Thanks to Leo Biga and Bill Brummer for inspiring this article!
From the beginning of organized sports in the United States, there was racial segregation. When it first became popular in New York City in the 1850s, baseball was segregated too. From 1947 to 1949, Omaha was home to a semi-professional independent Black baseball team. Organized by African American impresario Will Calhoun (1908-1959), the team included several great baseball players. This is a history of the Omaha Rockets.
History of African American Baseball in Omaha
Before the Omaha Rockets played, there were at least three other Black baseball teams in Omaha. They included the Omaha Giants from 1911 to 1915; the Omaha Black Tigers during the 1948 season; and the Omaha Monarchs.
“I’ve got a little money. I know why so many of these teams failed,” Will said. “They tried to get by on a shoestring and didn’t have anything to offer the public.”—Will Calhoun, as quoted in the January 19, 1947 Omaha World-Herald
The Omaha Rockets were a barnstorming team, and throughout the seasons they played they covered a circuit throughout the Midwest including all of Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Colorada, Minnesota and elsewhere. Former Negro League player and native Omahan Mat Pascale (1891-19??) was the booking agent for the Omaha Rockets, lining up games with more than 25 teams across the Midwest. He booked the Rockets in the Pioneer Nite League, and with the Nebraska Independent League.
Over the years when they played in Omaha, the Rockets games were held at several locations including Levi Carter Park and in Council Bluffs.
In May 1947, owner and manager Will Calhoun organized the team with a week of practice before they started playing their first season. Calhoun, who owned a hotel at 2423 Lake Street, “got the baseball bug” in 1946. After travel restrictions were lifted nationwide after World War II, many new Black baseball teams sprung up because other teams were segregated. Calhoun set up preliminary training with the Kansas City Monarchs, a longtime team of the Negro National League, and paid for a bus with beds, two sets of uniforms for each player, baseballs and bats and part of the salaries for the team. The Omaha Rockets players stayed at the Calhoun Hotel in the heart of North Omaha’s Black business district.
His first star was Jewell Day, who hit 38 home runs when he played for the Los Angeles White Sox in 1946. Other players with high expectations during the first season included two former Monarchs: second baseman Syl Murphy and shortstop Dedee Saunders, who was also the field captain. Their first game was played in Huron, South Dakota, followed by their first home field game at Creighton’s field and in Oakland, Nebraska.
Standout players from the 1947 roster included Satchel Paige (1906-1982), who was a pitcher in the Rockets’ first season at the end of a career as a legendary player throughout the nation. Mickey Stubblefield (b. 1926), who was a pitcher with the Omaha Rockets in 1947 after he left the Navy. After one season, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs. He left professional baseball in 1951 after his arm gave out on him. Pitcher Gene Collins (1925-1998) later played for the Kansas City Monarchs, several Mexican teams, and was sold to the Chicago White Sox before he left the game. Future professional football Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane was with the team that season, too.
Rosters for Various Seasons
- Clarence Bryant, Pitcher
- Burgin, Pitcher
- Clark, Third Baseman
- Eugene Collins, Pitcher
- Collins, Third Baseman / First Baseman
- Robert Lee Daniels, Pitcher
- Daniels, Shortstop / Outfield
- Jewell Day, Catcher / Third Baseman
- Del Douglas, Outfield / Shortstop
- Ted Espinosa, Pitcher
- Gay, First Baseman
- Gipson, Pitcher
- Edgar Glen, Pitcher
- Glenn, Outfield
- Dick Lane, Outfield
- Mc Kay O
- Mickey, Shortstop
- Ken Morris, Outfield / Catcher
- Sylvester Murphy, Second Baseman
- Charles Napoleon, Outfield / Pitcher
- Herschel Oliver, Catcher /Outfield / Pitcher
- Satchel Paige, Pitcher
- Sanders, Third Baseman / Catcher
- Horatius Saunders, Pitcher
- Clifford Stafford, Pitcher
- Mickey Stubblefield, Pitcher
- Thomas, Catcher
- Walters, Catcher / Outfield
- Tom West, Pitcher
- Ralph Williams, Catcher / Outfield
- Bill Wright, Outfield
- Charles Wright, Pitcher
- Daniels, Shortstop / Outfield
During the second season in 1948, Will Calhoun kept owning and managing the Omaha Rockets.
“I think we have a better team than a year ago,” Calhoun declared.—As quoted in the May 20, 1948 Omaha World-Herald
- Jim Allen, Outfield
- A.G. Barnett, Catcher
- Cliff Bergin, Pitcher
- Don Bishop, Pitcher
- Brown, Pitcher
- Cannon, Pitcher / Outfield
- Ed Clark, First Baseman
- John, Pitcher
- Jim Massie, Shortstop /3B
- Bill McCrary, Shortstop
- Kenny Morris, Third Baseman
- Murphy, Second Baseman
- Rinitz, Catcher
- Ross, Outfield
- Dee Dee Saunders, Catcher / Manager
- John Senters, Pitcher
- Jim Stevens, Pitcher / Outfield
- Chophouse Walters, Outfield / Pitcher
- Al Watts, Infield
- Zip Webb, Outfield
- Cotton Williams, Pitcher
“We have a good mixture of old and young players to start with,” Massingale said, “Like all pro clubs, we probably will have to make some changes.”—Mack Massingale, quoted in the May 17, 1949 Omaha World-Herald
For the third season of the Omaha Rockets in 1949, owner Calhoun brought on Mack Massingale, former Kansas City Monarchs catcher. Jim Nash was the number one pitcher for the team, and five of the previous season’s players came back, and two prime members were missing: Kenny Morris and William McCreary.
- Bishop, Outfield
- Cannon, Outfield
- Conley, Second Baseman
- Colley, Pitcher
- Hack, Shortstop
- Loudell Jameson, Pitcher
- James Massey, Second Baseman / Third Baseman
- Bill McCary, Pitcher / Shortstop
- James Stephens, Outfield
- Charles Utley, Shortstop
- Gilberto Varona, First Baseman
- Vinson, Pitcher
- Joe Webb, Catcher
“This has been the worst year I can remember for Negro teams,” Mat said, “The weather was partly to blame but I can’t give you the other big reasons. The Rockets… were more fortunate than many.”—Mat Pascale, as quoted in the August 8, 1950 edition of the Omaha World-Herald
In 1950, the team became the official farm team for the Kansas City Monarchs. One of their alumni, James “Cool Pappa” Bell, managed the team that season. However, the Negro baseball circuit fell apart that season when major league teams hired the players en masse. The Omaha Rockets team disbanded in August 1950. In addition to the quote above, Pascale went on to say, “They at least had enough money to get the players home or to jobs.”
In the mid-1950s, non-major baseball leagues died across the country, and the Omaha Rockets were victim to the skids. After Calhoun was arrested and the Omaha Rockets came to an end, Omaha’s baseball teams were fewer and farther apart. As one book said,
“Ghost parks, where minor leaguers once played, now abandoned and idle, had weeds in the outfields and cobwebs in the grandstands, and unused fields left gaps in local baseball interest.”—From Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams by Alan J. Pollock (2012)
Will Calhoun was convicted of murder in 1953. A drifter at his hotel threatened his wife Ann (1922-1994) when Calhoun got his gun and shot the man. When his plea of self-defense was rejected, the judge held over the trial and Calhoun never served time.
They legacy of the Rockets’ schedule meant impressing upon spectators and fellow players that Omaha was a baseball town, and that African Americans in Omaha played the game with dedication.
Bob Gibson (b. 1935) was an outstanding baseball player from Omaha who purportedly played for the Rockets after playing at Tech High and before joining professional baseball, but didn’t show up on the team rosters.
In 2017, restauranteer Donald Curry named his new eatery the Omaha Rockets Canteen at North 24th and Lake Streets in honor of the team.
You Might Like…
- A History of the Calhoun Hotel
- A History of the Omaha Colored Baseball League
- A History of North Omaha’s Red Dot Athletic Club
- A History of the Near North YMCA in North Omaha
- Timeline of Race and Racism in Omaha
- “Omaha Rockets” on Wikipedia.
- “Negro League Managers” from the Center for Negro League Baseball Research.
- “Rosters of Barnstorming and Independent Black Baseball Teams (1946-1988)” from the Center for Negro League Baseball Research.
Thanks to Donald Curry for his assistance with this article!