Rufus Jackson

This article was written by Ralph Carhart

Rufus “Sonnyman” Jackson was born on May 1, 1900, in Columbus, Georgia, to Rufus Jackson Sr. and Rosa Bell Dixon, both Georgia natives.1 Rosie and her son remained close enough throughout his life that in 1940, when he was already a successful businessman and often-time courthouse visitor, she was still living with her grown son. He had two brothers, Walter and Charles, but nothing is known of Jackson’s father or, for that matter, much of Jackson’s own life until the mid-1920s. It is a known fact that Rufus never completed the fifth grade, but he still became one of Columbus’s wealthiest native sons.2 That wealth was attained elsewhere, however, as the Jackson family moved from the post-Reconstruction South to the streets of Pittsburgh.

It was there, at 529 East 3rd Avenue in the borough of Homestead, seven miles southeast of the city, where Jackson can be found in the city directory for the first time, in 1927, though his obituary claims he first arrived in 1921. Originally listed as a millworker, by 1929 he would label his profession as the more generic “laborer.” In fact, Jackson’s real income was already coming from a different business, that of an illegal numbers runner. In April 1929 Jackson was arrested as a part of larger sweep of racketeers by District Attorney Samuel H. Gardner.3 Accused co-conspirators James Harrison, John Smith, and Jackson were all charged with running a lottery and clearinghouse pool. By May the case had failed to go before the judge four different times that it was on the docket.4 Jackson ultimately evaded punishment, the first in a long line of narrow misses for a man who often operated on the wrong side of the law.

Jackson’s wife was listed as Marie in the 1931 directory, but she either died or simply disappeared from his story forever during that year. In January 1932, he married Helen Mae (maiden name unknown), who was originally from North Carolina. Ten years his junior, Helen ended up being the perfect wife for the mischievous and successful Jackson. She not only became a belle of black society in Homestead, but a tremendous asset in assisting Rufus with all his business endeavors. One time she even admitted to the Pittsburgh Courier that she sat at the wheel of the car, ready to speed off on a word from her husband, as he paid off extortionists.5

Jackson operated under the cover of the Manhattan Music Company, which he founded in 1931 mainly to provide jukeboxes to the city’s restaurants. The endeavor was successful enough that by the end of 1932, he and Helen were accompanying journalist Floyd G. Snelson Jr. on an airplane ride and having the tale retold in the society pages of the Courier.6 Forevermore would Jackson’s brushes with fame live in the dual worlds of high-society business and low-life criminal activity. That Christmas, in the “Womans Activities” section of the Courier, the  Jacksons’ Christmas party was celebrated as a jolly affair with “dancing, cards and games, including ‘Spin the Bottle.’”7 When Rufus and Helen sailed to Bermuda in January of 1934, her picture graced the front page as the paper celebrated their “two week’s cruise on southern waters and a visit in the exotic islands.”8

A mere two months later Jackson once again found himself in trouble with the law. He was arrested on numbers charges, along with 16 others, including Pittsburgh gambling kingpin Gus Greenlee. They were apprehended in March at the Belmont, the hotel that served as the headquarters for Greenlee’s numbers racket. Greenlee was caught red-handed with his business books on his person when he was arrested. With an audacity that Jackson himself could appreciate, Greenlee never even tried to deny it, telling the judge he was simply “giving work to some of the boys.”9

Greenlee had made his money as a bootlegger and by the 1930s had an interest in several sports ventures, including partial ownership of the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball club. He was an important figure in the formation of the Negro National League, the second incarnation of a league by that name, and it was undoubtedly Greenlee who introduced Jackson to Cumberland Willis Posey and brought the young racketeer and entrepreneur into the world of baseball.

Cum Posey was a former ballplayer himself and the owner of the Homestead Grays, having purchased the team in 1920 after serving as their business manager. The Grays were a powerhouse independent team in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They became original members of Greenlee’s new league in 1933, but were expelled partway through the season for raiding other clubs’ rosters. They were allowed to return as associate members in 1934, but Posey was looking to get the Grays fully back in to the league for the 1935 season. To support that effort, he wanted to build a winner and he needed capital. Jackson, whose own wealth continued to grow, provided that funding. In April 1934 Jackson and Posey, along with their lawyer, Theron B. Hamilton, filed the articles of incorporation for the Homestead Grays Baseball Club, Inc.10 Posey had the money he needed and Jackson had another legitimate business to serve as a cover for his expanding wealth.

Jackson had yet another brush with the law in May, although this time he was simply a witness. Serving as a poll-watcher during the violent and contentious 1934 election, Jackson would appear before a common pleas court judge to testify that he witnessed “thugs” from Pittsburgh intimidate and assault his local polls overseer, Charles Passafiume.11 His own involvement with local politics was less than pure, and it is quite likely that Jackson’s presence at the polls was not out of altruistic reasons.

It became clear during the Grays’ first full season in the NNL that Jackson would be no mere figurehead. He was present when the club was granted league membership in November 1934,12 and maintained a constant presence with the team, often making executive decisions. Unfortunately for Jackson and Posey, 1935 was not a glorious start to their NNL membership. Despite having slugging first basemen Buck Leonard – who led the team with a batting average that ranged somewhere between .338 and .386 (depending on the source) – and  pitcher Ray Brown (both of whom ultimately were inducted into the Hall of Fame), the Grays finished 25-33 in their first year, which placed them seventh in the eight-team league.

There were few major roster changes for the 1936 season, and the team’s mediocre 22-27 record reflected that. By the end of the season, trouble was brewing across the league. Since its inception, the NNL league officers were consistently made up of club owners and higher-ups. The most prominent of these individuals was Greenlee, whose Crawfords had been named league champions the previous two seasons. A small group that included Jackson and Posey, Tom Wilson (owner of the Washington Elite Giants), and, surprisingly, league President Ed Bolden argued that the current system was ripe for corruption and needed to be addressed.13 The relationship between partners Jackson and Posey, and the man who originally brought them together, Greenlee, started to strain and soon turned into an all-out war that was fought in Pittsburgh’s newspaper pages.

In January 1937 Jackson turned the black baseball world upside down when he reacquired Josh Gibson from the Crawfords. Despite the growing acrimony between the men, Greenlee had been under tremendous legal pressure and his numbers business was suffering. He needed money and, in a twist of fate, he was now turning to Jackson for cash. The Grays traded Henry Spearman and Pepper Bassett and, most importantly, paid an additional $2,500 to get Gibson and another future Hall of Famer, Judy Johnson.14 Johnson, for his part, was stung by the deal and chose not to report to the Grays, instead retiring from the game. But the real catch was Gibson, the biggest draw in all of black baseball and, as Jackson soon discovered, a runaway train barreling his way toward ultimate destruction.

The year 1937 was a combative period in Jackson’s life. In March he found himself hospitalized after being cut by a knife wielded by Helen.15 Although the cause for the injury was listed only as an “accident,” it is not unlikely that the same woman who would sit at the wheel of a getaway car might not hesitate to cut a man should he go too far. Jackson also made the papers by fighting off raids on his players from the Dominican Republic. Alerted to the presence of Frederico Nina, a Dominican baseball “mogul,” and Luis Mendez, a member of the Dominican consulate, Greenlee and Jackson became part of the sting that led to the two Dominicans’ arrests. As contract raiders, the men had been attempting to sign Ernest Carter, a wild power pitcher with the Crawfords.16 The victory was short-lived, though, as one month later the Grays would lose the mighty Josh Gibson to the Dominican Republic team owned by dictator Rafael Trujillo.

The exodus of players to Trujillo’s Dominican Republic hit Greenlee the hardest, though, as Satchel Paige and most of the Crawford stars also abandoned their contracts, which ruined him financially. With the end of Greenlee’s reign, Posey became the de facto head of the NNL, and Jackson was now the power behind the most successful team in the game.17 Life was good for Jackson at this time. The Grays won the NNL title in 1937 and 1938 as they began to cement their legacy. Meanwhile, he and Helen were hosting parties where “everything was piled high, high” for the likes of jazz legend and Homestead native Maxine Sullivan.18

Before long, however, Jackson again found himself in the papers for more dubious reasons. In February 1940 his liquor license was revoked for selling alcohol to minors at his club, the Sky Rocket Grill.19 He eluded serious punishment for that offense and regained his license just one month later, only to find himself embroiled in one of the highest-profile numbers cases of his career in July. Arrested along with Pittsburgh politician Joe Frank, Jackson and three others were all detained because of a confession by one of Jackson’s former men, Julius Swetkuckas.20 The case took up most of the year, finally resolving itself in November with, perhaps expectedly, a full acquittal for all involved, though Frank would go on to serve time for jury-fixing.21 Jackson, who was the first man acquitted for lack of evidence in the case, once again evaded punishment for his crimes.

The Grays, meanwhile, began to play some of their home games in Washington in 1940. With the support of Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, the Grays moved into Griffith Stadium and profited from the growing wealth of the capital’s black population. The experiment was a success and Jackson’s own wealth continued to expand, as did his influence. In February 1941 he attended the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.22 Later, in August, he sold the house at 529 East 3rd Ave. for $32,000, the equivalent value of $547,000 today after adjusting for inflation. Jackson’s success could also be measured by the quality of the team he financed, as the Grays won six consecutive league titles after their part-time move to D.C.

Another legal battle occupied the early part of 1942, when Jackson attempted to move the Sky Rocket Grill from 412 Dixon St. to a new location at 614 Amity St. The new site was just 40 feet from the local Salvation Army headquarters, and the religious organization protested.23 The license for the property was held in limbo before Jackson’s perpetual courtroom luck eventually won the day in April, when Judge James L. O’Toole sided with the tavern. His ruling stated that the success of the Salvation Army was actually a result of being located in “a neighborhood such as this which were fertile fields for its work,” and that the proximity of a bar would only increase their business.24

After another successful season for the Grays in 1942, the following year began on a difficult note. In January the papers announced that Gibson had been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, and his future was uncertain. In addition, World War II was starting to hurt business for the Grays, not only in the size of the crowds they could draw, but even the size of the squads they could put on the field. The team was cut from 22 men in 1942 to just 16 in 1943. Jackson also announced that the Grays would play only weekend baseball instead of their customary five or six games per week.25 In the end, they managed to play almost as many league games in 1943 as they did the previous year, but by 1944 that number was cut almost in half.

In spite of the economic difficulties created by the war, Jackson’s influence continued to grow within the game. In July 1943, in a Pittsburgh police station, Jackson faced down a Mexican consul whom he had accused of attempting to coerce Howard Easterling into breaking his contract.26 No charges were filed and Easterling remained with the Grays. Jackson also, largely through the words of Posey whose regular column “Posey’s Points” appeared in the Courier, became a vocal supporter of having a commissioner for Negro League baseball. Posey and Jackson, who had admittedly both capitalized on the incestuous workings of the NNL, also saw that the lack of oversight was jeopardizing the Negro Leagues’ long-term viability. While the integration of baseball was still two years away, the schism was coming and the two men knew that without a powerful figure at the head of the sport, overseeing both the NNL and the Negro American League, they would not survive.

The agenda for the NNL’s annual meeting in 1944 focused on the fair division of the profits from the East-West Game, the most successful event of the Negro Leagues season. Also discussed were methods for staving off Mexican raiders and how to keep the schedule balanced during the lean economic times. The owners, including Jackson, even addressed their relationship with white baseball, agreeing that it should remain a positive one because of the advantages provided by access to major- and minor-league ballparks.27 The most conspicuous issue not to be addressed was the idea of clubs losing players to white teams, as the owners all claimed that white baseball personnel had not contacted them.

Jackson and Posey’s desire to legitimize the organizational structure of the leagues was likely at the forefront of their decision to sign the first official “World Series Agreement,” along with Tom Hayes, the owner of the 1944 NAL champion Birmingham Black Barons. The agreement guaranteed that each team would commit to playing the full series or risk losing a $1,000 deposit that each squad placed as a show of good faith. Dates and cities were agreed to in advance, and both league presidents trumpeted the agreement as evidence that Negro League baseball had finally matured.28 The 1944 World Series, which was a rematch of the 1943 contest, was quickly won by the Grays in five games. Gibson, whose physical and mental-health troubles continued, still managed to hit a home run in the first game and batted .500 for the Series.

The Grays again dominated the NNL in 1945, winning the pennant over the Baltimore Elite Giants by 5½ games before falling to the Cleveland Buckeyes in the World Series. The loss may have served as a harbinger of dark times to come. At the start of 1946, Jackson and Posey were still appearing on the pages of the Courier as well as the white-owned Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, emphatically arguing that owners should not be executives within the league. They wanted a limitation on the power of the league presidents and they still vocally advocated, along with Courier journalist Wendell Smith, for a commissioner of black baseball. However, it was the headlines on the morning of March 29, 1946, that forever changed the course of the Grays. After a lifelong career that saw him serve as a baseball player, manager, executive, and, ultimately, mogul, Cum Posey died at the age of 55.

Jackson was certainly the wealthier of the two, and he was active in club affairs, but Posey had been the baseball man in their tandem. Posey left half the club to his wife, Ethel, but Jackson took over full control of the team and it was not long before the Grays became a shadow of their former selves.29 Gibson, who died the following January, had the worst season of his legendary career in 1946, and the Grays finished in third place behind the Newark Eagles and the New York Cubans. Their reign of dominance was seemingly at an end. As a final insult to that injurious year, in November a grease fire at the Sky Rocket Grill caused $5,000 worth of damage and sent 10 families scurrying into the streets.30 Jackson could not usher in the new year quickly enough, but little did he know that the 1947 season would sound the death knell for black baseball.

The season began on an optimistic note, with the installation of Rev. John Johnson as the new head of the NNL, a move urged by Jackson.31 No one noticed this forward step, however, as the full attention of the baseball world, black and white, was focused on Jackie Robinson’s inevitable major-league debut. With Robinson’s ultimate success, other major-league teams followed the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lead and raided the Negro Leagues for their best players. By the end of the 1947 season, both the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Browns also had debuted black players. By mid-August Jackson was lamenting the dearth of talented young players in black baseball, which was due largely to the rapidly expanding scouting efforts of teams in Organized Baseball.32 After another disappointing season that saw the Grays lose the pennant to the New York Cubans, Jackson believed he had to redouble his efforts to build a winner.

Together with Cum Posey’s brother, See, Jackson traveled to Cuba in March 1948 in an attempt to mine more talent.33 Their trip was a flop, as neither of the Cuban stars they brought back with them panned out. Nonetheless, the core team of 1947, whom Jackson had either wisely or luckily signed in their entirety, produced one final year of glory. On the strength of the hot hitting of Buck Leonard, Luke Easter, and Luis Marquez, Jackson saw his club compete throughout the season. They lost out on the first-half title to Baltimore, but won the second half and faced the Elite Giants in the playoffs. After a controversy born from unwillingness on the part of Baltimore to complete a game that was called due to Baltimore’s city curfew, the Grays were named the pennant winners of the 1948 NNL season.34

The Grays once again faced the Birmingham Black Barons in the World Series and defeated them in five games. With the exception of a 14-1 Grays blowout in Game Four, all of the contests were tight affairs. The final game was deadlocked, 6-6, until a four-run outburst by the Grays in the 10th inning secured the victory and the championship. The 1948 pennant marked the Grays’ ninth title since Jackson had bought into the team in 1934, and the World Series victory was their third. It also marked one final moment of triumph as declining attendance and depleted rosters spelled the end for the Negro National League, which folded after the season.

The Grays attempted but failed to arrange an associate membership in the newly expanded NAL for 1949 and instead joined the independent Negro American Association, but that effort was largely spearheaded by See Posey. Jackson had ceased to participate in team operations that winter when it was discovered after the World Series that he had a brain tumor. Doctors at Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh attempted to remove the tumor on March 6, but Jackson did not survive the operation. The official cause of death was respiratory failure caused by encephalomalacia, which is a softening of the brain. A banner headline that was spread across the Pittsburgh Courier’s March 12 sports pages cried, “Sports World Mourns Passing of Sonnyman.”35 A Homestead icon was gone. Helen outlived her husband by nearly four decades, dying in 1988. Husband and wife are both buried in Homestead Cemetery in the Pittsburgh area.

Jackson’s death, coinciding with the demise of the NNL, marked the end of an era in black baseball. While remnants of the Negro Leagues soldiered on for almost another decade, the 1948 Grays were the last truly great black baseball team. Black stars of the future, like Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks, still paid their dues in the Negro Leagues as they played, briefly, for the likes of the Indianapolis Clowns and the Kansas City Monarchs, but the quality of black ball never recovered after integration became a league-wide phenomenon in Organized Baseball. Jackson, who spent his life proving that a black man could be successful (although in his case he had often run afoul of the law to do so), would  likely have been torn by the mixed result. Success for individual players ultimately spelled doom for the league. Yet, it is difficult to imagine that a man who enjoyed the good life as much as Jackson would begrudge the march of progress and the glories that it brought.

 

This biography appears in "Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series" (SABR, 2017), edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin.

 

Notes

1 Rufus Jackson Death Certificate, State of Pennsylvania.

2 1940 United States Census, accessed at Ancestry.com.

3 “Gardner Lists Many Trials for Next Week,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 13, 1929: 1.

4 “Manfredo Put on Trial for Seventh Time,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 28, 1929: 13.

5 “Stood By!” Pittsburgh Courier, April 6, 1935: 6, First Section.

6 Floyd G. Snelson Jr., “Newsy Newsettes,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 26, 1932: 6, Second Section.

7 “Holiday Get-togethers,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 7, 1933: 7, First Section.

8 “In Bermuda,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 27, 1934: 1, First Section.

9 “Numbers Baron Held for Court,” Pittsburgh Press, March 5, 1934: 3.

10 “Legal Notices,” Pittsburgh Press, April 10, 1934: 33.

11 “Polls Quiet Here; Vote Is Cut by Rain,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 16, 1934: 2.

12 “Brooklyn Granted N.N. League; Bankhead Goes to Grays in Trade,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 17, 1934: 5, Second Section.

13 “Owners Ask for Harmony,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 3, 1936: 5, Second Section.

14 W. Rollo Wilson, “Thru’ the Eyes,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 30, 1937: 4, Second Section.

15 “Flash!” Pittsburgh Courier, March 20, 1937: 9.

16 “League Acts to Check Raids,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 15, 1937: 1.

17 Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003), 51.

18 Julia B. Jones, “‘No Highhat, No Divorce, No Blessed Event’; Maxine Sullivan Confides to ‘Talk O’ Town,’” Pittsburgh Courier, December 10, 1938: 13.

19 “Board Revokes Liquor License,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 9, 1940: 3.

20 “Numbers Case Goes to Court,” Pittsburgh Press, July 17, 1940: 2.

21 “Liberty Brief for Numbers Case Suspect,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 16, 1940: 4.

22 “At the Inaugural,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 1, 1941: 9.

23 “Liquor License Hearing Opens,” Pittsburgh Press, March 20, 1942: 24.

24 “Liquor Board Is Overruled,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 23, 1942: 6.

25 Robert Hughey, “Akron Site of Training Camp,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 3, 1943: 18.

26 Cum Posey, “Posey’s Points,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 24, 1943: 19.

27 “National League Plans Eleventh Annual Meeting,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 1, 1944: 12.

28 “Plans for 1944 World Series Announced,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 9, 1944: 12.

29 Brian McKenna, “Cum Posey,” SABR BioProject, sabr.org/bioproj/person/ff7b091e.

30 “Fire in Homestead Routs 10 Families,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 26, 1946: 13.

31 Wendell Smith, “N.Y. Minister New President of Negro National League,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 11, 1947: 12.

32 Wendell Smith, “The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 2, 1947: 14.

33 “Grays Start Drills Soon,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 24, 1948: 15.

34 Snyder, 260.

35 “Sports World Mourns Passing of ‘Sonnyman,’” Pittsburgh Courier, March 12, 1949: 12.