily News, December 31, 1967: 79.

57 Dick Young, “Young Ideas,” New York Daily News, February 7, 1970: 32.

58 Gavin Dance, “Jocko Looks Over his Career as Pioneer in Sportscasting,” Newark Star-Ledger, October 13, 1980: N4.

59 Christine V. Baird, “Sherman Maxwell, Sportscasting Pioneer,” Newark Star-Ledger, July 17, 2008: 20.

60 Ernie Harwell, “Praise Boosted this Novice Broadcaster,” Detroit Free Press, July 28, 2008: 3.

61 Bruce Weber, “Sherman L. Maxwell, 100, Sportscaster and Writer,” New York Times, July 19, 2008: A 15.

62 Christine V. Baird, “Sherman Maxwell, Sportscasting Pioneer,” Newark Star-Ledger, July 17, 2008: 20.

Full Name

Sherman Leander Maxwell

Born

December 18, 1907 at Newark, NJ (US)

Died

July 16, 2008 at West Chester, PA (US)

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