Russ Cowans (NEWSPAPERS.COM)

Russ Cowans

This article was written by Donna L. Halper

Russ Cowans (NEWSPAPERS.COM)Russell J. “Russ” Cowans was known in Detroit as the “Dean of Black Sportswriters.”1 In fact, during the 1920s and 1930s, he was that city’s only full-time Black sports reporter. The Detroit Tribune, the newspaper for which he wrote during that era, was located on St. Antoine Street, and because he was so knowledgeable about sports, some of his colleagues jokingly referred to him as The Sage of St. Antoine.2

Cowans covered a wide range of college and professional sports during his career, but he especially loved boxing and Negro Leagues baseball, and he became a major booster of golf—a sport that the Black community was just beginning to embrace.3 Early in his career, he was one of the first Black reporters to cover the crime beat, focusing on news of the police department and the courts. And he also was a photographer, whose news photos often appeared in the newspapers where he worked.4

Cowans, who was sometimes described as being short in stature, (his 1918 draft card said he stood five feet five inches tall), was well-known for being a stylish dresser. He always looked dapper, whether he was covering a news story, or going to a boxing match, or listening to music at an after-hours club.5

During a reporting career that lasted more than four decades, his sports articles appeared in many of the best-known Black newspapers; his work also appeared in national publications like The Sporting News.6 And when veteran sportswriter and editor Frank A. “Fay” Young retired from the Chicago Defender in 1949, it was Cowans who took his place.7

According to the 1900 US Census, Russell Jerome Cowans was born on July 29, 1895, in Centre, Alabama, a city about 25 miles from Gadsden. He was one of three children of Green Cowan, a farmer, and his wife Ollie (née Sharp). On later census forms, the last name was spelled Cowans, and that is the spelling Russ used throughout his life. There is some question about his year and place of birth, with various documents offering contradictory information. For example, his 1918 draft card said he was born in Chicago in 1896; his 1942 draft card said he was born in Centre, Alabama—but in 1899. Newspaper sources usually said he was born in Chicago, and 1899 was the most common date given.8 However, the 1900 census noted that Russ spent his first four years in Centre, after which, his family moved to Chicago, where he was raised. His father died there in 1907, when Russ was still a boy, and his mother subsequently remarried; otherwise, there is little information about his childhood.

According to newspaper colleagues, he attended Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago,9 where he played for the basketball, football, and baseball teams. Some sources have said he studied for a year at the Detroit Institute of Technology.10 Other sources have claimed he graduated from the University of Michigan.11 But these claims are difficult to verify: most records from the era when Cowans might have attended the Detroit Institute have not survived, and archivists at the University of Michigan have found no record that he was ever a student there.

However, there is some evidence that he took several adult education courses in journalism while working in Chicago during the late 1940s.12 In a 1971 interview, conducted when Cowans was in his seventies, he recalled taking those courses at Northwestern University.13 Yet the archivist at Northwestern found no records for him there either. (She did note that records for night school students who only took one or two courses were incomplete.)

Similar problems arise when doing newspaper research about him: some publications referred to him as Russ Cowan, rather than his preferred spelling of Russ Cowans. During his reporting career, he wrote under a few different bylines: Russ Cowans, Russell Cowans, Russ J. Cowans, and Russell J. Cowans. And there is one other problem for anyone seeking to read his work: while some of his columns, such as many articles he wrote for the Chicago Defender and Detroit Tribune, have been digitized, many others, especially those from the Michigan Chronicle, have not.

After serving in the Army during World War I, Cowans began his journalism career in Detroit, in the early 1920s. He worked for several small Black newspapers, including the Detroit Owl, published by John W. Roxborough, and the Detroit Peoples News, published by Beulah A. Young. Although he would later be known exclusively as a sportswriter, during the early stages of his career, he was a general assignment reporter: he covered local news that affected the Black community, in addition to writing about local entertainers, and sometimes covering Black college athletics.

By the late 1920s, Cowans was writing about sports more frequently; he especially became known for his coverage of the Negro Leagues’ Detroit Stars. (Cowans was not only a devoted fan of the team: he served as their official scorer during the mid-1920s.)14 It was in 1928 when his articles about the Stars began to get published in Black newspapers outside of Detroit—including the Baltimore Afro-American,15 the Pittsburgh Courier,16 and the Chicago Defender.17 The Stars, managed by Elwood “Bingo” DeMoss, were having a winning season, led by slugger Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, who hit 24 homers, and pitcher George Mitchell, whom Cowans referred to as a “sterling right-hander”18 (he won 14 games that year19). But while hopes had been high for the Stars to win the pennant, the team only finished third in 1928. Still, Cowans had no problem finding positive stories to tell, especially about the support the Stars received from the fans: even on the days when the team lost, large crowds often filled the ballpark to watch them play.20 And one other important event took place that year: Cowans married Otea Evans. They had a son, Russell Jr., but the marriage later ended in divorce.

When the Chicago Defender decided to inaugurate a weekly Detroit edition, sometime in 1929, the editors chose Cowans to be their “representative,” or what we today would call a correspondent. 21 Among his duties was writing a column about local news from Detroit, familiarizing the Defender’s readers with the key newsmakers in the Black community there. He also covered Detroit’s sports scene, especially when it involved Negro Leagues baseball. For example, he reported on when the Negro National League owners came to Detroit for a meeting in late January 1930, to discuss ongoing financial problems, and to find a solution for where the Stars would be playing (their previous ballpark on Mack Avenue was destroyed in a fire).22 But later that year, he expressed his disappointment with how the 1930 season was going—attendance was noticeably down, in large part due to the location of the new stadium—it was in Hamtramck, about ten miles from Detroit, and much harder for fans to get to. Cowans, who was not shy about expressing his opinion, took John Roesink, the team’s white owner, to task for not doing more to keep Turkey Stearnes, as well as being so tightfisted that the Stars’ players sometimes didn’t have meal money, and making racist remarks about the Black press.23

Throughout the early to mid-1930s, Cowans continued to contribute Detroit news, as well as the occasional sports column, to the Defender. However, by 1933, he had joined the Detroit Tribune.24 There he began writing a weekly column called “Thru the Sport Mirror,” while also covering local athletics, including college football, track, boxing, basketball, and Negro Leagues baseball. As of 1931, his beloved Detroit Stars, along with the Negro National League, had ceased to operate; but Cowans continued reporting on the other teams in the Negro Leagues, while also keeping his readers up to date on where former members of the Stars were playing, and how they were doing.25 He also reported on the attempts to bring a Negro Leagues franchise back to Detroit.26 And while he was mainly a sportswriter by this time, he sometimes still covered some news. For example, he was sent to cover a track meet in Chicago, and he also reported on the 1933 annual NAACP conference, which was being held in that city around the same time.27

In 1934, Cowans left what was now called the Detroit Tribune Independent to work at the Detroit Guardian as sports editor.28 Then, in 1935, his love of boxing, along with the fact that he had previously worked for John Roxborough at the Detroit Owl, brought him a new opportunity. Roxborough was now co-manager of an up-and-coming Detroit boxer named Joe Louis, and Cowans was hired to be Louis’s private tutor and personal secretary. The reason for a tutor, according to Cowans, was that Louis had not had much education, and with his growing popularity, he was concerned that his conversational skills would prove inadequate when he was interviewed. Cowans told reporters that he was tutoring Louis in history, geography, and grammar, as well as doing Bible studies with him.29 How much of this actually happened (versus how much was an effort to create a positive image for the boxer) is not known. We do know, however, that Cowans helped Louis with answering fan mail, while also serving as the boxer’s publicist. This meant that Cowans sent press releases to newspapers, set up interviews, and kept sportswriters up-to-date on Louis’s latest exploits.30

Although he worked with Joe Louis until about 1937, Cowans did not entirely give up his journalism career. Sometime in 1936, he became the managing editor of a new publication, the Detroit Chronicle (later known as the Michigan Chronicle).31 In June 1937, Cowans returned to the Detroit Tribune, where he was named city editor, sports reporter, and special events photographer.32 He resumed his weekly “Thru the Sport Mirror” column (sometimes, the newspaper printed it as “Thru the Sports Mirror”), and he continued providing local Detroit news for other Black publications, often under the title “Around the Motor City.” By 1940, Cowans’ name could be seen on the Tribune’s masthead as its managing editor.

In March 1942, the Black press announced the creation of the Negro Major Baseball League of America, and Cowans was involved with it from its inception. The new league’s headquarters was in Chicago, with Robert R. Jackson (a long-time Chicago political figure and former head of the Negro American League) serving as president. Legendary football player Fritz Pollard was named vice president, and Cowans was the league’s secretary. There were six teams, and one of them, the Chicago Brown Bombers, was to be managed by former Detroit Stars manager Bingo DeMoss.33 And in news that undoubtedly made Cowans happy, one of the new franchises was the Detroit Black Sox.34 That club was to be managed by former pitcher Charlie Henry, who had been a 10-game winner when he played for the Detroit Stars in 1929.35 The league, funded by white sports executive Abe Saperstein, was controversial from the start. Critics like Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier perceived it as mainly a money-maker for Saperstein, but not of the caliber of the Negro American and National Leagues.36 Cumberland “Cum” Posey was also highly critical of the venture, although he praised Robert Jackson and Russ Cowans.37 The new league only lasted one season, and folded by the end of 1942.

As for Cowans, he continued writing about sports for the Tribune. He also continued his involvement with professional boxing: because he was so knowledgeable about the sport, Michigan Governor Harry Kelly appointed him to that state’s Boxing Commission in 1943, and he was reappointed by Governor Kim Sigler in 1947. Cowans worked for the Tribune till about 1946, when he rejoined the Michigan Chronicle as a reporter and the newspaper’s managing editor.

Meanwhile, in 1945, Cowans had remarried: his new wife was Thelma McTyre, among the few Black female golfers competing in tournaments at that time. Cowans had developed an interest in golf in the 1930s and began writing about it regularly, covering tournaments, as well as advocating for more golf courses to welcome Black players.38 And while this marriage would also later end in divorce, his love of golf endured. Beginning around 1951, he debuted “Down the Fairway” in the Chicago Defender; it was perhaps the first regular golf column in any Black newspaper.

In April 1946, a group of reporters and columnists from various Black publications in Detroit and Pittsburgh united to create the Motor City Press Club. In addition to being an organization where members could get together and socialize, the club also sought to perform community service, and they invited guest speakers with expertise in journalism. Cowans, who had long been respected by his colleagues, was elected the club’s president, a role he held for two years. Then, in the summer of 1948, Cowans experienced one of his proudest moments as a sportswriter when he went to London to cover the Olympics for the Black press.39 He was one of the few Black reporters to do so.

Cowans resigned from the Chronicle in 1949 because he was offered the sports editor job at the Chicago Defender after legendary sports reporter Fay Young, who was in poor health, decided to retire. While in Chicago, Cowans wrote a regular sports column for the Defender called “Russ’ Corner.”40 And now that major league baseball had finally integrated, he began covering it on a regular basis; the Defender assigned him to report on the Chicago White Sox.

But as a reporter for the Black press, he had a slightly different perspective from his white colleagues: while he reported on who got the big hit or who made the big play, he was also interested in how the Black players were being treated. For example, although many major league clubs now had at least one Black player on the team, numerous cities still practiced segregation, which meant these Black players could not stay in the same hotels as their white teammates or eat in the same restaurants. In one incident, in early April 1952, the White Sox had a Grapefruit League exhibition game that was scheduled for Pelican Park in New Orleans, against the Pittsburgh Pirates; but the Sox’ general manager, Frank C. Lane, was informed that integrated teams were not allowed to play in New Orleans. Lane told Cowans that neither he nor manager Paul Richards was willing to leave Black players Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and Hector Rodriguez at home, and the White Sox intended to bring the entire team. And that is exactly what happened. It was the first time that Black players and white players competed together on the same field at the (previously) segregated ballpark.41 But as Cowans pointed out, while their appearance on the field was groundbreaking, neither player was allowed to dress in the clubhouse with their white teammates.42 And New Orleans Item sportswriter Hap Glaudi also noted that the Black fans who attended the game had to sit in a special section reserved for only them.43

Like a few other Black baseball writers who were now covering the Major League Baseball beat, Cowans became a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (which had not integrated till Sam Lacy was admitted in 1948).44 And for the most part, Cowans was accepted wherever he went. But at times, especially when covering games in southern cities, he still encountered racism. For example, when reporting on a 1958 spring training game between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, played in Miami, he was not allowed to sit in the press box with the white sportswriters. And even though he was a credentialed writer, he was told to “buy a ticket” if he wanted to get in.45

Although he frequently wrote about the White Sox, Cowans did not abandon coverage of the Negro Leagues. He sometimes devoted his Defender column to a “where are they now” piece, getting back in touch with the players and managers he knew during his years in Detroit. For example, he reconnected with Bingo DeMoss at an Old Timers event in 1955 and they both exchanged stories about Negro Leagues players from their past.46 Throughout the 1950s, Cowans reported regularly on what was happening to Negro Leagues baseball, and his articles often appeared in The Sporting News.47

But although he had long been a fan and supporter, Cowans was not given to boosterism. He tried to be honest about what remained of the league, and to reflect accurately on its successes and failures. For example, he noted there were times when the games still drew good-sized crowds, such as the 22nd Annual East-West All-Star Game, which took place at Comiskey Park in August 1954 and drew about 10,000 fans.48 Agreed, this was far less than the league’s All-Star games drew during in years past (in 1941, for example, about 50,000 fans were in attendance).49 But in 1954, a crowd of 10,000 still gave owners reasons for hope. By 1959, however, there was far less optimism: teams were having dire financial problems, owners were trying to sell their franchises but getting few offers, and there were serious questions about whether Negro Leagues baseball had come to the end of the road.50

As for Cowans, he eventually left the Defender and moved back to Detroit, where he spent the rest of his life. He returned to work at the Michigan Chronicle, this time as managing editor, and he continued covering local sports, while doing the occasional free-lance article for a national publication or speaking at a sports banquet; he retired from the Chronicle in 1964.51

But there was another side of his life that Cowans rarely discussed: for many years, he still spent much of his free time working as a mentor to Detroit’s Black youth, encouraging them to participate in athletics. Among his accomplishments, he founded a recreational softball league, and he continued to promote the sport of golf in the Black community. In addition, he raised money for local charities. When Cowans was honored with a testimonial dinner in late April 1971, many local dignitaries and celebrities attended.52 They acknowledged not only his many years as a sportswriter but also his tireless volunteerism and his advocacy for Black athletics. As proof of the esteem in which he was held, at a meeting of the City of Detroit’s Common Council just prior to the dinner, the legislators issued a proclamation praising his many years in journalism, as well as his “excellent record of service, and his deep concern for this city and its people.”53

Russ Cowans died in Detroit on December 20, 1978, after a long illness. Some sources said he was 79, but he may have been as old as 82. Thinking about his late colleague, who had been a role model for so many in Detroit’s Black press, Frank Saunders said, “…there will never be another Russell Cowans, for it was he who blazed the trail and set the standard of achievement for those who follow him.”54

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Jack Zerby and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Notes

1 Terry Cabell. “Friends Remember Russ…And the Way It Was,” Michigan Chronicle, October 21, 1978: A1, A4.

2 Terry Cabell. “Friends Remember Russ…And the Way It Was,” Michigan Chronicle, October 21, 1978: A1, A4.

3 Russ J. Cowans, “Through the Sport Mirror,” Detroit Tribune, September 9, 1939: 6.

4 See, for example, “East Beats West in Classic, 7-2,” Detroit Tribune, August 14, 1937: 7.

5 Frank H. Saunders, “Russell Cowans, Noted Journalist, Mourned,” Michigan Chronicle, December 30, 1978: A1, A4.

6 Russ J. Cowans, “Negro Circuit to Meet; Gate Dip on Agenda,’ The Sporting News, December 31, 1958: 25.

7 “First Detroit Race Newspaper Called the Plaindealer, and Published Way Back in 1880s,” Detroit Tribune, July 28: 1951, 16.

8 See, for example, Lee Blackwell, “Wins Award for Column,” New York Age, November 26, 1955: 18.

9 Lee Blackwell, “Wins Award for Column,” New York Age, November 26, 1955: 18.

10 Max Kase, “Joe Louis Studies Grammar and History During Training Grind,” Rockford, Illinois Register-Republic, September 6, 1935: 10.

11 For example, Sunnie Wilson, with John Cohassey, Toast of the Town: The Life and Times of Sunnie Wilson, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998): 96.

12 Bobbye, “Bits of Bantering,” Detroit Tribune, Mar 30, 1946: 5

13 Russell J. Cowans, interview by Henry G. LaBrie III, June 9, 1971, Black Journalists Oral History Project, Oral History Archives at Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York.

14 Richard Bak, Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994): 74.

15 Russell J. Cowans, “Bacharachs Split Pair with Detroit,” Baltimore Afro-American, August 18, 1928: 12.

16 Russell J. Cowans, “Stars Rally to Win Over Red Sox,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 16, 1928: 16.

17 Russell J. Cowans, “Detroit in 2 Wins Over St. Louis,” Chicago Defender, June 9, 1928: 8.

18 Russell J. Cowans, “Star Twirler Stops Bees,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 18, 1928: 18.

19 Richard Bak, Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars, (Detroit: Great Lakes Books: 1995): 245.

20 Russell J. Cowans, “Chicago Wallops Detroit,” Pitttsburgh Courier, July 20, 1928: 20.

21 Lee Blackwell, “Wins Award for Column,” New York Age, November 26, 1955: 18.

22 Russell J. Cowans, “National Baseball League in 3-Day Meet,” Chicago Defender, January 25, 1930: 8.

23 Russell J. Cowans, “Fans Support of Detroit Stars Slumps, Says Scribe,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 2, 1930: 14.

24 Russell J. Cowans, “Through the Sport Mirror,” Detroit Tribune, April 14, 1933: 6.

25 Russell J. Cowans, “Through the Sport Mirror,” Detroit Tribune, May 13, 1933: 8.

26 Russell J. Cowans, “Through the Sport Mirror,” Detroit Tribune, April 29, 1933: 8; also, Russell J. Cowans, “Through the Sport Mirror,” Detroit Tribune, May 20, 1933: 8.

27 “Cowans in Chicago on Big Assignment,” Detroit Tribune, July 1, 1933: 5.

28 Rollo S. Vest, “The Lowdown,” Detroit Tribune Independent, August 25: 1934: 6.

29 “School Bells Toll Each Day in Louis Camp,” Dallas Morning News, September 7, 1935: 2.

30 Thomas Hietala, Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2002): 160-161. Also, Joe Louis, My Life Story, (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947): 53.

31 Velma R. Dortch, “Michigan Chronicle: Then and Now,” (Detroit) Michigan Chronicle, September 9, 2001: B1.

32 “Cowans Back on Staff of Tribune, Detroit Tribune, June 26, 1937: 1.

33 “New Baseball League Scheduled to Start in May; Teams Train in South,” Detroit Tribune, March 28, 1942: 7.

34 “Detroit Is to Have Negro Ball Club,” Windsor (Ontario) Star, March 31, 1942: 4.

35 Richard Bak, Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars, (Detroit: Great Lakes Books: 1995): 247.

36 Quoted by Norm King, “Abe Saperstein,” Society for American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/abe-saperstein/

37 Cum Posey, “Posey’s Points,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 4, 1942: 16.

38 Russ J. Cowans, “Through the Sports Mirror,” Detroit Tribune, June 22, 1940: 8.

39 Frank H. Saunders, “Russell Cowans, Noted Journalist, Mourned,” Michigan Chronicle, December 30, 1978: A4.

40 Russ J. Cowans, “Russ’ Corner,” Chicago Defender, March 18, 1950: 16.

41 Russ J. Cowans, “Rodriguez Wins Hot Corner Berth with Sox; Minoso Goes to Outfield,” Chicago Defender, April 19, 1952: 17.

42 Russ J. Cowans, “Russ’ Corner: Crack Racial Intolerance,” Chicago Defender, April 19, 1952: 16.

43 Quoted in “Minoso and Rodriguez First Members of Their Race to Play in N. Orleans,” Somerset (Pennsylvania) American, April 9, 1952: 6.

44 Frank Litsky, “Sam Lacy, 99; Fought Racism as Sportswriter,” New York Times, May 12, 2003: B7.

45 Russ J. Cowans, “Miami Says No to Russ,” Chicago Defender, March 18, 1958: 22.

46 Russ J. Cowans, “Russ’ Corner,” Chicago Defender, June 25, 1955: 10.

47 For example, Russ Cowans, “Chicago Giants Close First Half with Late Surge,” The Sporting News, July 9, 1952: 34.

48 Russ J. Cowans, “Negro Leagues All-Star Contest Copped by West,” The Sporting News, September 1, 1954: 15.

49 “45,000 Fans Expected for East-West Game,” Indianapolis Star, August 1, 1943: 34.

50 Russ J. Cowans, “Negro Circuit to Meet; Gate Dip on Agenda,’ The Sporting News, December 31, 1958, 25.

51 “Services Set for Cowans,” Detroit Free Press, December 27, 1978: 2D.

52 Louis Martin, “Tribute Due to Sports Pioneers,” Chicago Defender, May 22, 1971, 3.

53 Proceedings of the Detroit Common Council, April 27, 1971: 981.

54 Frank H. Saunders, “Russell Cowans, Noted Journalist, Mourned,” Michigan Chronicle, December 30, 1978: A1, A4.

Full Name

Russell Jerome Cowans

Born

July 29, 1895 at Centre, AL (US)

Died

December 20, 1978 at Detroit, MI (US)

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