Before the first National Negro League was formed in 1920, Black baseball teams were making substantial strides to grow their popularity across the country. One of those teams is not widely regarded in the history books, possibly because it was only around for four years, but the legacy of the St. Paul Colored Gophers and owner Phil “Daddy” Reid remains one of the most significant in the sport.
The Triple-A St. Paul Saints honored Reid and his iconic club last July at both CHS Field and nearby Oakland Cemetery, where Reid, one of the city's founding fathers of baseball, is buried. The event was just the latest entry in the team's ongoing tradition of putting a spotlight on a key element of Minnesota’s grand baseball history.
“The Saints have really taken on the challenge and a legacy of creating and recapturing baseball history in St. Paul and maybe Minnesota,” said Black baseball historian Frank White, who authored They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota. “They’ve been involved in several projects, honoring Toni Stone and Roy Campanella and Dave Winfield. This was the sixth straight year.”
Saints executive vice president and GM Derek Sharrer said the club is heavily invested in working closely with White to help tell those stories.
“We’ve done a deep dive over the past several years into the history of baseball and even opened up a museum in 2019 -- the City of Baseball Museum. There’s a heavy emphasis there on the history of black baseball in Minnesota and specifically St. Paul,” Sharrer said. “We feel like we have an amazing platform to tell those incredible stories. ... We felt that the Colored Gophers and Phil ‘Daddy’ Reid is one of those stories.”
That story begins with Reid, who, after working as a waiter and a bartender in the Twin Cities, opened his own saloon in St. Paul in 1901 with his friend John J. Hirschfield. The establishment was located near a major train station, and travelers from Chicago frequently dropped in, which is how Reid first encountered Rube Foster. At that time, the future founder of the National Negro League was with the Leland Giants in Chicago and considered one of the best pitchers in the country. The pair quickly formed a bond, and with the influence of another new friend, boxing champion Jack Johnson, Reid decided to start a baseball team in his city.
It wasn’t just going to be any team, though. Reid wanted to create the best baseball team in the Midwest. So he hired former pitcher Walter Ball, who played in Minnesota and Chicago, to recruit and build a team of “the fastest players” with “a national reputation.” He didn’t want another “amateur affair confined to local players.” So Ball scoured the region and brought aboard some of his former teammates from the Leland Giants and Chicago Union Giants. And in 1907, Reid and Hirschfield announced the formation of “a real-colored baseball team,” the St. Paul Gophers.
The club made a thunderous introduction in its inaugural season, finishing with an 86-17-2 record. The most significant of those 86 wins came on Sept. 23, 1907, when the Gophers defeated the St. Paul Saints, 5-3, in a decisive Game 3 at Downtown Park for the unofficial state championship, and it was Foster who took the ball and earned the "W" that day.
“The St. Paul Saints and [Minnesota] Millers were two of the better professional teams in Minnesota at that time because they were part of what was called organized baseball,” White said. “After that 1907 season, everyone wanted to play the Gophers again. So they traveled all over Minnesota after that and took on all comers.”
The results remained the same. The Gophers continued to dominate in 1908, posting a 97-26-1 mark. The team was gaining popularity with fans and other players alike, and it wasn’t just the winning that made other players want to join the squad.
“At that time, all of those semi-pro and amateur teams were paying some guys, but not every player on those teams was getting paid. But if you played for the Gophers, you got paid,” White said.
With amateur and local teams popping up everywhere, the Gophers remained the best draw around. In what became known as “barnstorming,” the Gophers took on any team willing to play them within a five-state radius.
“Each town team with a stadium was trying to make money, and they knew if they brought in the Gophers they were guaranteed to have a big crowd,” White said. “Owners would reach out to the Gophers' front office and say, 'We wanna play. Tell us what it’s going to take. What’s the price?'”
The Gophers' most significant moment in their illustrious run came during the summer of 1909. With their popularity attracting the attention of the most powerful Negro team at the time -- the Leland Giants -- the teams squared off in a best-of-5 series to claim bragging rights as "Black National Champions."
According to Todd Peterson and his book, Early Black Baseball in Minnesota, the Colored Gophers took Game 1, 10-9, in 11 innings. The next two games went to the Giants -- 8-1 and 5-1 -- before the Colored Gophers rallied for the final two victories, 4-3 and 3-2. The series took place between July 26-30, and every game was played at Downtown Park (known as “The Pillbox”) in St. Paul.
“There were a lot of well-known and well-regarded people from Chicago who came down to watch that series -- that’s how popular it was,” White said. “It wasn’t just a big deal for Black baseball or the Negro community, it was a draw for all fans of the game. … And there was some controversy after that, because there were Black teams in other parts of the country that came out and said, ‘Hey, they didn’t play us. They didn’t earn that title.’ But they were still proclaimed Black National Champions because the Leland Giants were the team in Black baseball in the country. And I don’t think anyone would challenge that.”
In his first season with the team, Bobby Marshall -- who is also known for breaking the NFL color barrier -- clubbed the go-ahead home run for the Colored Gophers in the final game of the series against the Giants. John Taylor, known as “Steel-Arm Johnnie,” took the ball in that decisive Game 5 and tossed a gem for the Colored Gophers. The right-hander, who split time pitching for the Birmingham Giants that year, finished that season with an 18-2 mark for St. Paul and a 37-6 combined record.
Other notable players who suited up for the Colored Gophers included Steel-Arm Johnnie's brother, “Candy” Jim Taylor, who was an outstanding player and a great manager in the Negro Leagues. George “Chappie” Johnson was one of the best catchers in Black baseball for nearly two decades, and “Big Bill” Gatewood became the first pitcher in the National Negro League to throw a no-hitter.
The Colored Gophers were a powerhouse again in 1910, but the following year, Reid decided it was time to move on. After getting remarried, he sold the team to Marshall and walked away from baseball. The Colored Gophers were no more, as the team changed its identity and began to wane in popularity.
“I don’t have any evidence of why that was not a successful year. They just weren’t the same. They weren’t the Gophers anymore. The allure was starting to wear off,” White said. “People have seen you already, and really, how many times do you wanna be beaten by the same team in your hometown?”
The St. Paul Colored Gophers wrapped up their four-year run with a 380-89-2 record.
“They were a tremendous baseball team and that’s a tremendous piece of history,” White said.
On July 27, 2021, as part of their celebration of the Colored Gophers and Phil “Daddy” Reid, the St. Paul Saints gave away Colored Gophers T-shirts and conducted a ceremony at Oakland Cemetery to provide a proper headstone at Reid’s burial site. The family headstone at the locale contained the names of Reid’s first wife (Dinkey) and brother (George), but after Daddy's death on Oct. 16, 1912 -- despite one of the grandest funeral processions in the history of the city -- no one added his name.
The Saints changed that over a century later.
"Providing the missing headstone meant a great deal to a community that was already connected to Black baseball and the Colored Gophers and specifically Phil Reid," Sharrer said. "But what was just as impactful for us was the opportunity to make sure that story was told for the people who weren’t connected to it prior to attending the event and that ballgame."
This year's tribute continuing the annual initiative is already in the works.
“We plan on telling the story of Jimmy Lee, a Rondo community native who was the first African-American to umpire Big Ten baseball games," Sharrer said. "We also plan to name an award in Jimmy Lee’s name to recognize youth baseball umpires throughout the Twin Cities area on a yearly basis.”
Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.