By the time the idea for the West Coast Negro Baseball League had formed in the mind of Harlem Globetrotters’ owner Abe Saperstein, Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey had already signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league deal. It was the first of several contributing factors to the demise of the WCNBL, though Abe and his partner, Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, had no way of knowing it at the time.
In March of 1946, Saperstein, Owens, and High Marine Social Club member Eddie Harris spearheaded the first meeting to establish the West Coast Negro Baseball League in Oakland, California. Harris was a resident and former fireman in Berkeley, California, and proved instrumental in recruiting the remainder of the owners for the six-team league, including the Los Angeles White Sox, Portland Rosebuds, San Diego Tigers, San Francisco Sea Lions, and Seattle Steelheads.
The group outlined a 110-game season modeled after the Pacific Coast League format and required each team owner to pony up a $500 fee to join the league, a stipulation that was never strictly enforced and rarely collected. In addition to the standard 110 league contests, each club was permitted to participate in an unlimited number of non-league games throughout the country. Saperstein, who headed the Seattle Steelheads behind the scenes, scattered the "Steelies" home games throughout Washington State, including appearances in Spokane, Bremerton, Tacoma, and Bellingham. This freedom proved more of a necessity than a luxury, as most teams were forced to share venues with their PCL counterparts in order to save on costs. When a PCL team hit the road for an extended trip, the WCNBL outfits would move in for a game or two.
Before the Steelheads could fully take root in Seattle, a problem arose with management: Chicago American Giants’ catcher Paul Hardy agreed to a contract to both manage and play for the Steelies before receiving an official release from the Giants’ management. In retaliation, the Negro American League forbade any of their players from joining the Steelheads -- a needless threat in light of the league’s two-month timetable.
With Hardy firmly in their ranks, Seattle opened their season on the road against Jesse Owens’ Portland Rosebuds in El Paso, Texas, the first stopover on a two-week road trip. Owens, who also held the title of WCNBL vice president, garnered attention for his antics between games. He would race anyone or anything -- often players, sometimes racehorses – to entertain crowds while they waited for the next contest. Against members of the WCNBL, Owens generously bequeathed a head start of 10 or 15 feet in a 100-yard dash.
Herbert Simpson remembered things a little differently. In an interview with Sports Press NW’s Ryan Whirty, the Steelheads’ fleet-footed first baseman recalled receiving only a five-foot head start against the track and field champion.
"I’d end up right there with him at the finish line," Simpson told Whirty. "We were right there side by side. He thought that was great."
The Steelheads got a chance to showcase their skills in front of a Seattle crowd on June 2, 1946, during their home opener against the visiting San Diego Tigers. Over 2,500 fans turned out at Sicks’ Stadium, nearly twice as many as would show up for the Steelies’ remaining home games. Against the Tigers, Saperstein pitted rookie pitcher Mike "Red" Berry for the first bill of a doubleheader. Shortly before the first pitch of the game, the Steelheads’ team bus malfunctioned in Salem, Oregon, suspending the start of the opener for half an hour while the players taxied into the city.
The Tigers prevailed in the first contest, clinching the opener after a three-run rally in the eighth inning drove out Berry and brought the score to 8-7. In the evening, however, Seattle rebounded with Lafayette Washington, who hurled a four-hitter and shut the Tigers out 3-0 to split the doubleheader.
For many of the Steelheads, Seattle was only a brief stopover in long and multivaried careers. Herbert Simpson, infielder Sherwood Brewer, outfielder/pitcher Vincent Lee Gulley, and catcher Everett Marcel each appeared on at least four different teams prior to suiting up for the Steelheads. Sherwood, a Negro League All-Star and two-time manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, was noted for instructing Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks in infield techniques. In his barnstorming days, Herb Simpson earned the nickname "Briefcase," so dubbed for the number of trades he weathered (as did fellow teammate Harry "Suitcase" Simpson).
Despite the high hopes of Abe Saperstein and Jesse Owens to expose Negro League baseball to the West Coast, the WCNBL was facing insurmountable pressures only two months after their inception. Attendance numbers were too low to turn a profit for any team but the Steelheads and Oakland Larks, and travel costs were prohibitive during long road trips, especially when teams were refused entry to white hotels. Though the Steelheads clung to second place in the league, the attention span of most baseball fans -- in Seattle and throughout the country – was spent on Jackie Robinson and the strides he was making over on the East Coast, just one season away from breaking the color barrier at the major league level.
Without a home stadium of their own and the funds to finance a costly operation, Saperstein packed up the Steelheads and renamed them the "Harlem Globetrotters," a moniker they held in 1944 and 1945 when they barnstormed through the state. Saperstein’s Globetrotters featured the majority of the Steelies' roster, including players like Herb Simpson, Sherwood Brewer, Everett Marcel, and Ulysses Redd.
Although the Steelheads’ stopover in Seattle was short, it was far from forgettable. In the words of infielder Sherwood "Woody" Brewer (as conveyed by Seattle Magazine’s Ryan Whirty): "If I had to do it again, I’d start tomorrow."