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Tory Jackson

Tory Jackson

To love baseball is to love history. More than any sport, baseball honors its heritage and celebrates its legends and heroes.

But you don’t have to travel to Cooperstown, N.Y., or a large city to appreciate the game’s past. Bismarck is home to one of the great stories in baseball history. In the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, Neil Churchill assembled one of the most dominant baseball teams of the era, and one of the first that was racially integrated. The story is one worth remembering and celebrating.

Churchill was a car salesman and eventual partner in Corwin Churchill Motors. He also loved baseball. He played catcher for the Bismarck semi-pro team, became manager in 1926 and bought the club in 1933.

Churchill built his team by actively recruiting from the Negro Leagues. Other teams in North Dakota had black players on their rosters, including the rival Jamestown team. But none of them matched the baseball talent Churchill assembled in Bismarck.

Negro League stars turned the Bismarck squad into a powerhouse: Barney Morris and Hilton Smith, two standout pitchers; Quincy Troupe, the “giant Negro catcher” as the Bismarck Tribune referred to him; and Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe, nicknamed “Double Duty” for his skills behind the plate and on the mound.

And then there was Leroy “Satchel” Paige, arguably the greatest pitcher of all time — of any color, in any league. With a high leg kick that almost looked like he’d tip over, Paige was a virtuoso on the mound. One teammate said trying to catch his fastball “was like catching a bullet.”

Before he finally made it to the majors in 1948 at age 42, before he became the first Negro League player enshrined in Cooperstown, Paige was the star pitcher for Churchill’s Bismarck team.

Churchill lured Paige to Bismarck near the end of the 1933 season with a $400 contract and a Chrysler. In front of 3,000 fans, Paige struck out 19 batters in his debut, and Bismarck defeated Jamestown 3-2. Paige pitched nine games for Bismarck that year, winning seven with two no decisions.

After spending the 1934 season with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Paige returned to Bismarck for the 1935 season, leading Bismarck to a 66 and 14 record. Paige was dominant all season, compiling a record of 29-2, pitching over 300 innings, striking out 321 and walking only 16.

At season’s end, Bismarck was among the best semi-pro teams in the country invited to the First National Baseball Congress in Wichita. Bismarck went 7-0, winning the tournament. Paige started and won four of the seven games, pitched 39 innings, walked only five and struck out an astonishing 66 batters.

For the first time ever, a racially integrated team had won a national championship — 12 years before Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. What the Bismarck team accomplished in 1935 was historic and deserves more recognition than it receives, especially right here in Bismarck.

The Bismarck Parks and Recreation District should rename Municipal Ballpark “Churchill Field” or “Satchel Paige Field.” The Larks should regularly designate a game to honor the 1935 team.

Paige deserves a statue at Municipal Ballpark, perhaps in the middle of his trademark delivery. A statue would honor the greatest ballplayer Bismarck has ever seen, and one of the greatest in the history of the game. It would remind us all, and teach future generations, about the historic 1935 Bismarck team.

After Bismarck won the national championship in 1935, the Wichita Eagle proclaimed that “Bismarck … can build a monument to Leroy 'Satchel' Paige.” We should actually do so.

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Tory Jackson is an attorney and writer. His legal practice involves real estate and business matters, with a particular focus on historic rehabilitation projects. He holds degrees from Bismarck State College, the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School. He lives in Bismarck, where he was born and raised.