Tom Archdeacon: Dayton Marcos -- a story that's 'bigger than baseball'

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Jun. 11—This is one of the two scenes he's thinking about today:

It's the Opening Day parade celebrating the Dayton Marcos debut into the newly formed Negro National League. It took place exactly 101 years ago from Saturday — on June 12, 1920.

"The newspaper article told how the parade started on the West Side — at the Mint Hotel (Germantown Ave. at the old Dunbar Avenue) — and went into downtown Dayton," said Alex Smith, a sports and history buff who works in digital marketing for Kettering Health and has become a driving force in recognizing the oft-overlooked Marcos and their importance to this city.

"The article (in the Dayton Herald) told how John Mathews (Marcos' owner) was standing out front and the Dayton Peoples Band, a jazzy, circus-like brass band, was there and there was some real excitement in the air."

That was four months before the Dayton Triangles of the newly-formed entity that soon would be named the National Football League would play their first home game.

While the Triangles have gotten far more recognition here in recent years, the Marcos were the first pro team, they were as historically significant and they often drew bigger crowds.

"Opening Day (against the Chicago Giants) they drew 4,000 people to Westwood Field and it only held 2,000," Smith said. "It was a raucous affair."

And that brings up Smith's other scene.

It's from the day after the Marcos topped Chicago, 5-4, in the opener.

"Everyone was still pumped from the day before and Marcos' outfielder Koke Alexander had a really big game," Smith said. "That article said he was great in the field and went 3-for-3 at the plate with a home run.

"It said his last hit 'meant both praise and money for the player as he was showered with bills as he crossed home plate.'

"To me that's a pretty cool image. As he comes around third, the excited fans are throwing money and he comes running through the floating bills."

The visual spectacle of those scenes will especially come to life for Smith on Saturday, which the Dayton City Commission has proclaimed Dayton Marcos Day in Dayton.

The proclamation was supposed to happen last year — as part of a centennial recognition — but the COVID-19 pandemic upended that like it did so much of the rest of our lives.

"It took away a lot of the things we had planned," Smith said.

Two years ago, Smith began lobbying the city to give the Marcos more recognition. He'd also met with Dayton Dragons officials and said the team had planned a "bunch of cool stuff," including a Throwback Day where they'd wear specially-designed Marcos' jerseys.

"I had lined up presentations at 10 to 12 libraries across Montgomery County to talk about the Marcos and the project we planned," he said.

Smith said because he knows of only three photographic images of the 1920 Marcos, a prime part of the project was to enlist local artists to recreate scenes from the season — especially the two mentioned above — and also present some of the most well-known players from the team, which began play as an independent in 1909, spent two season in the Negro National League (1920 and 1926) and continued on as an independent in various reincarnations until 1950.

He said he presented the idea to the African American Visual Arts Guild two years ago, but it was declined.

"I just don't think they felt it was in their wheelhouse, but afterwards a couple of people reached out to me and saw real promise in it," he said.

He said local artists like Bing Davis, James Pate, Morris Howard and Dwayne Daniel, an assistant professor in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Central State, showed interest and want to take part.

"They realize the story is bigger than just baseball," he said. "There is a special heritage here that has kind of been lost and I believe they see it as a chance to change that narrative. This project could be the catalyst to reclaiming all that."

Ohio-Indiana League

The Marcos were started by Moses Moore, who owned the Marco Hotel, and initially they were to be the entertainment for Dahomey Park, the first black-owned and operated amusement park in the United States.

They were also the only black team to play in the Ohio-Indiana League.

Southpaw pitcher W.G, Sloan became a local hero during the 1913 Dayton Flood which submerged much of the city in 20 feet of water and killed 360 people while damaging 20,000 homes and displacing 65,000 people. It's the worst national disaster in Ohio history.

Sloan used a pistol to commandeer a flat-bottom boat from an unwilling factory owner and then rowed through the rising waters for 68 hours straight, rescuing 317 people.

Yet, he died poor in 1931 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the back of Woodland Cemetery for 81 years until a Good Samaritan who wished to remain anonymous, read a column I'd written on Sloan's plight and paid for a grave marker.

Dayton joined teams from Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati and two from Chicago to form the Negro National League (NNL) in 1920. The Marcos were led by manager and third baseman, Candy Jim Taylor, who would later win two Negro League World Series managing the Homestead Grays and end up as the winningest manager in Negro League history.

Although the team played at Westwood Field, when the celebrated Kansas City Monarchs came to town they met at Assumption Park and drew 11,000 fans.

The Marcos finished their initial season with a 16-36 record and the following year the franchise was moved to Columbus and named the Buckeyes.

The Marcos became an independent again, though in 1926 they had another season in the NNL, this time floundering to a 6-36 mark.

As an independent again and with a bolstered line-up, they won the Indiana-Ohio League title in 1932.

Ray Brown got his start with the Marcos in the early 1930s and became the team's mosttrumpeted player ever.

After leaving Wilberforce University and working at the Dayton Foundry, he began pitching for the Marcos and eventually was picked up by the Negro League powerhouse Homestead Grays. He led them to eight pennants in nine years and in 1940 he no-hit the New York Yankees in a game in Puerto Rico.

He was enshrined in the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1990s and in 2006 he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

At the time he'd been buried for over 40 years in an unmarked grave at Greencastle Cemetery on Nicholas Road.

A story on his plight spurred a communal effort — led by Steve Dankoff, now a Montgomery County Common Pleas judge — and that got him Brown a tombstone and also funded a West Dayton Little League team in his name.

Opportunity to 'make a difference'

Smith learned how everyday people can change things when he was in the fourth grade at Harold Schnell Elementary in West Carrollton.

"Our teacher, Mrs. Young, got us involved in the project and me and group of my classmates got a park in town renamed for two prominent figures in West Carrollton. We presented it to the city council and they did it."

And so Allen Plat Park was renamed Friend Park after George Friend and his son, J. Howard Friend, founders of the paper making industry in West Carrollton.

Now Smith is involved again.

"This is why I love Dayton," said Smith, who lives in the Walnut Hills area of town. "In a mid-sized city like this there is so much opportunity to lead things and make a difference.

"I'm just a guy who works a health care job and likes sports and history. Now I've joined a bunch of artists — and I know nothing about art — but we have an opportunity to really do something."

He's began a fundraising effort with Planned2Give, a local nonprofit organization, and said people can take part by going to Dayton Marcos website.

Smith and his fiancé Brittney Newcomer are opening a small restaurant and bar called Seeley's Ditch on E. Third Street in the Huffam Historic District.

It's named after the canal folly of Morris Seeley, the Ohio State senator and Dayton mayor, who planned to build a canal through East Dayton. Unfortunately for him, Daniel Cooper, the original developer of Dayton owned land in the canal path, sued, won and Seeley was ruined.

Smith hopes to pay homage to various aspects of Dayton history in his new place and said when the Marcos project gets off the ground he would like to include a print or two.

The originals, he hopes, become part of a moveable exhibit that allows everyone to embrace the Marcos and what they meant to Dayton.

"The thing with art that is challenging to me is that you have to go into that niche to see it," he said. "We want this to be as public as possible so everyone can enjoy it."