The baseball diamond was almost like church, a place of refuge and sanctuary for Black East Texans in the early part of the last century.
There, men, women and children would gather on Friday and Saturday nights, watch men who looked like them, who might have been a brother, cousin or neighbor, perform amazing feats of athletic prowess.
“Those were the idols in your hometown,” said Dr. Layton Revel, founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research.
In East Texas during the 1910s and ‘20s, one of the biggest regional idols was William “Nacogdoches” Ross, a dominant right-handed pitcher who clawed his way out of the independent circuit beginning with his hometown amateur team into the big leagues, or at least the biggest league a Black man could in that era.
“Virtually every town had a team. If you drill down on the history to the history of Nacogdoches Texas, you’re going to find six or eight teams that played there at one time or another,” Revel said.
Between 1910 and 1921, Ross compiled an impressive 225-71 record on the mound, striking out 2,107 batters, according to a comprehensive stat line published in the Oct. 29, 1921, edition of The Dallas Express, a Black-owned newspaper that wrote about life for African Americans in East Texas.
“He has played with the best of them and has proven that he is a first-class hurler,” the Express noted in a story about Ross and other members of the Texas Colored League barnstorming in California.
After that, Ross’ statistics, like many other Negro League players, are lost to history.
Beyond California, Ross would serve as a fast-ball hurling ambassador to our nation’s capital as a member of the Washington Potomacs and into the Negro National League — the highest level of play for African Americans — as a pitcher with the Indianapolis ABCs.
Undoubtedly, hundreds if not thousands of Black Americans first saw the name of the Oldest Town in Texas when the words “Nacogdoches Ross” echoed though a ballpark that was advanced enough to have a public address system. Otherwise they read it on the lineup card or in the newspaper.
The man named Nacogdoches
Ross wasn’t from Nacogdoches, and he really didn’t spend a lot of time here, but he was given the nickname early in his career and it stuck. He was born in Corrigan on Oct. 5, 1893, and appears to have spent much of his life outside of baseball living in Diboll and Lufkin.
Ross made his pitching debut June 19, 1909, pitching for Diboll against Groveton. He was 16.
“I was the talk of the town,” Ross wrote in a series of columns recalling his career. “Roy Lockett, then one of the best pitchers in the country began to school me and teach me the different ways to follow a batter. And to him is due the credit for my success as a pitcher.”
The next year, not quite 17 he signed a contract with the Silsbee Black Cats.
It wasn’t uncommon for Negro League teams to have rosters with both teenagers and men in their 50s. Fathers and sons — Willie and Cat Mayes for example — sometimes played together.
When the Black Cats owner introduced Ross to his teammates, one asked where he had played last.
“I said, ‘Nacogdoches,”’ Ross wrote. “And he said, ‘Oh, well, then you are Nacogdoches.’ And from that day on I was called Nacogdoches.”
The all Black Nacogdoches team of that era was owned by Casz Donegan, who also operated a dry cleaning shop on Bois D’arc Street and a pool hall.
A typical weekend for Donegan’s team might rake in $85 at the gate on tickets sold at a nickel or dime apiece.
“What a lot of ball players did, they had a real job but their vocation was playing baseball. They played baseball on weekends for $10 a game or $20 a game,” said Revel, of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research.
It’s unknown how long Ross spent with Donegan’s team.
What is clear is that Ross made big bucks for his talent. Right before World War I, Ross was making $150 — around $3,100 today — a month as a pitcher and manager for the Texas All-Stars, a team Longview resident W.P. Northcutt moved to the Lone Star State from Little Rock, Arkansas.
The team was in flux when the previous manager stole the ball clubs’ money and ran off, and Ross was hired as a mid-season replacement. He went 14-9 on the mound that season before his strong performances led him to sign with the Dallas Black Giants.
His 1918 season was cut short when he was drafted into the Army as a member of the 165th Depot Brigade at Camp Travis. Depot brigades were tasked with receiving new and returning troops. When he wasn’t issuing or taking up uniforms and equipment, he pitched for the brigade’s baseball team.
The competition was likely as good as anyone Ross faced in Dallas. Army Maj. E.B. Johns in an official report recalled that men at Camp Travis had “considerable baseball and football talent.”