Sport as a Place of Violence in the Tulsa Race Massacre

The American Red Cross Disaster Relief Headquarters in Tulsa, 1921 (Library of Congress)

On Tuesday May 31, 1921, the Oklahoma City Indians baseball team took to the field against the Tulsa Oilers for an afternoon doubleheader. The first game, beginning at 2:00 pm, resulted in a 2-1 victory for the Oklahoma City (OKC) Indians. Then, after a short rest period between games, the Tulsa Oilers rallied for a 6-5 victory that lasted two hours and stretched into the tenth inning.1 

By all accounts, the games played this day were held without incident. This differed from the day before when the two teams scuffled after the umpire cancelled the first game (tied 1 to 1) due to a rain delay and then forfeited the second game, awarding the win to Tulsa despite the fact that OKC was leading 8 to 7 in the sixth inning. The pitcher for OKC, Roy Mitchell, had requested a new ball from the umpire claiming the one in use had become “roughed up.” The umpire denied his request and after multiple repeatedand rejectedattempts to get a new ball, along with the exchange of “impolite words,” Mitchell was tossed. The OKC manager, Dick Breen, argued with the umpire and was also kicked out of the game. Following this, Breen attempted to physically attack the umpire and a fracas broke out on the field. Fans also participated by throwing debris onto the field and challenging both the players and the umpires to a fight. The affair was labeled a riot.

At the conclusion of the doubleheader on May 31, the Tulsa Oilers hit the road for a three-game series against the Wichita Witches. The OKC team also intended to leave Tulsa for a series in Missouri. The plan had been to take an overnight train to Joplin to face the “Miners.” But while the Oilers had already left the state, the OKC team was still milling about in the area (as the train station was directly across from the stadium) when a gun battle and the beginnings of a racial pogrom erupted around them. 

While the origins of the racial pogrom are well documented elsewhere, a brief account is necessary to explain how the baseball team became witnesses to this horror. On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a Black youth was falsely accused of assaulting a white elevator operator named Sarah Page. It is believed the elevator did not stop level with the entry’s floor threshold, causing Dick to trip as he entered the car and fall unintendedly against Page. Page’s cry of shock caught the attention of a White employee in the building who summoned the police. The following day, on May 31, Rowland had been arrested and a newspaper article in the Tulsa Tribune ran an inflammatory story about the incident with the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” Fearing Rowland would be lynched, a group of armed Black Tulsans went to the courthouse to observe, and if necessary, protect Rowland against a growing white mob seemingly desirous of violence.

According to the Sheriff, members of the White contingent attempted to disarm several Black Tulsans, resulting in shots being fired and the initiation of a gun battle. The shots at the courthouse touched off hours of fighting and general chaos in downtown Tulsa, culminating in a running battle between whites and Blacks along the Frisco Railroad tracks. 

The baseball team was in the railyards and witnessed this conflict. Third baseman Eddie Wright, who joined the OKC team in April of 1921, said they were delayed in their departure to Missouri because of the violence. “It was 10 o’clock in the morning of June 1st when the yards finally cleared so that our train got underway. Bodies in mutilated condition were all over the yard and the Black section was burned. There was not a sign of a home, a building or anything to indicate that there had ever been a settlement there. The mob burned everything in sight.”2

Another OKC team member who witnessed the destruction was pitcher Clyde “Buck” Ramsey. Ramsey observed a particularly horrific event, saying he saw the bodies of many Black Tulsans thrown into burning buildings along the Frisco tracks. The incident Ramsey names is likely the same one described by Alfred Brophy in Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921 where, at 1:30 in the morning of June 1, two houses at Archer and Boston had been set on fire by a White mob. As five or six Black men ran from the burning homes, they were shot. Ramsey said the men, whether wounded or dead, were thrown back into the burning structures and that a mob of White men later prevented the fire department from laying hose and battling the fire. 

Ramsey compiled a career batting average of .239 with 1 home run in his 224-game career with the Oklahoma City Indians and six other teams. He had a 55 to 36 win/loss record as a pitcher. He began playing during the 1919 season and last took the field in 1927. It should be noted that “Big” Clyde, the projected pitching superstar for Oklahoma City, did not have a good year in terms of wins. While Ramsey (who was the league’s best pitcher the year prior), was already having an up and down season, he was never quite the same star after Tulsa. One wonders if the horrors he witnessed, and possible post-traumatic stress, impacted his ability to pitch.

If nothing else, playing a game of baseball would have likely been discordant after experiencing the human terror and racial terrorism he witnessed. In the end, the OKC team finished third in their professional league that year, with a 93-75 record. Further, the Tulsa Oilers, who were in first place on June 2 (and the league champion in 1920) ultimately finished last, with a 65-103 record.

Back in Tulsa, as the racial pogrom continued, Black men, women, and children were rounded up and taken to select locations for detention, including the McNulty Baseball Park—where the doubleheader had been played just a day prior. Several who survived this ordeal described their detainment and detention there. 

Architect J. C. Latimer stated that between 5 am and 6 am on June 1, a mob of White men and boys swarmed his house and shot out all of his windows before ordering him out. As he exited his house, Latimer was struck repeatedly and told to put his arms in the air or risk being shot. After getting to the baseball park, Latimer said the women were permitted to take the grandstand, while the men were clustered around the grounds. 

C. L. Netherland, a successful businessman from the Greenwood area, also noted his loss and described the cruel actions that forced him into McNulty Park. On the morning of June 1, Netherland was marched through the streets at gunpoint and taken to the ballpark. He noted with anger, and a sense of survivor humor, that the night before he had slept in a 10-room modern brick home, and that his bed was now two benches in the baseball stadium.

Observers to this scene noted that the ground outside the ballpark was covered with suitcases and various household goods carried by detainees as their homes burned.3 Inside, the park was full of the sounds of intermingled talking, praying, cursing, and crying. Thousands of Black Tulsans were huddled from one end of the grandstand to the other.

Sports fans often describe a sense of esprit de corps when being with others in a stadium. But what happens to this positive energy when a stadium becomes tainted by violence? Here, McNulty Park in Tulsa shares a terrible history with other sporting venues connected to harm. In 1973, the military coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected president turned the country’s beloved national soccer stadium into a prison and torture camp. In the 1990s the Taliban used the Ghazi Soccer Stadium in Afghanistan as a venue for public executions. It is fascinating and horrible to think that Tulsa sports history shares a linked association with these venues.

In the end, Black Tulsans were allowed to leave only after a white employer vouched for them. They returned to a scorched earth, where the 35 city blocks that once held schools, churches, libraries, and businesses were leveled along with a thousand homes. Likewise, McNulty Park was demolished in 1930, burying the memory of its role in the massacre.

  1. The Oklahoma City Times, June 1, 1921, 28.
  2. Joplin Globe, “Oklahoma City Ballplayers Tell of Conditions in Tulsa Rioting,” June 2, 1922, 3.
  3. The Morning Tulsa Daily World, “Accept Their Fate,” June 2, 1921
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J. Paul

J. Paul is a social scientist and applied practitioner with research interests in the areas of race and ethnicity, genocide and mass violence, and social justice. He has worked most recently as a domestic violence prevention expert, an embedded criminologist for several law enforcement agencies, and as a police patrol officer.