Barnstorming black team got its start in Huron

Omaha Rockets came to Huron in 1947

HURON — The year was 1947.

Jackie Robinson played the first game by an African-American in Major League Baseball (MLB) on April 15, breaking a color barrier for what was perceived as the highest level of baseball in the world.

In Omaha, Neb., an African-American businessman by the name of Will Calhoun decided that he could succeed where so many teams, especially in “black baseball” at the time, were failing and having to fold.

He purchased a pair of apartment buildings for players to stay when they would come through the town and find nowhere willing to rent them a room, converted them to a hotel, and he began with a big dream.

“I’ve got a little money. I know why so many of these teams failed,” Will said to the Omaha World-Herald in January 1947. “They tried to get by on a shoestring and didn’t have anything to offer the public.”

Calhoun certainly would not be accused of sparing expenses in his management of the Rockets. He founded the team as a barnstorming team and set out to find a home stadium for the team in Omaha. He brought in top players from the Kansas City Monarchs, such as Syl Murphy and Dedee Saunders and hailed Jewell Day as his first big star. Day was a powerful catcher who played for the Los Angeles White Sox in 1946 and had clubbed 38 home runs that season.

Numerous famous names donned the Rockets uniform over the short time the team was in existence (1947-1949 as an independent club, 1950 as a minor league club for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs).

Satchel Paige found his way to the Rockets, though his time was likely shared among several teams that Paige would pitch for as a barnstormer in the nearly two seasons between Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut and his own MLB debut in June of 1948 with the Cleveland Indians.

Along with Satchel, a future National Football League Hall of Fame defensive back would patrol the outfield for the Rockets in 1947 as Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane was signed from local Council Bluffs, Iowa.

He would play one season for the Rockets before joining the U.S. Army and excelling on service football teams, leading to his career with the Los Angeles Rams.

Omaha native Bob Gibson is reported to have pitched his first “professional” pitches for the Rockets, though most likely late in the team’s run, and he was never included officially in the team’s roster due to Gibson’s age — he was 15 when the Rockets played their last game.

With that sort of star power, one would think finding a place to play would be no problem, but that was not the case for Calhoun as he went about promoting his new club. After trying for weeks to line up a home game in the Omaha area for the team’s opener, he succumbed to opening the season on the road, and that first game was played here in Huron on May 17, 1947.

The Daily Plainsman had coverage of the matchup before it was to be played in the Sunday, May 11 and Wednesday, May 14 editions of the paper. The primary focus of the pre-game coverage was an introduction to the Rockets in the Sunday article. The Wednesday piece focused on balancing the load on the Huron team’s pitchers due to games on Sunday and Tuesday of the next week already scheduled.

The Rockets played the Huron Elks, a town ball team at the time, at what was known as Fair Grounds Park, which is now where the grandstand sits on the State Fairgrounds. The Elks were slated to play in Brookings the next day while the Rockets traveled on to Watertown as part of a trip that included two more stops before they played their first game in the Omaha area at Creighton University’s home park.

The Rockets would end up utilizing Legion Field across the state line in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as the their home park for the majority of that first season.

Coverage of the game once it was played was nonexistent in the local paper. When calling to research further on this game, contacts through the Negro Baseball League Museum suggested that promoters often would do exactly that in coverage of a barnstorming game in order to drum up interest and attendance. The only way to know about the game was to be there, so plenty of information would be out ahead of the game, but then the promoter would make a deal with local media not to cover the game immediately afterward.

The Rockets did attempt to make another trip through Huron that summer, with a game scheduled for August 6, 1947. From an article in The Daily Plainsman ahead of that game, it was discovered that Dick Hershman had pitched the first contest for the Elks, and he won the game, but no further details about that May 17 game were found. The August 6 game was eventually cancelled due to weather.

A sports editorial article from August 7, 1947 in the Argus Leader mentioned that the Rockets requested $165 up front to play Pierre. The writer found that to be an exceptional amount. Utilizing a number of online time value calculators, that $165 would be between $1,900 and $2,000 in today’s money. That’s certainly not a cheap upfront fee, but it likely wouldn’t cover the cost of gas, hotel, and food for the players from Omaha to Huron.

Calhoun worked out deals with every location he played, whether it be a share of the gate, appearance fees when he had well-known players such as Paige traveling with him, a share of concession sales, or a combination of all of the above.

However, he seldom made significant money on the team, and after the 1949 season, he reached an agreement to be an official minor league club of the Monarchs. He stepped back from the spotlight around the club at that time, and tragic circumstances would force his permanent retreat from the public spotlight soon thereafter as Calhoun was convicted of murdering a drifter at his hotel who made threats to his wife. The judge held over the trial, and Calhoun never served time, but his reputation was ruined.

The legacy of the Rockets lives on today through a restaurant bearing the team’s name that opened in 2017. The Omaha Rockets Kanteen is a tribute to all Negro League baseball, opened by Omaha native Donald Curry. The Kanteen also hosts the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame and boasts plenty of information about a host of local African-American sports stars.

Huron would see other traveling teams come through town, though more folklore seems to be present than actual record of play regarding the exact players who were on the field in those barnstorming games. The other confirmed game found of a black barnstorming team in archives was a game between two legendary barnstorming squads in August of 1939, as the Kansas City Monarchs faced off against the House of David’s well-known traveling team.

In that game, the article in The Daily Plainsman did confirm that Satchel Paige was on Kansas City’s roster, but he did not participate in the game. The game was sponsored by the Huron Amateur Baseball Association of the time, who made $100 from the game played at what was then known as Ravine Park.

As we come to the end of Black History Month in February, Huron’s roots as a town of racial tolerance and even preeminence within baseball is refreshing and something the community could and should look back upon with pride.

The Negro Leagues celebrate their 100th anniversary this year, and it’s an incredible legacy for Huron to be part of the beginning of the story of a franchise that’s part of that century-old history.