Charlie Culver

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Charles Culver
also known as Charlie Calvert

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Biographical Information[edit]

Charlie Culver was one of the few African-American players to play in organized baseball between the time the color barrier was implemented in 1890 and the signing of Jackie Robinson prior to the 1946 season. He played 6 games for the Montreal Royals of the Eastern Canada League in 1922.

Culver was born in Buffalo, NY in 1892, presumably out of wedlock to a white father who worked as a detective for the Pinkerton Company, and an African-American mother. He was raised by his father and by the the mid-1910s was playing for some of the better Negro Leagues team of his time while working as a porter at Penn Station in New York, NY. In September 1919, he was playing for the Havana Red Sox, an independent Negro Leagues team with no affiliation to Cuba in spite of its name, and took part in an exhibition tour in Quebec. Within a year, he had settled in Montreal, QC and married a local woman, Paula Saint-Arnaud, a young widow with a young son. In 1920, he signed up to play with the Saint-Henri semi-pro team in his new city, which was playing the highest caliber baseball in the province at the time, as the old Montreal Royals had left town in 1917. Playing under the name Charlie Calvert, he quickly established himself as one of the better players in the province, both as a pitcher and a position player.

In 1922, the principals of the semi-pro team in nearby St. Hyacinthe, QC decided to assemble the strongest possible team to play against all comers, and he was one of the players recruited, his signing being noted in newspapers. Shortly thereafter, tireless promoter Joe Page, who was behind just about every baseball venture in Quebec from the 1890s to the 1930s, decided to form a four-team professional league and got the circuit accepted by the National Association as a Class B league. The four teams started to recruit players locally, and Culver was signed by the re-formed Montreal Royals. Thanks to Page's extensive connections in baseball, he managed to attract the Boston Braves to come play an exhibition game against the Montreal team, which took place on April 30th. Culver was the starting shortstop for the Royals and went 2 for 4 with a double hit off Gene Lansing. The game got some coverage in the Boston Globe, but as the paper had no reporter actually present in Montreal, no mention was made of Culver's race (and his double was wrongly credited to a teammate). Montreal opened its season on May 11th, with Culver pitching a complete game and hitting a homer. In its preview of the game, The Montreal Gazette noted that "Manager Larry Carmel will probably start his Cuban twirler, Charlie Calvert...." [1]. Likewise in a preview of an exhibition game 5 days earlier the same paper called him a "Cuban moundsman" [2]. That is based on the fact his first appearance in Quebec was on a team called "Havana", but in fact he had absolutely no link to the Caribbean island. He continued to do well over the next week or so, going 6 for 19 (.316) with a double and 2 homers, also winning both of his starts, but his name then disappeared from boxscores after the game of May 16th. There are two possible explanations: one is that the team in St. Hyacinthe claimed that they already had a valid contract for Culver; or alternatively, the National Association somehow got wind that an African-American player was playing up in Canada and asked that this cease. No documentation has been found to confirm either hypothesis, but he did play the remainder of the season with St. Hyacinthe.

Culver continued to star in semi-pro leagues in Quebec until 1930, even being part of a team that played with Babe Ruth during an exhibition game in Montréal in 1928: he pitched the first 7 innings, and the Bambino himself relieved him when he became tired! In 1930, he put his career on hold after his wife died of typhoid fever, leaving him to care for three young children, who were eventually put up for adoption. He reappeared in 1934 as a player-manager around Quebec, while working for the Canadian Vickers factory and rising to the rank of foreman. Among other assignments, he coached the "Black Panthers", a team of African-American players taking part in the Provincial League, which was an outlaw league at the time. One of the players he coached during that time was a teenage Paul Calvert (no relation) with Chambly, QC in 1937, who would later pitch in the majors. He was on the team that won the eastern Canadian amateur championship in 1944, pitching and winning the title game at age 52. In 1946, when the Provincial League was re-established as an independent league, he tried to play, but soon realized he was too old for such a high level of competition. He settled into being one the most respected youth coaches in Montreal, guiding the Ville-Marie team that was a perennial powerhouse in the Montreal Junior League. He also twice coached the Montreal junior all-star team that faced an equivalent team from Brooklyn, NY in the 1950s. Among the players he worked with were Ray Daviault, who would also pitch in the majors, and Denis Brodeur, one of the best amateur baseball players of his day but who went on to greater fame as a hockey goaltender and sports photographer. He remarried sometime around 1950. When he passed away in 1970, he was remembered in his obituaries as probably the best shortstop who ever played in Quebec, and someone who would surely have played in the majors were it not for the color of his skin.

Yet, for all his talent and pioneering work, Culver was largely forgotten until his story was dug up by SABR researcher Christian Trudeau in 2020. Because he played on the fringes of organized baseball and almost all of the press coverage he received was in French, his stint in the minor leagues was completely forgotten for almost a century. In 2021, he was inducted in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame as part of its large class of Canadian baseball pioneers.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Alexandre Pratt: "Avant Jackie Robinson, Montréal a accueilli Charlie Culver", La Presse, March 28, 2020. [3]
  • Christian Trudeau: "24 Years Before Jackie, There Was Charlie Culver", in Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Vol. 49, Nr. 1 (Spring 2020), pp. 15-19.

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