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Honoring Adelbert Matthews x'03 the University of Wisconsin's First (And Probably Only) Negro Leaguer

Photo of Adelbert Metthews and the Union Giants

Adelbert Richard "Dell" Matthews, a native of Fox Lake Wisconsin, and a student at the University of Wisconsin from 1900-1902 was the first - and most likely the only - Badger to play for a major all-black baseball team during the era of segregation when organized baseball barred African-Americans. A recently discovered photograph of Matthews' 1905 squad provides the only visual evidence of his professional career.

Matthews, along with Julian V. Ware, were the first black athletes to represent the University of Wisconsin on the athletic field. Ware, a power-hitting first baseman, played for the Badgers from 1900-1903, and Matthews, a pitcher, suited up from 1900-1902. The pair helped to lead UW to its first Big Ten baseball championship in 1902.

A pre-law student during his college days, Matthews moved to Chicago and did not return to campus for the 1902-03 school year. Because of the national pastime's color line, he was unable to audition for white professional teams, but the ex-Badger caught the eye of Frank Leland, a legendary black Chicago promoter and team manager. Leland had been one of the most important figures in African-American baseball in the Windy City - and in the nation - since the 1880s, and his teams were often among the best all-black squads in the country. In the spring of 1904, Leland signed Matthews to play for his Union Giants as a pitcher and outfielder.

According to box scores from the Chicago Tribune, Matthews enjoyed mixed success in his first year as a professional, losing to white minor league teams from Clinton, Iowa; Aurora, Illinois; and Racine, Wisconsin, but beating the Spaldings, a strong amateur team from Chicago, and pitching all 16 innings of a 0-0 tie with a semi-pro team from Kanakee, Illinois. In September, the Union Giants hosted the New York-based Cuban Giants, for a three a game series to decide the mythic "Colored Championship." The Cuban Giants won the series two games to one, but Matthews' performance in the contest is unclear from surviving accounts.

In 1905, he returned for another season with the newly renamed Leland Giants. Playing almost exclusively in right field, Matthews batted clean-up throughout the season. In July, Matthews smacked a double and scored two runs in a Giants win over the Gunthers, a strong semi-pro team from Chicago; and, later in the season, he had a double and single and scored two runs to pace his team to victory over a minor league team from Aurora, Illinois.

Neither the 1904 Union Giants nor the 1905 Leland Giants were part of a formal league. The first successful all-black circuit was not founded until 1920, but, in both years, the Giants were among the region's and country's foremost African-American professional squads.

In the early twentieth century, the A.G. Spalding Company published numerous yearly guidebooks that covered the exploits of professional major and minor league teams. In several years, Spalding also published regional and city-based guidebooks that detailed semi-professional and amateur baseball in major metropolitan areas.

The company's 1905 booklet, Chicago Amateur Baseball Annual and Inter-City Baseball Association Year Book, included the only known photograph of Adelbert Matthews' professional baseball career. Matthews (identified by the number 2) is standing in the back row of the team picture, second from the left. The nattily attired Frank Leland (#8) sits in the center of the picture, and some of black baseball's best turn-of-the-century players were among Matthews' teammates in the1905 photograph.

In the back row, second from right, stands George Taylor (#4), a top first baseman and, in 1905, a nearly twenty-year veteran of the ball field. Taylor had been playing since the 1880s, and, in the final years of the nineteenth century, he had been one of a handful of African-Americans to play for integrated minor league teams before organized baseball adopted its informal color line. In 1889, Taylor played for Aspen of the Colorado State League, and in 1892, he was a member of the Beatrice squad of the Nebraska State League.

In the middle row, second from right, sits William Binga (#10), a star infielder for many of the top all-black teams of the era. According to Jim Riley, an expert on the Negro Leagues, Binga "was regarded as one of the top third baseman in the early history of black baseball." Reclining in the front row is Billy Holland (#14), one of the top black pitchers of the time. Holland, whose acquisition in 1905 helped to push Matthews to the outfield, took the mound for some of the best African-American teams at the turn of the twentieth century, including the Page Fence Giants, the Algona Brownies, and the Brooklyn Royal Giants.

At the end of the 1905 season, Matthews hung up his spikes and retired from the diamond. For many years he owned and operated a barber shop on Chicago's south side, and, in 1924, he became the first African-American to work as an inspector for the Illinois State Department of Registration and Education, which, among other duties, licensed and inspected barber shops. A master barber, Matthews was well qualified for the position, and at the time of his death, he was reportedly still the only African-American employed by the Department. Matthews died in December 1938 at the age of 58 at his house in Chicago - eight years before Jackie Robinson re-integrated organized baseball.

Gregory Bond, Ph.D. History
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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