Roy Sparrow (NOIRTECH RESEARCH, INC.)

Roy Sparrow

This article was written by Margaret A. Gripshover

Roy Sparrow (NOIRTECH RESEARCH, INC.)Roy Sparrow was a likable hustler, huckster, and self-promoter who throughout his life appeared to be in perpetual motion. While living in Pittsburgh, Sparrow juggled multiple occupations. He was a shoe salesman, worked for two newspapers, and developed a reputation for local sports promotions. He was a determined, albeit unsuccessful, entrepreneur who opened and closed a billiard parlor, a miniature-golf course, two cafes, and a bakery.

Sparrow’s involvement in professional baseball started with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He served as a promoter for three Negro National League teams and is often credited with idea for the first East-West Classic all-star game and for the “four-team doubleheader” series format. Sparrow got his start in Negro League baseball under the tutelage of Gus Greenlee and until 1935 was the main publicity man for the Crawfords. Sparrow reinvented himself numerous times, but his association with Alejandro “Alex” Pompez, the numbers racketeer and owner of the New York Cubans, precipitated his ultimate fall from grace. He recovered only to experience disappointment once more with the abysmal and short-lived 1939 Washington Black Senators, which turned out to be his final professional association with any Negro National League team.

Roy William Sparrow was born on February 2, 1900, in Indian Rock, Virginia, to Lucian H. and Lillie (Howe) Sparrow. Indian Rock was a small community on the James River in Botetourt County, in west-central Virginia. Sparrow descended from a long line of Virginia-born freedmen whose trade of choice on his father’s side of the family was coopering – making wooden barrels. Roy was the eldest of four children. By 1910 he and his family moved to Alexandria, a Washington suburb, where his father worked primarily as a cooper for the Portner Brewery, but also as a fireman shoveling coal into a steam locomotive.1 In 1915 Roy’s life was turned upside down by the deaths within two months of both of his parents from tuberculosis, which was at the time the leading cause of death in Virginia and the United States.2 Long life expectancies were not in the cards for Roy or his siblings. All four of the Sparrow children died before their 50th birthdays.

Sparrow was a 14-year-old orphan when he was thrust into the working world. During World War I he was employed as a porter in the dining room of the US Naval Base Hospital in Nitro, West Virginia.3 His Army registration documents described him as stout, medium in height, with blue eyes and brown hair.4 After a stint in the explosives industry in Nitro, he found his way to Pittsburgh, where some of his relatives had settled as early as 1917.5 By the early 1920s, Roy was living in Homestead, a steel-mill community near Pittsburgh, where he worked for the Carter Shoe Company. Within two years, he rose from the lowly position of porter to assistant manager.6 About a year after his promotion, the Carter Shoe Company went bankrupt,7 but Roy didn’t miss a step. He formed a partnership and reopened the store under a new name, the Almar Boot Shop.8 It was during these early years as a salesman that Sparrow honed his promotional skills and curried favor with local newspapermen who were willing to publish his advertising copy as “news.” For example, while he was with Carter Shoes, the Pittsburgh Courier ran a story about Roy’s meteoric rise thanks to his “enviable record” as a salesman.9 There was no byline on the Courier feature, but there is no doubt as to the author – it was Roy Sparrow.

Sparrow’s participation in any one of Pittsburgh’s many sports leagues was most likely limited to the sidelines, although it is possible that he did play on some local teams in the 1920s. On occasion a player named Sparrow appeared on the roster for local football, basketball, and baseball teams. But since no first names were included in the brief game summaries, it is difficult to determine if it was really Roy. He may have been the defensive lineman identified as Sparrow on the Pittsburgh Courier Collegians football squad, the “Negro champions of Western Pennsylvania,” in 1924.10 The florid reporting on the Collegians’ games in the Courier points to Roy being involved with the team.11 He was linked to local basketball leagues, was with the Carter Shoe Five for several years, and in 1927 was named as the coach of the Pittsburgh Courier Big 5.12 As for baseball, Sparrow’s name cropped up a few times in the late 1920s and early 1930s, mainly with the Crawfords, but any evidence to suggest that he actually played baseball is inconclusive. Sparrow’s physique and talents were better suited to promoting the game rather than playing it.

In the late 1920s, as Sparrow was becoming more involved with the Crawfords, his life was as frenetic as it was complicated. In 1928, while he contributed sports stories and theater reviews for the Courier, he opened the Cloverdale Sandwich Shop on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District.13 The Courier story about the shop trumpeted that place as the “newest lunch sensation in the upper Hill District.14 But apparently it was not sensational enough. The Cloverdale closed within months. In 1929 Sparrow was hired as a traveling salesman by the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph to market the newspaper to “race readers” in cities in western Pennsylvania.15 That same year, with partner Lewis Harrington, he opened Lew-Roy Billiards, on Wylie Avenue.16 But this was no ordinary billiard parlor. It was advertised as the “Hilltops Most Beautiful Resort,” a place with laundry services, a newsstand, and the “daintiest luncheon in town.”17 Lew-Roy Billiards failed within a year.

Details about Roy Sparrow’s personal life as an adult are sparse and, at best, opaque. The only evidence to indicate that he was ever married comes via Pittsburgh city directory listings. In 1929, Roy and Teresa Sparrow lived on Barnett Way in the Middle Hill neighborhood.18 His marriage can be counted among his many failed partnerships and was dissolved by 1930. In 1930, his “wife” claimed she was a “widow,” even though Roy was still very much alive.19 When she married Sparrow, she was the widow of Alphonso DeLouvpre and had a teenage son. By describing herself as a widow in 1930, Teresa was shading the truth. At the time, it was not uncommon for a divorcee to hide the shame of a failed marriage with the veil of widowhood. After divorcing Roy, she not only reclaimed her widowhood, but also her identity as Teresa DeLouvpre, the name she used until her death in 1975. Although Sparrow never remarried after his union with Teresa was dissolved, his death certificate stated his marital status as “widowed.”20

In the early 1930s, the newly single Sparrow combined his flair for entrepreneurship and promotion with his passion for sports. For example, he used the Courier to advertise a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Crawford Giants and the Stowe Civics that was being staged to benefit a local orphanage.21 Likewise, the Courier announced Sparrow’s opening of Madam Queen’s, an indoor miniature-golf course in the Hill District that featured “an alluring layout” including a “Fresh Air Taxi” flivver.”22 Madam Queen’s was a curious choice as a name for Roy’s business: she was a character in the “Amos ’n’ Andy” cartoon strip – an African-American woman who was also a bigamist – and the object of editorial scorn by the Courier.23 The Fresh Air Taxi was also a reference to the racially inflammatory comic strip.24 The golf course didn’t last a year and Sparrow was back in the shoe business as the “new floor manager” of Mack’s Shoe Store on Wylie Avenue.25

By the summer of 1932, Sparrow was hitting his showmanship stride. A shoe salesman, Sparrow took credit for the “well-shod feet” of Gus Greenlee and William “Woogie” Harris, a well-known denizen of the Crawford Grill. Like Greenlee, Harris was a successful numbers game runner.26 More importantly, Sparrow devised a splashy promotion for a game between the Crawfords and the Baltimore Black Sox that featured “long distance throwing, accurate throwing by catchers, accurate throwing by outfielders, fungo hitting, and a one hundred yard dash.”27 He boasted that Satchel Paige would challenge a Black Sox player to a “special backward race around the bases.”28 One of the stated intentions of the event was to “give fans an opportunity” to witness the high level of talent on display in the Negro leagues, which was equal to that of white players.29 The dash and baserunning contests were won by the “rabbit-like Ted Page, fleet Crawford outfielder.”30 Pittsburgh’s Josh Gibson won the long-distance throwing challenge and Baltimore’s Robert “Bob” Clarke took the catchers’ accuracy event.31 In the end, Paige did not participate. He complained of a sore ankle and begged out.32 Although Sparrow’s special promotion for the Crawfords game does not appear to have been repeated that year, it does shed some insight on how his innovative thinking influenced the creation of the East-West Classic and his four-team doubleheaders.

Of all Roy Sparrow’s accomplishments, he is most closely tied to the origin of the Negro League East-West Classic All-Star Game, which debuted at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in the late summer of 1933. But before he basked in the glowing reviews of the East-West game, Sparrow’s year got off to a rocky start. In early 1933, he and a partner opened the Grenada Grill on Watt Street in the Hill District. They invested heavily in the venture by “extensively remodeling the interior.”33 Like his failed indoor miniature-golf course, the Grenada turned out to be subpar. By mid-June it had closed and Sparrow was looking for his next opportunity.34 Two weeks later, on July 6, 1933, the National and American Leagues staged their first All-Star game, at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Plans for a similar contest for Negro League teams had yet to be put to paper. That was about to change and Sparrow was ready to get in the game.

On September 10, 1933, about 25,000 fans braved the soggy weather to witness the debut of the Negro League East-West Classic, in which the West defeated the East, 11-7.35 How did the game, which evolved into the most popular and profitable promotion in Negro baseball history, come to fruition in such a short period of time? The answer usually points to Roy Sparrow. Larry Lester asserts that the spectacle was the “brainchild” of Sparrow and Bill Nunn of the Courier, and that these two men then took the concept to Greenlee, after a meeting earlier that evening with Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays failed to yield a commitment.36 Alan Cohen credits Sparrow, Nunn, and Greenlee as originators of the East-West Game, as well as King Cole, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, and Chester L. Washington and John L. Clark of the Courier.37 In 1939 Washington acknowledged Sparrow’s role in the birth of the East-West game and claimed Sparrow laid “much of the ground floor work” and “paved the way” for the long-term success of the event.38 Mark Whitaker, in his book, Smoketown, states that “Roy Sparrow, black stringer for the Sun-Telegraph, had been floating the idea of a black all-star game for some time.”39

Should Sparrow be granted sole authorship for the East-West Classic? That is difficult to determine, because there was very little in the way of contemporaneous reporting on the evolution of the game. Nearly all of the accountings of its origin came years after it was first played, and long after most of the actors had left the scene. Such was the case in 1942, when Posey claimed that the concept of an “all-star Colored” game was a “pet idea of Roy Sparrow,” and that the original vision was for the game to be held at Yankee Stadium as a benefit for the New York Milk Fund Day.40 Posey said that the Milk Fund idea was dropped in favor of a North-South game.41 However, those plans were also scuttled and replaced with the East-West format after Sparrow and Nunn met with Greenlee who, according to Posey, “was a bitter rival of everything and persons connected to the Homestead Grays.”42 Certainly there was no love lost between Posey and Greenlee. Posey’s recollections of the meetings do ring true, however, when compared with other versions of the events. Posey further credits Sparrow with traveling to Chicago and handling promotion of the game, and acknowledged Nunn’s effective use of the Courier to gin up interest in the event.43

By all accounts, Sparrow’s efforts to promote the first East-West Classic were successful, despite the rainy weather – something that even he, the great “champion ballyhoo artist,” could not control.44 He worked with all media outlets to spread the good word about the event, but later found himself doing public-relations damage control when some “insidious propaganda” in “Eastern newspapers” groused that the Classic would be nothing more than a “Chicago-Crawford affair.”45 Sparrow did receive accolades for scoring a major publicity coup when he arranged for a radio interview with Oscar Charleston and Willie Foster on Chicago’s WGN.46 Roy definitely set the stage for the future success of the game. But after the novelty of the Classic died down and the Crawfords’ 1933 season ended, Sparrow went back to the reality of making ends meet in the Hill District.

As in previous years, Sparrow cobbled together a string of jobs to pay the bills in 1934. He worked for the Sun-Telegraph, sold shoes, and assisted Greenlee with the Crawfords. Sparrow handled the publicity for the 1934 East-West Game, but he found himself becoming marginalized by the growing shadow of other publicity hawks, including Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters.47 The 1934 Classic was Sparrow’s last direct association with the event. Meanwhile, Greenlee and others were laying the groundwork for him to move to New York, where columnist Romeo L. Dougherty was touting Sparrow as Greenlee’s “highly efficient” secretary, “a man of good and rare judgment, a fiend for figures and a lightning calculator.”48 Dougherty piled it on by crediting Sparrow with the success of a recent series between the Crawfords and the Black Yankees.49 There is no doubt that Greenlee and Dougherty were greasing the skids for Sparrow to assume the role of business secretary for Alex Pompez’s New York Cubans. Sure enough, in the spring of 1935, the Courier reported that “Roy Sparrow, well-known local publicity man, left last week with Alexander Pompez,” and “will take charge of Pompez’s new ball park [Dyckman Oval] in New York City.”50

And so it came to pass that Roy Sparrow departed Pittsburgh to handle promotions for the New York Cubans, the very team that the Crawfords defeated in the 1935 Negro National League championship series. When Sparrow left Greenlee’s employ to join up with Pompez, he was essentially traded from one larger-than-life numbers game runner to another. Sparrow swapped the Hill for Harlem, and in the process his professional life was forever changed –not necessarily for the better.

One of Sparrow’s main responsibilities with the Cubans was to stage profitable exhibition games including his trademark four-team doubleheaders. By all accounts, he succeeded in that task. One such event in late September 1935, however, drew more derision than praise. At the center of the controversy was Satchel Paige. Sparrow and Greenlee had assured New York fans that Paige would pitch for the Kansas City Monarchs in a tilt with the Chicago American Giants in Yankee Stadium, but Paige was a no-show.51 Cum Posey pounced on this opportunity to castigate both Greenlee and Sparrow for “advertising players to appear at various games when they know positively that these players will not appear,” and called out Paige for what Posey considered to be extortion in the form of demanding “three hundred and fifty dollars in advance.”52 A week later, Sparrow was ridiculed again, this time about an exhibition game he staged between Babe Ruth’s “All Stars” and the Cubans. Joe Bostic of the New York Age mocked what he referred to as the “Pompez Production Co., Inc.,” which featured the Cubans playing a “bunch of guys named ‘Jim’ masquerading as All-Stars.”53 Bostic ended his review with a flourish by adding, “Then came the Babe’s most profitable maneuver of the day, his little tete-a-tete with Roy Sparrow and the collection of his share of the day’s take.”54

The storm clouds that eventually engulfed and destroyed Sparrow’s baseball career began to gather in the spring of 1936, when infighting within the Negro Leagues began to take its toll on their most profitable enterprise, the East-West Classic. Greenlee dropped out and shifted his focus to the management of light-heavyweight boxing champion John Henry Lewis.55 Eastern interests set forth a proposal to move the Classic to Yankee Stadium in July and then stage a four-team doubleheader there in August.56 Critics were outraged by the lack of cooperation within the executive ranks and geographical divisions and charged that the league was violating its own bylaws in failing to share profits from these special events.57 Sparrow was right in the middle of it all. After the dust settled, the 1936 East-West Game remained in Chicago, but Sparrow’s plans for a four-team series in New York moved forward.58 Sparrow sold more than 20,000 tickets for the series and, at least for the owners of the four teams, it appeared to be a lucrative venture.59

In January 1937, Chester L. Washington published a list of suggested new-year resolutions for various sports celebrities, including Roy Sparrow.60 Washington suggested that Sparrow should “do a bigger and better job of baseball ballyhooing and publicizing the crack New York Cubans.”61 As it turned out, Sparrow would have been better advised to lay low and avoid the spotlight. Three months later, while he was representing the Cubans at the Negro National League meeting in New York, the police arrived to question Sparrow as to the whereabouts of his boss, Alex Pompez, who had vanished.62

Suddenly Sparrow found himself at the center of a sensational criminal investigation. Pompez’s association with Dutch Schultz, a fellow numbers game magnate, placed him in the crosshairs of Federal Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey and the Internal Revenue Service.63 When first questioned, Sparrow claimed that he knew nothing of Pompez’s disappearance.64 But after telephone lines at Dyckman Oval were tapped, Sparrow’s conversations with Pompez led the police to Mexico City, where Pompez was arrested.65

Pompez’s escape from New York garnered front-page headlines and generated endless speculation as to how he had eluded the authorities. The press theorized that Pompez had escaped through a secret passage in his office and had flown to Mexico in his private plane, stocked with “bullet-proof vests” and a team of bodyguards comprised of “a dozen desperadoes.”66 After the wiretap placed in him legal peril, Sparrow was spirited off to the Tombs – the Manhattan jail – and held on a $25,000 bond.67 Sparrow’s friends back in Pittsburgh were bewildered and complained that “[t]hey can’t put Roy Sparrow in jail – and in New York, too.”68 To add insult to injury, the Courier chided, “Bet you wish you were home Roy. … [Y]ou know country folks should stay away from the big town.”69 A short time later, he was released from custody and went back to work in hopes of salvaging the Cubans’ 1937 season, but his efforts were in vain. They were locked out of the second-half schedule and were suspended from the Negro National League.70

While Pompez was in Mexico fighting extradition, the Cubans temporarily disbanded, Dyckman Oval was turned over to the Black Yankees, and Sparrow was out of a job.71 As for Pompez, he eventually returned to the United States but famously avoided prison by turning state’s evidence against his fellow racketeers.72 Pompez regained a degree of respectability after his return to New York. He remodeled the Cubans into a minor-league operation and created a pathway for Latin and African American baseball players to sign with the major-league teams.73 Pompez was posthumously inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.74

After being set adrift in New York as a result of Pompez’s misdeeds, Sparrow spent the next three years in a tenuous relationship with baseball. His friends in the press tried to keep his name in the papers, including one fantastical account by New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers about how Sparrow claimed to have discovered Josh Gibson.75 This story appears to have been based on conversations between Sparrow and Powers and had not previously been published in a Pittsburgh newspaper. According to Powers, Sparrow was a “coach” for the 1928 Pittsburgh Junior Crawfords when, as he drove down a road, “a baseball came flying over an incline and smacked into the radiator.”76 While inspecting the damage to his truck, he “spied a diamond 500 feet away,” where one boy [Josh Gibson], who was “particularly shamefaced … was carrying a bat at big as a wagon tongue.”77 Sparrow supposedly offered Josh a contract with the Crawfords and with that, Gibson was summarily “shanghaied on the spot.”78

Even the mildest of skeptics would have a hard time swallowing this event. For example, how could he have determined that Gibson was “shamefaced” from 500 feet away? But the main problem with this story is that it does not square with other accounts of how Gibson was scouted and signed. Bill Johnson’s excellent biography of Gibson points to Crawfords manager Harold “Hooks” Tinker, not Sparrow, as the one who signed Gibson to a Crawfords contract in 1927.79 If Sparrow had recruited Gibson in such a “made for Hollywood” fashion, it would have been sensationalized in the baseball-centric Courier when it was alleged to have happened, but it was not. Only years – decades – after Gibson joined the Crawfords did Sparrow’s version of events come to light, and only in New York-based newspapers.

After his disastrous year in New York, Sparrow tried to get back on his horse and ride out the 1938 baseball season on the backs of the newly minted Washington Black Senators. He was hired as the team’s business manager, but he didn’t have much to manage. The Black Senators were rated as one of the worst nines ever to participate in the Negro National League, and the team folded before the end of the season.80 But for Sparrow, there was at least one familiar face from Pittsburgh on the squad – pitcher Harry Kincannon, who played for the Crawfords when Sparrow was with the club. The Black Senators won no more than two league games and Kincannon was responsible for one of those victories.

With the collapse of the Black Senators, Sparrow retreated to New York City but was unable to find employment when baseball resumed in the spring of 1939. He was, however, present for the staging of the second of two East-West Classics that were held that year. The first was at Comiskey Park and the second was played at Yankee Stadium. The exact nature of Sparrow’s responsibilities is unclear, but that didn’t stop his friends in the press from doing their best to amplify Sparrow’s importance to the game, if only to recall his past glories. Chester L. Washington of the Courier and Alvin “Al” Moses of the Associated Negro Press devoted considerable space in their columns to lauding his previous contributions to the Classic, presenting him as an indefatigable force of nature.81 They claimed that had it not been for his media and promotional mastery, there would never have been an East-West game.82 Moses admonished his followers not to “make the mistake of pinning the medal for best public relations men in baseball on anyone who fails to answer to the name of Roy Sparrow or Frank Forbes.”83

All of this well-intentioned puffery did little to improve Sparrow’s career. According to the 1940 Census, he was unemployed and received no cash income for all of 1939.84 For Sparrow, who was used to rubbing elbows with the elite and powerful, his state of poverty must have been a humbling experience. He shared an apartment in New York with a cousin and three others. Roy was fortunate to have relatives to take him in, but clearly he was without financial resources or professional prospects. As one indication as to how far off the baseball radar he had fallen, a subscriber to the Atlanta Daily World sent in this question: “What has happened to Roy Sparrow, the ‘Forgotten Man,’ who staged all the important games between National Negro league clubs?”85 Perhaps by 1940, his “fifteen minutes of fame” were up.

Destitution and irrelevance were not, however, the sorts of barriers that Sparrow was willing to abide. In March 1940 he was spotted in Chicago at a joint meeting of the Negro National League and Negro American League that was called to discuss strategies to combat the “South American promoters” who were signing away the leagues’ top players.86 Sparrow’s presence was noted, but schmoozing with his former associates did nothing to enhance his state of unemployment. Al Moses continued to do his best to keep his friend’s name in the papers and in his column for the Associated Negro Press, proclaiming that “Roy Sparrow and Frank Forbes are two of the best front executive men in Negro baseball, and we’d like to see them receive the sort of money for their services, the job they perform, calls for.”87 Moses’ plea was answered – but not to Sparrow’s benefit. It was Forbes, not Sparrow, who got the job of promoting Negro League games at Yankee Stadium, while Sparrow, it was reported, was “ousted from this post in the Chicago meeting.”88

And with that, the door on Roy Sparrow’s baseball career closed for good. He left New York and returned to friendlier confines in Pittsburgh, where he resumed his entrepreneurial adventures by opening yet another short-lived business, a bakery in the Hill District.89 His allies at the Courier, however, continued to tout Sparrow as the greatest thing since sliced bread and urged baseball executives to give their friend a second look. Wendell Smith called upon Tom Wilson, president of the Negro National League, to hire Sparrow to take over publicity duties for the 1941 season.90 Smith boasted:

“I have in mind a gentleman who could sell snowballs to an Eskimo. He can also sell Negro League baseball if given the opportunity. He is Roy Sparrow, who played an all important part in selling four-team doubleheaders to New York fandom, and was once Alex Pompez’s first lieutenant with the Cuban Stars [sic]. Of course there are many who claim credit for selling the four-team bills to New York fans but this Mr. Sparrow, boys and girls, is the guy who put it over. He concocted some of the most ingenious ideas ever used to sell baseball.”91

Smith wrapped up his sales pitch by asking if “Tom Wilson knows someone better for this proposed job than Roy Sparrow. … He’s got the greatest since Barnum!”92 Smith played up Sparrow’s New York connections, asserting that he was known from “the Bowery to the very top of Fifth Avenue’s exclusive penthouses,” but in the same breath downplayed Sparrow’s association with Pompez and any unsavory connections to numbers racketeers.93 But as columnist Dan Burley noted later, while Sparrow was well-liked, “he did have a few professional enemies.”94

When spring training began in 1942, more than three years had passed since Sparrow had played an active role with the Negro National League. He was back in Pittsburgh working for the Courier, hustling for advertising sales. On Valentine’s Day in 1942, he registered for the World War II draft.95 Sparrow was not called to serve. His work on the home front consisted of drumming up advertising revenue for the Courier and on occasion sharing a pithy comment or two for columnist Lucius Jones’s “The Sports Roundup.”96 The week before he registered for the draft, Sparrow was considering a different kind of draft – an advertising campaign in the Courier for the Pabst Brewing Company that was hoping to expand its African-American consumer base.97

In late May 1943, about three months after having his photo taken with the Pabst representatives, Sparrow was in Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh being treated for heart failure.98 Lucius Jones may have had lifting Sparrow’s spirits in mind when he reminded readers that Sparrow was “one of Negro baseball’s most successful promoters,” and “popularized three and four-team double-headers between colored pro nines in white major league ball parks.”99 But Sparrow’s condition did not improve and by mid-June he was described as a “shut-in.”100 He was readmitted to the hospital and died there on July 31, 1943, at 5:30 A.M., from cardiac failure and complications from hypertension.101 The informant who signed his death certificate was a cousin with whom he lived after his return to Pittsburgh.

The night before Roy Sparrow died, sports editor Wendell Smith was finishing his column for the Saturday edition of the Courier. The East-West Classic was to be played in Chicago on Sunday. Smith devoted his entire column to the history and significance of the game and to Sparrow:

“Roy Sparrow, the super-salesman, the man who ‘sold’ the idea and had a dream that is now a $300,000 reality, is fast to a bed in a Pittsburgh hospital fighting for his life. I am no sentimentalist, but I’m wondering if in the midst of all this drama, during the course of this great spectacle, just a moment can’t be allowed to pay homage to Roy Sparrow. I’m wondering if President Wilson and Martin, and the other officials of the classic, won’t take the time to look back eleven years and remember the contribution that Roy Sparrow made. If they will, I’m sure they’ll allow us to stand together Sunday. … all 50,000 of us … for a moment in silence as a tribute to a grand guy, whose dream and ingenuity has made all of this possible. This one humane gesture, and expression of appreciation, may save a man’s life!”102

Per Smith’s request, there was indeed a moment of silence offered up for Sparrow at the East-West Classic. By then it was a mourning moment rather than a hopeful one. At the conclusion of the fifth inning, a reported 51,723 fans, the largest attendance in the game’s history, paid tribute.103 Two days later, on August 3, 1933, Roy Sparrow was laid to rest in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Two other Crawfords notables are also buried in Allegheny Cemetery, Josh Gibson and Gus Greenlee.

Smith’s first column after Sparrow’s death was a passionate and personal tribute to his late friend:

“Drape the flag of baseball at half-mast … Another of the game’s illustrious pioneers has been called out by the Great Umpire! Roy Sparrow, friend of a million or more, and promoter extraordinary, is dead!”

At the end of his eulogy, Smith added this sentiment:

“It’s too bad we had to wait so long to give Roy the pat on the back he deserved. It’s too bad we didn’t give him the credit due a long time ago. But that’s life, I guess. We usually wait until it’s all over before we realize our error. Look how we treated Abe Lincoln and some of the others. It would have been nice if Roy could have been here for this record-breaking promotion today. If he could have been here long enough to have seen this tremendous crowd. … I know he would have been thrilled beyond all expression. He would have been the happiest man in this ball park.”104

When Roy Sparrow died in the summer of 1943, he had no wife or children to mourn his loss or tell his story. He left nothing in the way of a material estate to provide evidence of his legacy. Most of what has been written about Sparrow has been told through the gauzy memories of others and through his own spin on the truth. His accomplishments in baseball, both real and imagined, were made possible by the deep pockets of the rich and the near-empty pockets of the poor who funded the gambling operations of his most notable bosses, Gus Greenlee and Alex Pompez. When Greenlee shipped Sparrow off to New York to promote the Cubans for Pompez, it was the beginning of the end of Sparrow’s career. His greatest sphere of influence was the Hill District, not Harlem. At heart, he was a salesman, a hustler and huckster. If someone gave him an idea, he would run with it and make it better.

Can Sparrow be definitively credited with the idea for the East-West Classic, and four-team doubleheaders – two of the most profitable ventures ever produced by the Negro Leagues? The conflicting archival evidence makes one wish that instant replay had existed in 1933 because we may never know. But there is no doubt that Roy Sparrow was a key player in turning two of the most exciting and lucrative double-marketing-plays in Negro League history.

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Rich Bogovich and Alan Cohen for generously sharing their resective research materials on Roy Sparrow.

 

Notes

1 Commonwealth of Virginia Certificate of Death, Lucien Sparrow, November 9, 1915; US Census Bureau, Census of Population, 1910.

2 Krystyn R. Moon, A Brief History of Public Health in Alexandria and Alexandria’s Public Health Department (Fredericksburg, Virginia: University of Mary Washington, 2014), 22.

3 US Army Registration Card and Registrar’s Report, “Roy William Sparrow,” September 6, 1918.

4 US Army Registration Card and Registrar’s Report, “Roy William Sparrow.”

5 R.L. Polk’s Pittsburgh City Directory (Pittsburgh: R.L. Polk & Co. Publishers, 1917), 2326.

6 “Assistant Manager in Carter Shoe Store,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 31, 1924: 5.

7 “Legal Notices,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 28, 1925: 21.

8 “New Shoe Store to Be Opened in Homestead Next Saturday,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 6, 1924: 5.

9 “Assistant Manager in Carter Shoe Store.”

10 “Courier Collegians Claim Independent State Title,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 13, 1924: 7.

11 “Courier Collegians Lose Hard-Fought Game,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 25, 1924: 7.

12 Shelkie, “Cage Capers,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 29, 1927: 18.

13 “Satisfied Patrons Promoting Success of Sandwich Shop,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 15, 1928: 11.

14 “Satisfied Patrons Promoting Success of Sandwich Shop.”

15 “Local Circulation Man Returns from Successful Tour,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 22, 1930: 17.

16 “Lew-Roy Billiards,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 7, 1929: 11.

17 “Lew-Roy Billiards.”

18 R.L. Polk’s Pittsburgh City Directory (Pittsburgh: R L. Polk & Co. Publishers, 1929), 2083.

19 US Census Bureau, 1930 Census of Population.

20 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics Certificate of Death, “Mr. Roy Sparrow,” July 31, 1943.

21 “Thrills Promised in Crawford Benefit Tilt,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 19, 1930: 14.

22 “Plan Golf Tourney on Unique New Course,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 18, 1930: 14.

23 Holloway, “After Two Years of Reckless Driving,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 16, 1931: 11.

24 Holloway, “After Two Years of Reckless Driving.”

25 “Mack’s Shoe Store Ranks as Finest in the Hill District,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 12, 1931: 5.

26 “Mack’s Plan Greatest Shoe Sale in History,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 11, 1932: 19.

27 “Big Field Day Here Saturday,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 30, 1932: 14.

28 “Big Field Day Here Saturday.”

29 “Big Field Day Here Saturday.”

30 “Arm of Josh, Legs of Ted Hits of Meet,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 6, 1932: 15.

31 “Arm of Josh, Legs of Ted Hits of Meet.”

32 “Arm of Josh, Legs of Ted Hits of Meet.”

33 John L. Clarke, “Wylie Avenue,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 3, 1933: 6.

34 Clarke.

35 Chester L. Washington, “‘Mules’ Suttles Scorching Homer Blazed West’s ‘Victory Trail’ in East-West Classic,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 16, 1933: 14.

36 Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 21-22.

37 Alan Cohen, “Negro Baseball at Comiskey Park: The East West Game (1933-1960): An All-Star Legacy,” Gregory H. Wolf, ed., The Baseball Palace of the World: Comiskey Park (Phoenix: SABR, 2019), 19-26.

38 Chester L. Washington Jr., “Sez Ches,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 9, 1939: 16.

39 Mark Whitaker, Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 111.

40 Cum Posey, “Posey’s Points,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 15, 1942: 16.

41 “Posey’s Points.”

42 “Posey’s Points.”

43 “Posey’s Points.”

44 John L. Clarke, “Wylie Avenue,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 1, 1933: 7.

45 William G. Nunn, “WGN Sports Broadcast Talks,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 16, 1933: 15.

46 Nunn.

47 Chester L. Washington, “Sez Ches,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 15, 1934: 15.

48 Romeo L. Dougherty, “Sports,” New York Age, September 29, 1934: 10.

49 Dougherty.

50 Harry Beale, “Local Sports Slants,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 25, 1935: 18.

51 “Paige Coming with Kans. City Monarchs,” New York Amsterdam News, October 5, 1935: 12.

52 Cum Posey, “Pointed Paragraphs,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 28, 1935: 15.

53 Joe Bostic, “Latins Hand Babe Ruth and his Team Lacing,” New York Amsterdam News, October 5, 1935: 12.

54 Bostic.

55 John L. Clark, “Big Internal Baseball War Looms,” Chicago Defender, November 7, 1936: 15.

56 “American Giants Fired by League, New York Amsterdam News, May 23, 1936: 14.

57 W.R. Wilson, “National Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 8, 1936: 16.

58 “Four-Game Double Is on Diamond Fan Fare,” New York Amsterdam News, August 15, 1936: 15.

59 “Black Yankees Triumph,” New York Times, August 17, 1936: 10; “Cuban Hurler Falls Before Vet of Yanks,” New York Amsterdam News, August 22, 1936: 14.

60 Chester L. Washington, “Sez Ches,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 2, 1937: 14.

61 Washington, “Sez Ches.”

62 Ken Jessamy, “Things and Stuff,” New York Amsterdam News, March 27, 1937: 16.

63 “Phone Call Traps Pompez,” New York Amsterdam News, April 3, 1937: 1, 23.

64 “Phone Call Traps Pompez.”

65 “Phone Call Traps Pompez.”

66 “Phone Call Traps Pompez.”

67 “Pompez Took in $34,000 Daily!,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 10, 1937: 1.

68 “Talk O’ Town,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 10, 1937: 9.

69 “Talk O’ Town.”

70 Lewis Dial, “The Sports Dial,” New York Age, June 26, 1937: 8.

71 “Black Yanks Take Over Dyckman Oval; Cuban Team Is Disbanded,” New York Age, April 17, 1937: 8.

72 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers Inc., 1994), 633, 634.

73 Riley, 634.

74 “Alex Pompez,” Baseball Hall of Fame, accessed online at: https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/pompez-alex.

75 Jimmy Powers, “The Power House,” New York Daily News, August 27, 1939: 75.

76 Powers.

77 Powers.

78 Powers.

79 Bill Johnson, “Josh Gibson,” SABR BioProject, accessed online: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/df02083c.

80 Riley, 820.

81 Chester L. Washington, “Sez Ches,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 9, 1939: 6; Al Moses, “Beatin’ the Gun,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 19, 1939: 11.

82 Al Moses, “Beatin’ the Gun,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 19, 1939: 11.

83 Moses, “Beatin’ the Gun,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 14, 1939: 16.

84 US Census Bureau, 1940 Census of Population.

85 Lucius Jones and Al Moses, “Slants on Sports,” Atlanta Daily World, April 23, 1940: 5.

86 Daniel, “Baseball Magnates Try to Hold Players,” New York Amsterdam News, March 2, 1940: 19.

87 Alvin Moses, “Beatin’ the Gun,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 8, 1940: 16.

88 “Newark Still League Club,” New York Amsterdam News, March 8, 1941: 19.

89 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sport Shorts,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 18, 1941: 17.

90 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sport Shorts,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 22, 1941: 17.

91 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sport Shorts”: 17.

92 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sport Shorts”: 17.

93 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sport Shorts”: 17.

94 Dan Burley, “Confidentially Yours,” New York Amsterdam News, August 14, 1943: 15.

95 US Army World War II Draft Registration Card, “Roy William Sparrow,” February 14, 1942.

96 Lucius Jones, “The Sports Roundup,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 24, 1943: 19.

97 “Pabst Representative Maps District Sales Campaign,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 6, 1943: 23.

98 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sports Spurts,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 29, 1943: 18.

99 Lucius Jones, “The Sports Roundup,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 29, 1943: 19.

100 Toki Schalk, “Toki Types,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 19, 1943: 10.

101 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics Certificate of Death, “Mr. Roy Sparrow,” July 31, 1943.

102 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sports Shorts,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 31, 1943: 19.

103 “Roy Sparrow Dies in Pa.,” Baltimore Afro-American, August 7, 1943: 23.

104 Wendell Smith, “Smitty’s Sport Shorts,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 7, 1943: 19.

Full Name

Roy William Sparrow

Born

February 2, 1900 at Indian Rock, VA (US)

Died

July 31, 1943 at Pittsburgh, PA (US)

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