Researcher #NE001 Lila:
The more we receive about Donaldson and the more we read about the researchers who have helped us over these past eight or nine years has lead us to realize the most amazing stories are often with the researchers themselves.
One researcher joining our effort comes from Nebraska. Nebraska is a state much like Iowa in that they have always loved
baseball. A lot of good ballplayers came from Nebraska farms. And for a long time, we suspected Nebraska hid a lot of treasures. Omaha, with an intense history as a major railroad hub has always been a great place for baseball. And it remains that way today. There's a long history to why the College World Series is held in Omaha.
After finding posts asking for help, Lila answered our call for help:
"It took only one lookup in a Greenwood, Nebraska newspaper, to get me hooked on the John Donaldson story. Baseball was part of my life while my husband was living, but my research skills, up to November of 2007, had been limited to genealogy.
For twenty years I researched my husband's and my own families and early in 2007 published a book, The Ancestors of Two Brothers: Thomas Earl Garner & Robert Paul Garner
, about my findings.
As research for the book was winding down, I made my first foray into modern (20th Century) sleuthing when I pursued the facts that led to the reunion of an adoptee with his birth family. During the latter investigation, I've been called a "bloodhound", a "spitfire genealogist," "a piece of work (in a most respectful and affectionate way)," and "a dog with a bone." No one has called me a crackpot, not yet. This was an emotionally draining project.
The Donaldson endeavor is proving to be interesting and compelling without the emotional involvement of my previous projects, the kind of undertaking I need."
Lila, you may not have as much "emotional involvement," but many of your findings have certainly brought tears to our eyes! We hope to have some of your findings up here on the website soon!
Researcher #KS002 Jan:
We have many new researchers joining our effort. One of the latest is Jan, who volunteered to find some
missing dates in Kansas. And she struck it, big time,
discovering a day in Horton, Kansas in early May of 1916.
What this means is there's an entire month of May, in 1916 that we didn't know anything about. That also
means we might start finding games starting as early as May 1st on other years before and after 1916. You see, one hundred
years ago, a heavy spring rain spell could spell a disasterous week in the life of a barnstorming baseball team. Not
only are the fields muddy, but travel using anything but a train during a rainy week meant stuck vehicles, horses or
wagons. The team might make it to the field. But the fans might not.
We are celebrating Jan's effort, and can say without a doubt she has found the proverbial "needle in a
haystack." Now we can start using that needle to mend a baseball record and a history of barnstorming baseball that has
almost been forgotten.
Thanks Jan. Professional researchers have told us that the info just isn't there regarding Donaldson, and
other barnstormers like Jose Mendez and Satchel Paige. And you have helped us prove they are wrong.
Researcher #IA001 Roger Natte:
I am a retired college professor who has had a long interest in local history, especially in how local
events and movements reflect the broader scope of American history. One of my interests has been in the ethnic history
of my community. Although the population of Fort Dodge area is a mixture of nationalities most have come from northern
Europe. Nevertheless, there has been an African-American presence from the first years of settlement. At the beginning
of the 20th century baseball clearly was the sport of choice with most towns, even the smallest, organizing a local team
often with outsiders brought in to play key positions. Several towns organized teams of all black players. More
frequently single black stars filled gaps in all white lineups. Fort Dodge was large enough to have a team which was
entirely pro or semi-pro but as far as I have been able to discover never had black ball players. Their opponents were
often traveling teams from as far away as Kansas City which often did include non-white members. Lehigh was another town
in the same county as Fort Dodge. It was a coal mining and clay products manufacturing community but was noted for its
baseball. It's team, the Lehigh Lightfeet, played all comers, including the Chicago Cubs. They were so popular that a
cigar was named after the team. It was the Lehigh team that recruited John Donaldson.
I was aware of Donaldson as a Lehigh player but I had no idea of his career before or after Lehigh until I
was contacted by Pete Gorton. I soon found out that Donaldson had long been forgotten, not only in Fort Dodge but also
in Lehigh. People were aware that there were black ball players but knew little more than that. Fortunately several
newspapers from both Fort Dodge and Lehigh date back to this period. Unfortunately none have been indexed. Fortunately
the local historical society is currently in the process of indexing those from this period. Unfortunately this is a long
job and probably will take over a year. The rewards, however, are the things we discover that are totally new in each
paper we read. The story of John Donaldson and the African Americans here has become an unfolding of a wonderful story.
Each day we add to it. It is especially exciting because we know the end of the story but we are now following the
journey to that end.
Donaldson was here at what may be considered one of the low points in black and racial history. Newspapers
are filled with stories of lynchings and the driving of black people out of towns, not only in the South but also in Iowa.
A black person charged with even a minor offense, even in communities outside of the state, made front page news in the
Fort Dodge papers. The use of racial slurs in news stories, even about local ball players, is shocking by today's standards.
Although, as a history teacher I have long been aware of the racial climate of the times, I never fail to be shocked
when I see in the records specific local instances of how malevolent our society has been. It is amazing that a person
like Donaldson was able to tolerate that climate. From all that we have been able to find locally Donaldson, in spite of
the slurs, was highly respected as a great ball player and a gentleman. He apparently had positive feelings toward Lehigh
and Fort Dodge because he kept returning to the area years after his playing days here were over. He may have been a
great ball player but he also was a man of great courage and discipline.
Research in any area can be a lonely experience. Being in contact with someone else who is interested in
your subject is inspiring. You have a chance to be at least a part of a larger and more worthwhile project. Sharing of
information allows the achievement of something which independently might never have happened. Although John Donaldson is
the focus of our efforts I and those here who have been involved have learned much more about our own community and our
history. We are made much richer also by discovering what roles our communities have played in a broader more glorious
Researcher #ND001 Jean:
I research black baseball history. My area of interest is the gifted, charismatic, "legendary hurler", John Donaldson.
As a white, married, mother of two grown daughters who knows next to nothing about Americas favorite pastime, I can
hardly believe it myself.
It began simply enough. I am an amateur genealogist, and happened to read a post on a local Ancestory.com
board from a man needing newspaper accounts for two baseball games played back in the early 1900s. Helping other
researchers find information is an important aspect of genealogy. But this post seemed a little far-fetched, and I
wondered if it were some kind of hoax. The author, Peter Gorton, said he was making a push for a player to be inducted
into the Baseball Hall of Fame and claimed this famous pitcher had played in my hometown. "Yea, right," I thought to
myself. But a few Google searches and mouse clicks later, I discovered that Mr. Gorton was a contributing author to a
book, "Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota". He was also mentioned several times in an online newspaper
piece. Reading that article was my turning point. I had stumbled upon
the story of John Donaldson.
Amazing! How could the sports world have forgotten about such a talented, ground-breaking athlete? I was
fascinated. The newspaper reporter noted that John died in obscurity, and had been buried in an unmarked grave in Illinois.
Peter Gortons name was listed as one of those trying to restore his legacy. That was enough for me. Id reply to the post.
Finding those two games would be my small contribution to righting what seemed to be a long overlooked injustice.
It didnt take much time for me to obtain the information that was needed. However I discovered the more
I read about John Donaldson, the more I wanted to know not just about the athlete, but about the man. Ive stopped
counting the numbers of films Ive looked through, the maps Ive studied, the archives Ive searched, the hours Ive spent
at the library, and the late nights in front of my computer. Uncovering a piece of long forgotten history is exciting.
And although my contribution to recreating John Donaldsons baseball career has been very small, I cant help but feel
that I have done something important. The information Ive found will not be lost again. It will be recorded in the
archives of The Hall of Fame and studied by historians, enjoyed by fans, and passed down through generations. Isnt it
ironic, that in restoring John Donaldsons legacy, we end up creating a tiny piece of our own!
The experience of being part of what Pete Gorton likes to call The Donaldson Network exposed me to more
than I could have ever imagined. I now appreciate the importance of newspaper archives. They contain the details of
history that can never be found in books. Ive learned that although the struggle for racial equality finally peaked in
the 50s and 60s, the blurring of the color line began with baseball decades before. The courageous players who filled the
rosters of those early barnstorming teams often faced hostile crowds, but the talent and character of men such as John
Donaldson demanded respect and they got it. An unexpected bonus of my research is the people Ive met; the local
baseball historians who never failed to return my phone calls; all the librarians who not only helped me search, but
once actually assisted in unraveling an entire film through out the library because it had been incorrectly reeled upside
down and backwards; friends Ive never met from the genealogy society who gave me free access to all their material; and
of course, Peter Gorton who answered every single question I asked (and there were MANY), kept me focused, was always
encouraging, and never failed to let me know how much my efforts were appreciated. If you ever want an example of the
difference just one person can make, Petes your man. His efforts on John Donaldsons behalf can only be described as
Was I disappointed when this extraordinary player was not inducted into Baseballs Hall of Fame? Yes! Do I
think its important that he be there? Yes! But, I like to think there is a reason for everything. There are too many
games left to find before the measure of John Donaldsons career can be fully appreciated. The hunt might have abruptly
halted had his induction attempt been successful. So now the search continues in hopes that when another opportunity
surfaces, John might finally receive the public acknowledgement he so richly deserves. And if fate and the Hall of Fame
decree it otherwise, so be it. No one can take away whats already been restored the historical record of a legendary
Researcher #KS001 Sam Sinke:
Pete Gorton and I became friends when he took over a job I held in Tallahassee, Florida back in (I think)
1999. We continued to work in the satellite industry together for a couple more years, working at the Iowa Caucus and New
Hampshire Primaries, and a few other events. When we both left the company, the company folded (*We'd like to think that
they just couldn't survive without us.*), but we continued to work on satellite, television and video production together.
And if there's one thing we've all come to know about Pete is that you don't have to worry if the job will be done right if
My friend Pete needed help. He had been working on this project for eight years, had a ton of data, needed
even more box scores, line scores and stories surrounding this amazing ball player he'd been following.
What I'd realized is how good Pete was at networking, but how he could really be utilizing so many of the
new tools we have available to us today. Some of the things that come easy to me, such as building a web site, searching
through microfilm (I was six credits away from a double-minor in history), traveling to small towns throughout the
midwest (I travel to these places for work, anyway). I started work on building the web site... from the ground-up... and
am keeping the ball rolling on discovering new games by pouring through every small town newspaper archive I can find.
What I hope to do is capture and share with the world (mostly via the internet) a real picture of this
great player, who was almost lost to history, yet I also hope that we can learn a lot more about how important it is to
work together when a project is this important. Working together, people put a proper gravestone on Donaldson's unmarked grave in Chicago. This is what it is to be a good neighbor, a good friend, and a good fan. I can't wait to see what happens next.
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