Of all the sports topics I've studied, none captured my imagination like the Monroe (La.) Monarchs, a Negro Southern League baseball team that competed in the 1930s.
I discovered the team's existence while thumbing through a book on baseball stadiums (Green Cathedrals) in a store in 1992. The small entry on Casino Park, home of the Monarchs, sent me on a quest to learn more.
I soon found the team's second baseman, Augustus Saunders, living in Monroe. I couldn't wait to talk to him, but unfortunately my timing was bad. His wife passed away the week that I made first contact and he was in no mood to visit.
Eventually though, he welcomed me to his home and shared his amazing stories about the team's short, rich history.
"We had a team," Saunders began that hot summer day in his living room, "a good, black baseball team."
Imagine my surprise to discover that the Monarchs played the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1932 Negro League World Series and helped produce future Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith and outfielder Willard Brown. The Crawfords beat the Monarchs, thanks to a loaded lineup that featured pitcher Satchel Paige and catcher Josh Gibson.
Saunders grew up in Whistler, Ala., and said he watched Paige pitch as a youngter in Mobile. He took pride in the one hit he collected off Paige in the World Series.
"Boy he could pitch," Saunders said. "He just looked like a big old bear standing up there. He was just a natural born baseball player."
Gibson hit a tape-measure home run in Game 5 at Casino Park. Saunders said the towering shot to left field was one of the longest he ever saw.
"He hit it out towards the tracks in left field," Saunders said. "There was a train on the track at the time and we always said the ball carried on the next town."
Years later, late Negro League legend Buck O'Neil told me in a phone interview that he played against the Monarchs at Casino Park in 1935. He vouched for the amazing teams that played in Monroe in those days.
"It was a very good team," said O'Neil, who was Hilton Smith's roommate with the Kansas City Monarchs. "You named some guys that were on that team like Hilton. Willard Brown was on that team. Ted Mayweather. Very good."
Owned by a white drilling company operator named Fred Stovall, the Monarchs played in Casino Park, which stood near what is now Carroll High School. The park is no longer in existence.
"It was down at the tail end of DeSiard," O'Neil said. "It was more like an amusement park. They had a dancehall and a swimming pool. It was one of the few swimming pools in the South for blacks."
O'Neil said Stovall's generosity with his players was legendary."He was just like J.L. Wilkinson in Kansas City," O'Neil said. "Stovall was the type of guy that when things got tough in the winter and his players needed some spare change to get by, he'd give it to them."
In an interview with Black Ball News in 1993, former Monroe Monarch Marlin Carter talked about playing for Stovall: "Fred Stovall was a very wealthy man. On his plantation he built a ballpark for his team. He also built a recreation center where the players relaxed when they weren't playing.Stovall spent a lot of money on his ball team. The players lived in houses on Stovall's plantation, and our meals were prepared by a cook the Stovalls employed. In 1932 he bought three brand-new Fords for the team to travel in. But, most importantly, we always got paid. All the way around, the Monarchs were a pretty classy operation."