Monday, August 22, 2016

Tony Curry victim of racial violence

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

Lately, I've been reading back issues of The Sporting News from 1957. I'm struck by how often racial issues were reported. 

Big news at the time was the on-going Negro boycott of the New Orleans Pelicans and how it was contributing to that N.Y. Yankees farm team's last-place performance and uncertain future in the Southern Association (Class AA).

There were quite a few column inches in August of that year discussing whether opposing hitters were throwing at young Reds slugger Frank Robinson because he was black. (Minnie Minoso, a black Cuban, led the major leagues in being hit by pitch eight times between 1953-61.)

Frequently, the fact that this or that player was a Negro was mentioned, particularly young players who had been signed or promoted and whom the editors felt might not be well-known to readers.

One of the most troubling incidents in which race was the catalyst involved a carload of six members of the Tampa Tarpons, a Class D Florida State League affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies and a group of shotgun-totting locals at Dade City, Fla. Whether the matter was an incipient lynching or just a handful of crackers having a little fun on a hot summer night is not knowable.

According to a SABR Baseball Bio project article on Tony Curry written by Rory Costello, the incident, which he described as "a sign of the times in the Deep South," unfolded thus.

Following a [Aug. 7 night] game at Leesburg, Tony was in a carful of Tarpons -- white, Latino, and black -- who stopped for milkshakes at a Dade City drive-in. Upon seeing the black passengers, a carhop asked them to move into the shadows, and “it was suggested they leave because there might be trouble.” African-American catcher Charlie Fields added, “Somebody had said something nasty.” As the ballplayers left, three shotgun blasts were fired, and one hit their car. They shook off a pursuing vehicle and went over the speed limit on purpose to attract the police of Zephyrhills. Luckily, there was just one minor injury, from birdshot pellets.

You can read Costello's complete article about Tony Curry at: Curry baseball bio .

In articles written in TSN by Ralph Warner, the six Tarpons were identified as three white players: pitcher Dick Colgan, catcher Vic Collier and shortstop Pete Torres, and three Negroes, Curry, an outfielder, catcher Charley Fields and outfielder Dario Rubensteing .

Warner wrote that "the white players went into the drive-in for food and were to bring out sandwiches to the three Negroes who remained in the car. The white players, while inside the cafe, were asked to move the car. {Editor's note: No doubt the car was initially parked in a spot where its Negro occupants could be to easily seen.] They complied and the firing occurred as the vehicle was pulling out." 

The shots came from a group of men standing buy another car about 20 yards away.

Only one of the Tampa players was hit by the shotgun pellets. Colgan was struck four times in the right arm and shoulder. TSN described the injury as "flesh wounds," that were treated at a Zephyrhills hospital and later in Tampa. 

Warner characterized the matter as an "isolated instance of racial trouble in the Florida State League." Tarpons manager Charlie Gassaway described the incident as "one of those unfortunate things that happen. I think the shooting was done by agitators."

It is difficult and probably unfair, to fall back on stereotypes in assessing the reaction of local law enforcement to the shooting. However, it took two weeks before arrests were made.

On Aug. 21, Pasco County Sheriff Leslie Bessenger. announced the arrests of four Dade City men, whom he described as a contractor, a bar operator, a packing plant worker and a mechanic. The contractor was charged with aggravated assault, the others as accessories. He said he had signed confessions from all four men and that the contractor had admitted he fired the shotgun. TSN did not name those charged.

Bond was set at $2,000 each, with a hearing set for Aug. 30.

It is open to speculation whether any arrests would have been forthcoming if Sheriff Bessenger's investigation had not been assisted by two agents of the Florida Sheriff's Bureau.

Bessenger was quoted, "This does not mean that I was making a half-hearted attempt to break the case. I believe that any hasty or spur-of-the-moment action on my part in a situation such as this would be more in keeping with the mob rule than with the thoroughness expected from an office such as mine. I keenly feel the reflection of such an incident on my office, on our town, our county and the state of Florida as a whole and intend to do all within my power to see that persons responsible are brought to justice."

If The Sporting News ever followed up on the story throughout the rest of 1957, I didn't see it. Whether the matter was an incipient lynching or just a handful of crackers having a little fun on a hot summer night is not knowable 60 years later.

Of the six Tampa players who caught fire that night in Dade City, only Tony Curry ever made the majors; most of the others never rose out of Class D.

Curry hit .253 over the 1960-61 seasons for the Phillies. After four seasons in the minors he returned to the bigs briefly with the Cleveland Indians in 1966.

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