When the McCoy-Nolan Colored Giants arrived in Billings from their home base in Milwaukee in September 1929, they became the first traveling all-black baseball team to visit the Magic City in Billings history.
Although Billings had apparently had locally based, sandlot African-American teams as far back as the early 1910s, the McCoy-Nolans represented the beginning of Billings’ eventually lengthy reputation as a host to barnstorming “colored” hardball teams in the years before and just after Jackie Robinson integrated organized baseball in 1946.
When the Milwaukee club came to Billings late that summer to face a local amateur aggregation sponsored by Home Bakery, the black team was nearing the end of a long, grueling traveling schedule that began with spring training Bogalusa, La., in April, wound its way through the Midwest to the Canadian border and, finally, to the Magic City for a two-game set with the Home Bakery vanguard.
As Montana and the rest of the country now celebrates the annual Black History Month each February, the Milwaukee team’s arrival in Billings takes on added significance.
The McCoy men — named after their benefactor, influential Milwaukee businessman John R. McCoy and managed by one C.L. Gooch — brought with them a reported season record of 142-17 — a mark that seems somewhat dubious given that it came against a serious slew of amateur, semi-pro, independent and minor league teams across the South and Midwest, including franchises in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
For example, when the McCoys made a stop in Moorhead, Minn., just a month before they pulled into Billings, the Moorhead Daily News stated that the African Americans “showed as much and perhaps a bit more fielding ability than any other traveling club which has visited Moorhead this year ...”
Then, when the Milwaukee club — which had been in existence in some form since about 1920 — succeeded in defeating the Moorhead-Fargo Twins 7-5 on Aug. 26, the McCoys were outhit by the local team but bunched their hits and took advantage of four untimely Twins errors. The McCoy triumph avenged a loss to the Twins earlier in the month.
By the time the McCoy-Nolan squad pulled into Billings, word of mouth had spread to central Montana (thanks partially, of course, to the superb PR hyping of Gooch).
“The Sioux Falls stockyarders, who made a serious threat in the recent Denver Post tournament, are listed among the hundred-odd clubs beaten by the dark-hued stars,” the Sept. 19, 1929, Billings Gazette reported in advance of the Home Bakery clashes.
“Starting the spring season on Easter Sunday, the Giants played exhibition games with all teams of the Southern and Texas leagues and dazzled fans by copping every one of the games. ... Thirteen players are listed on the roster, and not a one of them will admit carrying a rabbit’s foot despite the superstitious number.”
Among the hardballers on that roster was a pitcher named “Smilin’” Sam Brown, a Galveston, Texas, native who had hurled eight shutouts so far the season. There was also his battery partner, “Shorty” Walker, who, according to the Gazette, “has the reputation of being one of the leading all-around players in the colored baseball world and was formerly hooked up with the Kansas City Monarchs, winner of the first half of the National Colored League flag race.”
John McCoy also apparently made sure his aggregation traveled in comfort and style.
“The team travels in their own bus,” the Gazette stated, “designed along the Pullman type and capable of hauling 25 persons and their baggage. A mechanic is employed to drive and keep the machine in operation.”
But it’s not like the local guys had boring backgrounds; their own roster featured a collection of colorful characters in their own right.
Piloting the Home Bakery squad was manager Bob Benson, who had by then become, and would continue to be, a revered figure on the local baseball scene.
Robert H. Benson was born in Lake Linden, Mich., in 1888, and after graduating high school, he spent a decade in Virginia, Minn., working at the Republic Iron and Steel company and quickly gaining a reputation as one of the top amateur catchers in Minnesota.
In 1921 he shifted to a spot in the Butte Mines league, then arrived in Billings, where he competed as a backstop for various teams before getting into managing. He earned a living as a handy man and hired servant for local families to pay the bills — when the Colored Giants came to Billings in 1929, Benson was working as a laborer and living at Amigo Courts on 24th Street — and he ran for Ward One alderman multiple times in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
His baseball career included a substantial stint managing and backstopping for the Billings Merchants and helping to organize a semipro city league in 1930. He worked to raise funds to sponsor a local team’s trip to Montana’s first statewide semi-pro tourney in Bozeman in 1931, then again was a key part of the organization of a citywide twilight league in 1932, and another one in 1934.
By that time he had accrued the nickname of “Uncle Robert,” and in 1942 he suited up for a team of “old-timers” in a charity contest with the Yale Oil team to benefit the Navy widows and orphans fund. He also become an umpire on the regional amateur and semipro circuit before moving to Los Angeles, where he died in 1960 at the age of 72.
Then there was pint-sized pitcher Terry Mitchell, a 155-pound bundle of multi-sport pop who enjoyed a halfway successful boxing career in the 1920s while also gaining a reputation as a sterling amateur pitcher. He had stepped into the ring by 1923, and by mid-decade he was a moundsman for the Billings American Legion squad.
As a pugilist, Mitchell traveled the upper Midwest, squaring off against fighters from Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas. In January 1929, he was part of a full card hosted by Billings and traded punches with Howard Ball of Pocatello, Idaho.
As a pitcher, Mitchell defected from a local Billings nine to the Laurel Railroaders and ended up facing his old mates on occasion, but he returned to his hometown to once again take the mound for manager Benson. To earn a living, he toiled as a laborer and soft-drink peddler at various local hotels.
Finally, perhaps the most compelling character in the 1929 Home Bakery nine that faced the McCoy-Nolan Colored Giants was pitcher Paul Behrendt, the scion of Paul Behrendt Sr., who immigrated to America from Germany in 1894 and eventually became one of Billings’ most prominent businessmen by founding and operating an automobile repair shop and dealership. (Paul Behrendt Sr. died in 1925 at the age of 54).
Paul Junior, however, apparently had no aspirations of following his father into the family business. The younger Behrendt, who was born in 1904, took up baseball early and garnered a reputation as a high-quality hurler when he flung the horsehide for the Billings Gazette squad in a local city league.
But he moved to Seattle by 1924, where he worked for a sporting goods company and pitched on its team, at one point picking up seven straight victories. But wanderlust struck him again, and he ventured to Ketchikan, Alaska, to work for a canning company for a stint. He eventually returned to Washington and made plans to enroll at the University of Washington in 1924.
However, the pull of home proved too strong for Behrendt, who by 1927 had returned to Billings and began pitching again for amateur and semi-pro aggregations in the summer before playing football for Billings Polytechnic Institute (later to become Rocky Mountain College) in the fall.
By 1930, Paul Junior had married his wife, the former Ruth Kane, and opened his own sporting goods store in Billings. But life took a traumatic turn for Behrendt in 1936, when his younger brother, Billy, died in May from pneumonia complications. Five months later, Ruth was granted a divorce from Paul, who then moved to Chicago to toil at a steel mill.
In December 1952, Paul’s mother, Frieda, died in a car accident in Billings. Paul Junior, though, lived to the relatively ripe old age of 84 before passing away in 1989.
But when Behrendt took the mound for Home Bakery on Sept. 21, 1929, to face the visiting McCoy-Nolan Colored Giants, he was still a spry 25-year-old. He proceeded to baffle the invaders through five innings before rain halted the contest, which was subsequently declared a 4-1 victory for the bakers.
“The right-hander bent a bunch of fast curves around the dusky batters’ ears for six strikeouts ...,” the Gazette reported. The home aggregation spread out their four runs over several innings, while the McCoys scored their lone tally in the first inning.
The next day, however, was a vastly different story, not only in result but length; while the Home Bakery squad won the a brief, five-inning contest in the first game, the visitors claimed a 6-5 triumph in the second clash, a 15-inning marathon at Athletic Park that the Gazette called “as fine an exhibition of the national game as Billings fans have ever witnessed ...”
On the mound for Billings? Terry Mitchell, who hurled all 15 innings, as did his counterpart, a Colored Giants player named Harrison. The Giants held the lead into the bottom of the ninth, but Home Bakery knotted the score and sent the contest to extra innings — six of them, to be precise.
And so the Milwaukee travelers left Billings as trailblazers, the first all-black touring team to make a stop in the Magic City. The squad would return in subsequent years, including 1930, after it had changed its name to the Milwaukee Colored Giants.
Billings would go on to host more African-American squads, including Gilkerson’s Union Giants of Chicago in 1931, the Butte Colored Giants in 1935 and the far-flung Shreveport, La., Colored Giants in 1937.
The Milwaukee hardballers, meanwhile, continued their long hauls across the Midwest, appearing, for example, in Sheboygan, Wisc., for a Memorial Day festival in 1932 and, as late as 1949 — three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in organized baseball — returning to Sheboygan.
But in 1929, they were pioneers in the Big Sky Country burg of Billings, a trailblazing, hardy aggregation of talented players who went up against a squad of local lads who were, in many ways, just as colorful and intriguing as the squad they hosted.