Oliver Marcelle’s career ended in a bar fight; his life in an unmarked Denver grave. But in the anteceding days to a sad end, “The Ghost” was one of his generation’s best in a baseball world on the margins.
In the waning weeks of 1887, plantation workers in Louisiana’s sugar-producing region of Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Mary, and Iberia parishes went on strike, in part, over issues pertaining to their pay distribution. Plantation owners of the day paid their workers in scrips, and as KnowLA.org (a project of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities) describes it:
“Freedmen opposed the use of scrip or coins to be redeemed only at the plantation store. Plantation owners determined the pricing of goods. If a worker became indebted to the plantation store, he was required by law to stay and work until the debt was paid. This forced freedmen to remain at that plantation, continuing, for all intents and purposes, the enslavement from which they had recently been freed. Opposition to plantation scrip gave workers a powerful cause to unite them in protest.”
Benefitting from the presence of an organized labor association, formed in Shreveport a year earlier by The Knights of Labor as the first of its kind in the region, the area’s workers amalgamated under a flag of demands presented to the Louisiana Sugar Producers Association in October of 1887. In that list, laborers requested the elimination of scrip, a small increase in their wages, and payments on a biweekly basis. Those demands, predictably, fell on deaf ears, and on November 1, the Knights called for a strike. An estimated 10,000 sugar plantation workers ground their labor to a halt, bringing the region’s production with them at the most important time of the year.
The day the strike hit, workers refused to bring in the crop, and shortly thereafter, fearing an oncoming frost that would destroy their year and the profits that came with it, plantation owners asked Louisiana Governor, and fellow planter, John McEnery for help. The state’s militia arrived. Strikers were evicted with line-crossing scabs taking their place, and below it all, the bubbling cauldron of post-Civil War racial tensions—between white planters and black workers—grew closer to a boil.
The town of Thibodaux is a tiny dot on any road atlas. Even today, as of the 2010 census, the city’s population just breaks 14,500. It was there that evicted workers and their families moved to the town’s already jammed African-American district and watched the situation deteriorate even after the militia’s departure.
As the strike wore on, news of white scabs being fired upon for crossing the picket line and taking work with them heightened the city’s already simmering racial unrest. Thibodaux’s Peace and Order Committee declared that blacks within the city’s limits would be required to show a pass to enter or exit. Then, three weeks to the day from the strike’s beginning, all hell broke loose. Again, from KnowLA.org:
“On the morning of November 22, armed members of the committee closed the entrances to the city, leading some of the black strikers to believe that they were endangered. After two of the white guards were fired upon, an explosion of racial violence ensued. During the chaotic hours of the massacre, black strikers and their families were rounded up by bands of local vigilantes and shot on sight.
In her writings, plantation mistress Mary Pugh indicated that ‘the initial skirmish commenced what soon became a frenzy of violence against the strikers. White guardsmen began hunting up the Leaders, and every one that was found or any suspicious character was shot.’ When the violence ended, demoralized workers returned to the plantations to resume the sugar harvest. The workers were so solidly defeated that no attempt was made to organize sugar workers in Louisiana again until 1950.”
The incident that came to be known as the Thibodaux Massacre was the second bloodiest labor dispute in United States history.
It was against that backdrop, then, that less than a decade after blood flowed through the streets of Thibodaux, Daniel and Eliza Marcelle welcomed their fifth child, Oliver. The second-youngest Marcelle’s birth year is disputed as June of either 1895 or 1897—his grave says ’97 (as do both the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Baseball Reference) while his World War I draft card reportedly lists June 1, 1895 (and also is reportedly signed “Marcell” with no “-e”)—and perhaps fittingly so as little is known about the future Negro Leagues gloveman’s early life. In fact, legendary Negro Leaguer and Professional Baseball Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil didn’t even know his friend and former teammate was from his small town of Thibodaux.
“He always said he was from New Orleans,” O’Neil told the Thibodaux Daily Comet in a 1996 interview.
In fact it was Thibodaux, “The Queen City of Lafourche,” that was Marcelle’s hometown and not The Big Easy, but New Orleans is where a teenaged Marcelle began his baseball career in the 1910s. After a few of years with semipro teams there, the third baseman uprooted in 1918 and headed north for Brooklyn where he joined the borough’s Royal Giants, an eastern power in black baseball. As a rookie in 1918, Marcelle batted .111 but nailed down the Giants’ regular third baseman’s job according to Baseball Reference. The Louisianan grew obviously comfortable with his new surroundings in short order: in 1919, he batted over .400.
Beginning in his late 20s, Marcelle bounced around the East Coast, spending time with the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants from 1920-23—he batted .323 in ’20 and held down third base for the Giants in ’21 when they were one of the top teams in the east—before moving to the New York Lincoln Giants in 1924 and ’25. Marcelle headed back to Atlantic City until 1928 and joined the Baltimore Black Sox in 1929 where he served as a quarter of Baltimore’s famed “Million Dollar Infield.” Along with first baseman Jud “Boojum” Wilson, second baseman Frank Warfield, and shortstop Sir Richard Lundy, Marcelle helped lead the Black Sox to a winning percentage of over .700 and an American Negro League title. Their nickname, in a testament to the times, came from media members who estimated the infielders’ worth—if they had been white.
Marcelle was also prominent in another baseball-crazy nation: Cuba. During eight seasons of Cuban winter competition, the third baseman batted .305—the equal of his career Negro Leagues mark. In his 1923-24 Cuban campaign, Marcelle led the Cuban League with an eye-popping .393 batting average. He and his Santa Clara teammates took the league crown that year and were noted by writer Jorge S. Figueredo in his book Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History 1878-1961 as having been “considered the most dominant team ever in the history of Cuban baseball.” The Thibodaux native is also credited with a .333 average in a handful of games against major leaguers.
In an era of sometimes unreliable statistics and sparse record-keeping, one thing is plainly evident about Oliver Marcelle: the respect and admiration of his peers for the way he played his game. Fellow third baseman Bobby Robinson called Marcelle “the best third baseman there was.” Shortstop Pop Lloyd agreed. In 1952, a Pittsburgh Chronicle poll tabbed Marcelle as the position’s best Negro Leaguer ahead of future Hall of Famers Ray Dandridge and Judy Johnson. The Courier stated at the time, “Oliver Marcelle could do everything! A fielding gem, he could go to his right or his left with equal facility. He was a ballplayer’s ballplayer and the idol of fandom.” Johnson told Blackball Stars author John Holway, “I could outhit him and could run faster, but he was wonderful, made all the plays look easy. I went to Cuba five times and never played third base. I had to play second base and Marcelle played third.”
But it was Marcelle’s perpetually roiling, uglier side residing just below his competitive, fiery surface that came to direct his career and his life. After returning to Brooklyn in 1930, Marcelle’s big time black baseball career came to an abrupt close.
The Ghost – Part Two: Marcelle’s downfall, his road to Colorado, his unheralded contribution to changing the course of baseball history, and his quiet passing.