Richard Powell, 92, Elite Giants executive

February 06, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Richard Dennis Powell, who brought the Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues to Baltimore from Nashville, Tenn., and later became the team's business and general manager, died of cancer Tuesday at his daughter's Glenwood home. He was 92.

Mr. Powell was thought to be the last surviving executive of black baseball, from the days when the game was segregated, and was responsible for persuading owner "Smiling" Tom Wilson and Vernon Green, business manager, to relocate the team to Baltimore in 1938.

"Incredibly over the years, he was the managerial force that kept the team in the league and doing well," said James H. Bready, author of Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years and a former Evening Sun editorial writer. "He had an instinct for business as well as sports. He also had good people relationships that could hold a team together in those days."

Pronounced as the "Eee-light Giants," the team's headquarters for many years was at the old York Hotel at Madison Avenue and Dolphin Street.

Its various homes over the years included Bugle Field at Federal Street and Edison Highway, and after its demolition in 1949, the team finished its playing days in 1950 at old Westport Stadium near Old Annapolis Road. Integration of baseball put an end to the Negro Leagues by 1953.

"Black baseball is a misnomer," Mr. Powell told The Sun in 1990. "It would be the same if you were talking about Greek baseball or Jewish baseball. Men, black and white, have the same physical capabilities to play baseball.

"At no time did we bring the fences in or move them back, or shorten the distance from home plate to first base. When people came to the park, they wanted to see a performance on the field. Baseball was baseball."

Mr. Powell was born in Silver Spring and raised in West Baltimore. His exposure to baseball began in his youth when he followed Baltimore's Black Sox. The team - including legendary pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige - played at Maryland Park at Bush and Russell streets. It flourished after World War I but folded in 1934.

"He was in the eighth grade when his father died and he had to leave school," said his daughter, Barbara "Babs" Golden of Glenwood. "His family was plunged into poverty and he did a lot of odd jobs. He worked for bookies, as a fight judge at boxing matches and as a courier for the federal government. Eventually, he went to work for the Social Security Administration from which he retired in the 1970s."

Mr. Powell had played sandlot ball, but never played professionally. He joined the Elites' organization as business manager and later was promoted to vice president. In the early years, he rode the bus with the team as its traveling secretary. He also served as a baseball correspondent for the Afro-American newspapers, turning out his stories on a secondhand typewriter.

"He was always bringing players home like Jim `Junior' Gilliam and Joe Black," Mrs. Golden said. "Our home at 1102 Etting St. was like the headquarters for the Elite Giants."

"The Elites stood for Baltimore all over the eastern part of the country and its season ran on and on," Mr. Bready said. "Powell would keep score and then he'd tear up the score sheets at the end of a game. He was just living for the moment."

During World War II, Mr. Powell served in the Army Quartermaster Corps, where he attained the rank of sergeant. He then returned to Baltimore and resumed his career as business manager of the team. After the death of Vernon Green, who had become the owner, Mr. Powell took charge on behalf of the family.

Hubert V. Simmons recalled a long-distance telephone call from Mr. Powell, inviting him to join the team.

"I was in Atlantic City playing for Farley's Stars in 1949 when he called and told me to come to Baltimore," Mr. Simmons, a pitcher and outfielder, recalled yesterday. "I took the bus and the next morning went to his home where I signed a contract for $200 a month. I looked at it and signed it. I was just happy to be there and playing ball.

"He was always a gentleman and a man of his word. He was a fabulous human being and the things he did were always very classy. He knew baseball and he knew the Negro Leagues inside and out. And he was respected by his peers."

With integration and the demise of the Negro Leagues, Mr. Powell hoped for a position with a major league team. The offers never came.

"He really did feel that a job with the majors would come his way," Mr. Simmons said. "It never happened, and I think he was bitter about it. He would have brought a great deal to a major league team."

Mr. Powell, who lived for years at Basilica Place Apartments, never lost his affection for the game.

"He'd have on two radios and a TV watching and listening to three games all at once," Mrs. Golden said.

"Invariably, his conversations led to a discussion about baseball," said his daughter. "They always did. If he was talking about the weather, he'd say, `That reminds me about a game we were playing on a warm day in 1948.'"

Mr. Powell's marriages to the former Ellese Johnson and Henryene Green ended in divorce.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, 3121 Walbrook Ave.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Powell is survived by five granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

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