Neil Churchill didn't just play cards. He played cards for money. He played frequently and at times recklessly. When a game couldn't be found, he'd wager on something, somewhere, with someone, or maybe shoot up to Winnipeg and drop a few dollars on the ponies. Neil Churchill had the fever. "He'd gamble on what time the sun would come up," chuckles Lyle Porter, who as a boy fetched balls at Bismarck games and practices.
Old-timers still talk about some of those bets. There was the day Churchill raced Harry Potter (who didn't do anything more supernatural than manage Bismarck's municipal airport) to Fargo, 186 miles. Winner take all. They left from the Patterson Hotel, Churchill going the distance in his Chrysler Airflow sedan, Potter driving to the airport and jumping into his single-engine yellow Stinson. Churchill, whose lead foot was well known to the police, smoked Potter. Another time he raced sprinter Jesse Owens head-to-head across the outfield grass of the ballpark; actually, head-to-two-heads: Churchill was on horseback. Nobody alive today can recall who ate whose dust, but money surely was riding on the outcome.
Churchill played bridge for 10 cents a point but preferred poker for appreciably higher stakes. He lost an apartment building he owned when the cards didn't fall in his favor one night at the Patterson Hotel;on another occasion he had to surrender the keys to a new Chrysler. Word travels fast through back channels in small towns. Compulsive gambling may not have been a recognized addiction in the 1930s, but people were aware Neil Churchill carried that monkey on his back. Some Bismarckers took umbrage at the thought of fat cats tossing cars into a poker pot while so many families were subsisting on relief checks and scrambling to pay mortgages. A more empathetic Wick Corwin told his partner that he worried about him. Churchill didn't want to hear it. He had his extracurricular activities under control, thank you very much. In one respect, he functioned at a higher level because of them. Like other businesses, Corwin-Churchill Motors limped through the Depression. How, then, did Neil Churchill find the wherewithal to rejuvenate a semipro team or go on a shopping spree to get Satchel Paige? Simple: the magic of symbiotic vices. His gambling addiction supported his baseball addiction. As long as Churchill's luck held away from the ball field, he could afford to keep putting a new and improved team on it. Sometimes he enjoyed the best of both worlds and bet on his ball team.
Gambling was a wink-and-a-nod crime thoroughly ingrained in the culture of the northern Plains, where daily existence qualified as a roll of the dice. Farmers' fortunes are tethered to weather, the ultimate fickle finger of fate. Recreational gambling was so popular that newspapers felt comfortable making public mention of the action. In 1926 a basketball game between Churchill's Phantoms and a team from the town of Glen Ullin had to be moved to a neutral site because of a scheduling conflict at World War Memorial Hall, the Phantoms' home court. Permission was secured to play at the reform school's gymnasium in Bismarck, with the Tribune noting, "The state board of administration stipulated, however, that the $500 side bet between the two teams be called off and that no other betting of any kind be permitted. Representatives of the two teams agreed to the terms."
Seven years later—on Saturday, August 12, 1933—the Tribune splashed a bold headline across the full width of its sports page: "Baseball Spirit Grips City as Bismarck–Jamestown Game Nears." Satchel Paige's arrival was imminent and preparations were under way. Extra bleachers had been erected in anticipation of a beyond-capacity crowd that might top 2,500. Northern Pacific added a special baseball train that would leave Jamestown at 8:30 Sunday morning and chug into downtown Bismarck at precisely 11:03. The Bismarck Association of Commerce was organizing a volunteer car caravan to meet the train and take all curious Jamestown fans on a one-hour tour of the capital, guaranteed to finish in plenty of time for the scheduled first pitch at 3:00.
The Tribune story reiterated the roster changes Churchill had made since the teams last met ten days earlier, with "Red Haley, Cuban, heavy-hitting and spectacular-fielding shortstop" and "Quincy Troupe, giant Negro" augmenting the signing of Paige. A possibly epic confrontation loomed. Baseball junkies were having heart palpitations. Pete Zappas, owner of the Palace Café in James- town, sent a telegram to Neil Churchill on Friday before the big game: Some Jamestowners were prepared to bet $500 that they'd be riding the return train on Sunday night wearing victory smiles. Any takers? As the Tribune reported, Churchill and Bismarck fan Fred Thimmesch "in their reply offered to raise the ante to $1,000." That was not chump change. It is the equivalent of nearly $17,000 today, evidence that North Dakotans took their baseball almost as seriously as they did their corn and wheat.
Gus Greenlee took baseball seriously, too, and didn't see the humor in his marquee pitcher breaking a contract and bolting for Bismarck. He pulled some strings and had Paige briefly detained by the Pittsburgh police. But as Paige once said of himself, "I'm Satchel. I do as I do." And so he did. Like wood smoke, he shifted direction and was gone. His sleeper train pulled into Bismarck late Saturday afternoon. Troupe, Haley, and Churchill were standing on the station platform.
"Hey, Troupe!" Paige called out. "Man, that train picked up horses, chickens, everything. And a few miles down the track they waited for a cattle roundup!" A porter trailed behind, toting three bulging suitcases. Despite his penchant for pulling up stakes as regularly as a Gypsy caravan, Paige disdained traveling light.
Troupe handled the introductions. "Satch, this is Mr. Churchill, owner of the team. And you know Haley."
"We're glad to have you with us," Churchill said, beaming with delight. "I hope you'll like our little town."
Haley shook Paige's hand. Five years ago in Alabama they'd been teammates with the Birmingham Barons. "As I live and breathe," said Paige, "what are you doing here?"
"Playing ball, Satch, but I never thought I'd see you out here doing the same."
Churchill drove his three prized players to the 200 block of South Seventh Street, on the working-class side of town. Troupe and Haley were renting rooms in the home of Louis and Edith White, a black couple in their fifties. Louis worked as a porter and car washer at Copelin Motors. Owner Fred Copelin and Churchill were friends. It was the ideal living situation for young Quincy Troupe: a family atmosphere with Haley able to fill the role of baseball big brother. Paige would be staying with the Whites for a few days, then go his own way, most likely ending up at the spartan but always accommodating Princess Hotel. For now, however, Churchill could take comfort in knowing that his mischievous pitcher would at least get one good night's sleep. Indeed, the next afternoon Paige was on the job early, taking infield practice at the ballpark with his new teammates. Churchill sidled up to him. "Satch, are you ready to pitch today?"
"Oh, yeah. Ready as I'll ever be."
Paige sensed that Jamestown wasn't showing proper respect for a worthy opponent, "givin' Bismarck the hee-haw," as he put it. He intended to bring them down a peg. Maybe someone had shown him a copy of the Jamestown Sun. People couldn't seem to believe the Northern Pacific railroad was charging only $1 for a round-trip to Bismarck. A Sun reporter wrote in his pregame story, "'It is so cheap that we can't afford to stay at home and wait in suspense to hear how badly we beat them' is the sentiment expressed on the street today."
Nobody on the streets of Jamestown apparently had heard about the signing of Satchel Paige.
From Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line by Tom Dunkel. Copyright 2013 by Tom Dunkel. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.