MINEOLA – In a time when racial prejudices divided businesses, water fountains and even the nation’s greatest pastime, The Mineola Black Spiders kept swinging.
“They weren’t the greatest, they didn’t make it to the majors … but it is something noteworthy,” said Lou Mallory of the Wood County Historical Commission.
The Black Spiders began playing in the late 1920s at Epperson Field in Mineola, toured the country, changed names, swapped players and gained success up until 1938.
Despite all this, the team’s story has gone unnoticed locally. Because the newspaper rarely published stories or photographs about the black community, researching the team was near impossible, Mrs. Mallory said.
“But every time I got on the Internet, I looked to see what I could find,” she said. “I kept researching …We needed to preserve that part of our black history.”
Now, more than eight decades after their last season ended, The Spiders finally receive the local fame they deserve.
The city unveiled a state historical marker for the Black Spiders at 2 p.m. today at Mineola City Hall, 300 Greenville Ave. The marker is at South Park, at the meeting of South Pacific Street and U.S. Highway 69.
The Mineola Black Spiders first gained momentum in 1932, when Vern Klingaman, an Iowa native who was living in Mineola, bought the team with intentions to make it a national success.
“How he acquired the team, I have no idea,” said his son, Gene Klingaman, 74, of Houston. But with nine children and a wife to feed, he said he thinks it was “a grocery matter.”
Despite some resistance from the local players, Klingaman began recruiting players from across the state, and changed the team’s name to the Texas Black Spiders, Mrs. Mallory said.
Klingaman said his father helped bring the team into the spotlight.
“He took this team and went from Mexico through the center of the country up into Canada,” Klingaman said.
As the Black Spiders gained momentum, an all-white, semi-pro team formed in Mason City, Iowa, and planned to fill its schedule with top touring teams. Klingaman took his team north.
At the landmark dedication, Dallas Morning News sports columnist Kevin Sherrington described the team as “unique.”
“There were no other black barnstorming teams in Texas in that time,” Sherrington said.
The team traveled across the country in a windowless bus, “barnstorming” their way from town to town, sometimes playing as many as three games a day.
Under Vern’s management, the Texas Black Spiders defeated the Ben Hayes All-Indian Club in Holdenville, Okla., teams in Memphis, Little Rock, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and the Milwaukee Giants.
On July 17, the Texas Black Spiders defeated the Mason City Bats 3-0. Eventually, some of Black Spiders were recruited to the Mason City Bats, and changed names, yet again, to the Mason CityBlack Bats.
Mrs. Mallory said the team built a reputation of being one of the fastest teams of the south – almost the “Harlem Globe Trotters of baseball,” known for a catcher who sometimes sat in a rocking chair and an “air-ball” warm-up routine.
The Black Spiders are believed to have played some of the early stars of the Negro Baseball League.
Sherrington said they played against 15-year-old Bob Feller in a 1934 game in Sidney, Iowa. Feller, nicknamed “The Heater from Van Meter” and “Bullet Bob,” went on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Also, the Black Spiders are believed to have played against Leroy “Satchel” Page, who later, Joe DiMaggio allegedly called, “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”
While the Texas Black Spiders regularly swapped and recruited players, three Mineola locals stayed with it through most of the journey.
Joshua “Goat” Epperson, who was 79 when Sherrington mentioned him in a Dallas Morning News article about Texas Negro Baseball Leagues, started playing with the Mineola Black Spiders circa 1932.
In 1990, locally, “Joshua was best known for shining shoes,” Sherrington said. “No one knew he had played for the Black Spiders.”
Until a major turnover in team personnel in 1937 and a drop in pre-game publicity, the team continued playing strong. With the start of World War II, getting gasoline and rubber for tires was impossible, Sherrington said. The 1938 season may well have been the Black Spiders’ last.
“They played until World War II … then it all disbanded and was over,” Mrs. Mallory said.
Up north, the players were able to make more money, about $15 to $20 a week, compared to $12 in Texas. Also, segregation was less prevalent in the Midwest. They could eat in the main dining room of restaurants instead of the kitchen, Mrs. Mallory said.
Save for family and friends of some original players, The Black Spiders’ story might have been lost locally. In 1990, The Dallas Morning News published a story about the team and a decade later, Mineola erected a local historical marker to the Black Spiders.
Joe and Haywood Epperson, sons of the late “Goat” Epperson, said their father would be proud of the recognition the team has received on local and state levels.
“It means quite a bit,” Haywood said. “If only my mom and dad could see this.”
After the team split up, “Goat” Epperson returned to Mineola and rejoined the local team.
He was the last known local player of the Texas Black Spiders and died in 1998.
“It would have been great to talk to some of these people because they have such great stories.” Sherrington said. “Once they’re gone, the stories are gone.”
Story published May 21 and 22
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Wood County Historical Commission