Meet Sykesville's Baseball Giants
Time for baseball
It's getting to be spring, and baseball's starting early this year, so I thought it would be fun to revisit and update this old baseball story about the Sykesville Giants.
I don't think you can read about the Giants in any history ever written, or in old Sykesville Heralds or Carroll County Times. Some of their games, though, did appear in the Baltimore Afro American, like this bit from August 20, 1927.
Most of my information about the Giants comes from Warren Dorsey, who used to watch them on Sundays when he was a little kid.
Warren turned a hundred this past November. His daughter threw him a little drive-by, Covid-safe, birthday party. Warren sat on his lawn under a gray sky out front of his small house at 405 Broadway in Frederick, wearing a crown.
I think it's a Burger King crown that he wears on special occasions. I'm not sure why. But that's what he does.
His mind's as sharp as ever. So's his memory. He was recently acknowledged as the first African American male to get a degree from Goucher College in Maryland.
They were about to bestow the honor on another fellow, when Warren's daughter Susan found out and set things straight.
Warren got a Master's in teaching from Goucher when he was 50, after he decided to switch careers from the army labs at Fort Detrick, where he was a microbiologist, to the classrooms of Frederick County, where he eventually ended up as the principal of a school. I've known him for about seven years now and never doubted he would make 100. Crossing into triple digits hasn't changed him much, or at all. He's still got that wry wit and deeply melodious voice.
I've been visiting him fairly regularly. I can't actually go to his house in Frederick, because of the virus, so it's all Zoom.
I won't recount his life story here if you don't know it. I've covered it in my book, "In Carrie's Footprints, the long walk of Warren Dorsey," and I'd rather get to the baseball.
On to Baseball
Baseball's Warren's favorite pastime. I root for the Phillies. He doesn't seem to root for any one team. He likes the Frederick Keys. He likes the Orioles. He likes whoever's playing the Yankees. His favorite team is the Sykesville Giants, who haven't played in 80 or 90 years.
As Warren describes it, in those days “Sykesville was sort of a trading center for an agricultural area. And the enclave where the African Americans lived was a sort of appendage to the town, identified as Oklahoma Hill. There was a row of houses along the ridge, and at the bottom were a few others, most owned by one man. Only two or three of the properties were owned by the people who lived in them, and my family was one of those.”
The first house on the hill belonged to Dr. Sprecher, a former mayor of Sykesville, and one of the town's most upstanding and interesting citizens. Some of the remains of Sprecher’s house, which was one of the cottages future-governor Frank Brown built in the late 1800s, are still visible. Sprecher was a good guy, who treated both white and black patients, which was unusual at the time.
After the doctor’s house, there was another white family and then came black Sykesville.
Warren says, “The people who lived there were dirt poor. The only work was day work or yard work or cleaning up around the stores or any kind of menial tasks for very little pay. Scratching out a living was a daily challenge and very stressful for the people who weren’t as privileged as my family. We had land and were able to raise food.
“And a respite from this terrible stress was provided by the Sykesville Giants.
“At that time, baseball was a universal pastime in every black enclave that could gather enough young men to form a team. Anywhere you’d go, any African American community, if they had enough young men, they had a team.” Sykesville's team started organizing in 1915. The players bought their own gloves and uniforms. People in the neighborhood saved what they could to help supply equipment. And soon the Giants “developed a far-flung reputation as the team to beat.”
They built themselves a field “carved from a woodland bordered by the black community itself, the railway that ran into the Springfield mental institution, and two farms, one owned by a dairy farmer, and one by a man who raised crops. Nobody knows who owned the land. It was never developed. It was just there. So the men of the community got together and cleared a playing field.
"Before long the field was a popular gathering place. There were picnics and reunions. The main attraction was always a Giants game.
“The site provided a sort of relief valve, where people could watch their youth play ball in very heated competition. And it became more interesting when they played visiting teams that heard about us and traveled from miles around to challenge Sykesville. So, for a few hours on the weekend, mostly Sundays, all the cares of this daily struggle were sort of forgotten. And it came to be a source of pride. They were poor, but they could always speak about their home team.”
“Our pitcher was one of the phenoms in that part of the state. We always called him Cousin Clendan. He could set up a batter with slow curves and fastballs. He had a sharp breaking pitch that seemed to say, ‘now you see me, now you don’t.’
“He called it ‘Old Henry.’ Today it’s called the slider. Cousin Clendan could throw a slider before there even was a slider.”
Clendan Savoy was a righty in his twenties and a first cousin of Warren’s father, Ed Dorsey. When he pitched, Clendan would go the full nine, and the Giants usually won. But Clendan wasn’t always on the mound.
“Clendan had a problem with the consumption of spirits," Warren says. "And if you caught him when he was in the spirit, he couldn’t pitch. But when Clendan wasn’t in the spirits he was invincible.
“He pitched to a man named Gene Norris. Gene was a tremendously good catcher. His main job was directing the pitcher, of course, and that was easy, because most games were pitched by Clendan. Most of the time the batter was dazzled by the fastballs and curves, but Gene also knew this would set up the coup de grâce.
“Gene kept up a constant chatter, and any time he’d say, ‘this batter has a notion,’ that was a signal to Clendan. Time for Old Henry. Regular fans knew that, and they were just waiting for the pitch. The result was usually a swinging strikeout, or a weak grounder to the infield, and back to the visitor’s side trotted the batter.”
The Old Dude at Third
“Jim Norris played third base. His name was James, but we called him Mr. Jim. He was probably around 40. They looked to him as the father of the team. He had the father image and was indeed the father of the catcher. But also, he was the surrogate father of all the young players.
“Mr. Jim was the keystone of our little church. Through his contacts in the white community, he would raise funds, and he controlled all the business of the church so it could stay open.
“He was a groundskeeper for a wealthy family that owned a property along the Patapsco down below our church, the old Brooks property. There was a mansion there that the owner only occupied on occasion in the summer.
“Mr. Jim was the overseer for the property. And in addition, he was the gravedigger at the Springfield Presbyterian Church, where most of the white people in my day were buried.
“All the graves were hand dug then. Mr. Jim and his boys, Gene and Earl, dug the graves. I don’t know how much they were paid per grave, but that was part of the income that kept his family going.
“He was one of the only few who owned property. We had some 40 acres. Mr. Jim had about 25, which he sort of farmed on a very small scale.
“He was the source of inspiration, not only to the team, but the whole community. He was the old dude, as they called him, at third base, but staying in playing shape was never a problem for Mr. Jim, because of how he made his living. And he could hit, and he could play.”
(Norris Avenue in Sykesville is named after Mr. Jim Norris.)
“Another position was played by somebody who was not only an excellent player, but very dear to me, my brother, Russell. We just referred to him as Brother Russell. Russell was only about five-feet-four and 135 pounds. Physically he was the team midget. He made up for it by his tremendous skill. He was the shortstop, and with his enthusiasm, devotion, and passion, Russell personified the nickname of the team. He was the giant of the team.
“He batted for high average. And he loved the game. He loved the aura of it all. His wife said that even to his dying days, Russell would talk about the glory of playing shortstop for the Sykesville Giants.
“Russell was the third child, born in 1909, 11 years older than I am. During the week, he was a laborer in the maintenance gang for the B&O Railroad. That was very demanding work. It was a real challenge for these young men to get up to play on the weekend. But Russell was always ready.”
“First base was handled by a big, powerful young man named Raymond Lewis. He towered over his teammates and the opposing players. Everybody called him Big Raymond. He batted cleanup and was the poster boy of the Sykesville Giants. Everyone after playing them would say, ‘Do you remember the man who played first base? Oh, yeah, that was Big Raymond.’
“At second was Big Raymond’s brother. I don’t know his first name. All we ever knew was Kick. Kick Lewis.
“Often we didn’t know the real names of people. Almost everyone had a nickname. A lot of people never knew my real name. They only knew Tom. My father used to recite a nursery rhyme. ‘Little Tommy Tittlemouse lived in a little house. He caught fishes in other men’s ditches.’ And somehow I got stuck with that name, and it got shortened to Tom."
“David Grooms played right field. David was about the same age as Russell and worked in the same labor gang for the B&O. He was probably the fastest man on the team. That enabled him to play sort of shallow to prevent pop flies just over the infield turning into hits. David could corral some of these, but with his speed he could also go very deep on balls hit into the outfield.”
There were no fences in the outfield, no bleachers or scoreboards or billboards. It was surrounded by trees.
Warren says, “A baseball was a valuable commodity. It wasn’t like if a foul ball went into the crowd you could keep it as a souvenir. The balls were returned. And balls hit into the wooded area that bordered the field often got lost, but there was always a group of boys who went into the underbrush and tracked them down. Balls were used till the covering was just about knocked off.
“We got the balls from Devries down on Main Street. He sold a lot of stuff. He sold baseballs. He sold shells the hunters used. He sold bats. I think he sold gloves, too.”
The Banjo Player
“Clarence Green played center field. Clarence lived in the house my family lived in before we moved into the place where I grew up. He was one of only two people who played on that team, who lived out their lives on Oklahoma Hill. Clarence was one and Gene Norris was the other.
"Clarence was the ideal team player. He was never rattled and nothing seemed to take his attention off the game. He worked on the railroad, too, but no matter how demanding his job, he was ready on Sunday.
“Now, left field was played by Roger Anderson. Roger was larger than anybody except Big Raymond. He was agile of foot, although not as fleet-footed as David. He was a skillful player and above average power hitter.
“He spent the week working odd jobs and used to spend his after-hours in the evenings in sort of pickup games with smaller kids to keep his skills up.
“He also had what he considered musical talent. He’d gotten an old banjo from someplace and used to play the banjo. He probably got the inspiration from his daddy, Mr. Wes Anderson, who was the only man in the community who kept and trained coonhounds.
“Everybody else, including my father, hunted mostly rabbits and birds. Mr. Wes hunted coons. He’s probably the only one in the neighborhood who would eat a coon. But he also played a guitar. He would sit out on his front porch, and you would hear him playing on his guitar and singing.
“I don’t know what you’d call the music. All kinds of made-up stuff about life. He wasn’t what you’d consider a skilled musician. He was sort of self-made.
“The Sykesville Giants were an inspiration. In fact, there was a team in the old Negro league in Baltimore called the Baltimore Black Giants and on one occasion, in their exhibition series, they played the Sykesville Giants. We lost, but we did very well.”
But the days of the Giants wound down. The Depression came. They were already poor and that made it worse. Most of the men ventured off looking for jobs and better lives.
Warren says, "The last I heard of Roger Anderson, he was long deceased, but he died in New York. Russell lived most of his life in Baltimore.
“But, beside the Depression, another reason was the advent of the local white power. It started with a jousting enthusiast. The man was looking for a practice area where he could prepare for statewide jousting events. He became aware that the property used by the black community didn’t belong to the community. But it had open areas ideal to set up a jousting run. And he did just that.
“Originally, it was to the right of the first base line. So, it didn’t encroach on the playing field. He usually wasn’t active when there was a game, but this was the beginning.
“There was no regard for the effect on the people who lived next to the property and labeled it a playing field. The standard regard by the white community and its sensibility toward people of color, where the questions of rights and privileges was concerned, was that your concerns are no concern of ours.
“And since this property is there, and it’s abandoned, anybody who has the power or determination can take it. Soon, town merchants were looking for a place to dump their refuse. It started with the grocery stores dumping their spoilage. At first, they dumped it at the back of the playing field, but then in the area the community had cleared. Soon it became attractive to people who had other kinds of waste, and eventually it became a dumping area for the town.
“It was still a town dump when I left in 1937. Sometime later, it was sold and developed. And so were all the other adjacent areas. Sykesville, nowadays, is not the town I remember growing up.”
Warren's mother was the extremely busy Carrie Dorsey, with 12 kids and nothing in the way of money and modern convenience to help raise them.
“My family was involved because Russell played, but my mother almost never came. Well, occasionally, she might have seen a game on a Saturday. You see, my mother grew up under the tutelage of a mother who considered any kind of activity on a Sunday that wasn’t necessary a sacrilege.
“So she would not go to the games, but she never prevented us. She never questioned Russell’s participation. She had a set of values carried over from her mother that guided her in raising her own kids. But she was a realist. She didn’t try to prevent us from participating in the activities that were acceptable in that day.”
Carrie's mother, Catherine, started life as a slave in nearby Marriottsville to a man who made his leaving in the slave trade. They called the area where she lived “Little Africa.” She was freed in 1864 and married a man named John Dorsey.
Carrie was Catherine's ninth child, and Warren was Carrie’s ninth child.
It’s interesting to think that many of the graves over in Springfield, especially the older ones with their fading stones, were dug in the 1920s by the old third-baseman of the Sykesville Giants, his son the catcher, and another son who lived for many years in what is now Sykesville’s restored Historic Colored Schoolhouse, after it stopped being a school. Warren says, “The Sykesville Giants were a formidable team of kids, and the thing that unified them was the determination to have an outlet from trying to scratch out a living. It attracted all of the adults as a place to forget about the woes of everyday life for a few hours. The crack of the bat was a welcome respite from the daily struggle to survive.” Of course, they’re all long gone now, Big Raymond, speedy David Grooms playing shallow in right, the old dude at third, and Russell Dorsey, the slick-fielding 5' 4" giant, who would remember his days with the Giants as the happiest of his life. I like to imagine it, though, and Warren certainly remembers it, a hot Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1927 in Sykesville, and some other team from some other town with its own group of young black men here to challenge the Giants.
There's a 40-year-old gravedigger crouching at third. His son, Earl, keeps up a steady chatter behind the plate. The count’s full. Cousin Clendan’s on the mound. There's two strikes on the batter. And then come the magic words.
“Come on, Clendan. This batter’s got a notion.” And young Warren Dorsey, standing on the side of the field in his homemade clothes, can't help but smile. He's only seven, but he knows what's coming. It's Old Henry.
And this batter might have a notion, but he doesn't have a chance.