AN UNLIKELY TREASURE: The remarkable story of a Jefferson pioneer who shared the diamond with Satchel Paige and other Negro Leaguers
By BRANDON HURLEY
History seeped through every grain of dirt and each bead of sweat as Jefferson’s Lloyd Evan Morlan regained his composure and stepped to the plate.
The future fire-fighting father of three had fallen behind in the count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Bismarck, North Dakota’s semi-pro squad was knotted in a 2-all tie with heated rival Jamestown as the 2,200 fans in attendance nervously awaited the next pitch, perhaps intoxicated from a mixture of intense northern Great Plains sun, anxiety and baseball excitement.
You see, this was no ordinary summer classic. Spectators flocked to the old stadium to witness the showmanship from one of America’s greatest hurlers. Morlan’s job was to preserve that moment and assure the Bismarck and its supporters would leave the park on a joyous note, likely a scene they’d remember for quite some time.
Come through Morlan did, uncorking a screeching line drive into left field, driving in the game-winning run all the way from first base, securing a triumphant, 3-2 walk-off win. A full house of crazed fans erupted in celebration, kick-starting a years long adventure never since matched in the desert-like state of North Dakota.
The man on the mound that August afternoon in 1933, who’d breathlessly mow down 18 batters en route to victory in his first Bismarck start was none other than Negro League legend and Hall of Famer, Satchel Paige.
That’s right, Morlan was the hero in Satchel Paige’s North Dakota semi-pro debut, perhaps saving the organization and its barnstorming ways. Who knows, with Paige’s well-documented erratic behavior, perhaps a game one loss would have forced him back to the Negro Leagues in search of greener pastures.
The Bismarck Tribune grasped the significance of the moment, as the August 14 headline read “Sears scores when Morlan hits with two out in ninth.” Paige’s victory wasn’t acknowledged until two headlines later, “Elongated Negro Hurler whiffs 18 men and Allows but Five Singles.”
Thankfully, despite a number of annoying no-shows courtesy of Paige, Morlan would become an key part on one of baseball’s first fully-integrated professional units.
The legend grows a little more if you add Paige’s ninth inning masterpiece prior to Morlan’s game-winner. The lanky and imposing pitcher was frustrated with his performance up to that point. He was going to show the Jamestown batters what a real Negro League flamethrower looked like. As he left the dugout, he could be heard saying “They don’t get no mo’ runs,” the Bismarck Tribune wrote. Paige would need only 10 pitches to hold up his end of the bargain, striking out the side in successive order.
In honor of the Negro League’s 100-year anniversary this summer, the Jefferson Herald has unearthed one of Greene County’s most well-kept and inspiring secrets. A tale steeped in historical ramifications complete with integration and pure athletic achievement, so riveting a book was published in its honor. Even then, family members were rather unaware of Bill Morlan’s significance and his role in this story. To them, Bill was a baseball player, not a pioneer.
Baseball history runs deep in Greene County, at one point, nearly each of the area’s towns fielded an adult ball club, but this particular passage rather easily secures the eternal top prize. There aren’t many humans out there, white or black, who can say they shared the same field as two future Hall of Famers in, of all places, the nondescript grassy plains of North Dakota.
Dennis Morlan, a long-time Jefferson resident and former Greene County EMS director, is the nephew of Lloyd Evan (Bill) Morlan. His uncle wasn’t the easiest person to track down in the archives, especially when you technically have three names, but Dennis helped pin down the correct Bill Morlan.
“Everyone had nicknames back then,” Morlan said. “My dad was known as ‘Banty.’ Their brother, Dean, was known as ‘Peanuts.’’”
Lloyd Evan would eventually go by Bill for most of his life, carving out a unique path that led him to adventures he’d oddly keep close to the vest.
His baseball exploits were mentioned just a small number of times in the Jefferson Bee archives, and never again were brought up once his career was a wrap.
How could such a remarkable story as this one go uncovered for so long?
Even Morlan’s kids were somewhat baffled when they heard of their father’s teammates and his limited role in integration. But, Bill does have some local flair for relatives still in the area. Greene County resident Dennis Morlan is a nephew of Lloyd (Bill) Morlan. He was the son of William Dale Morlan, who passed away in 88. Dennis worked with Greene County EMS for 32 years until retiring a few years back. He remembers hearing about his uncle’s baseball adventures, but even then, he didn’t know much about its significance.
“The story was that my Dad – William Dale, Sr. aka ‘Banty’ and (my uncle) Lloyd Evan aka Bill were both outstanding ballplayers,” Morlan said. “Due to money concerns, the family decided that Bill would be the one to go north and play semi-pro ball.”
Lloyd Evan Morlan was born Aug. 1, 1911 in Jefferson and soon evolved into quite the local athlete. He was the son of Lillie Morlan and Rufus Morlan and brother to Dale and Dean. Lloyd Evan played an instrumental role on the legendary Jefferson High football team, a squad that would share a piece of the 1929 state championship. To this day, the Ramblers still hold the state record for the longest shutout streak, spanning 15 games from 1928 to 1929. The 1929 Jefferson squad (Morlan’s senior year), ripped off a perfect, unscored upon record of 9-0-1, outscoring their nine regular season opponents 269-0. Morlan shared the field with Jefferson’s first state track champion, Joe Rogers. Together, the duo helped tie Centerville in the unofficial state championship game, a muddy mess that would later go down in lore.
Morlan chased his baseball dream following high school graduation, which allowed him to survive the Great Depression by barnstorming across the Midwest, slugging deep home runs and snagging fading pop ups. He joined the local Jefferson town team in the summer of 1930, where he played for two seasons before heading out of state. He made a trek west to play in the Nebraska State League, a semiprofessional minor league.
Little did Morlan know that’d he soon help break the color line. A young, athletic man from the humble beginnings of Jefferson, Iowa, making a long-lasting impact. Morlan was still under the age of 21, living off the support of his parents, Lillie and Rufus Morlan. The three Morlan children, Dean, Dale and Bill were all quite the athletes. But it was Bill who caught the ire of his parents, as they helped send him off to Bismarck, North Dakota in 1933 for a step up in competition. This decision would vault Morlan into a more serious, semi-pro league and push him toward history.
Morlan, a mere 21 years old, originally inked a deal to fill in as Bismarck’s new catcher, a position Churchill strongly desired. Morlan ended up shifting to a outfield, left and center field in particular because Churchill began integrating the team. A week prior to Morlan’s arrival, the color barrier was emphatically crossed, as Roosevelt Davis, a former Negro League pitcher, mowed down 23 batters in a single game, defeating the local Beulah team. Morlan was knowingly stepping into an integrated squad, tasked solely with helping the team achieve success. Not even a month into his stint and Morlan was bumped from his catcher’s position to make room for Quincy Troupe, an African American who was a young, soon-to-be Negro League star with the American Giants before being persuaded by Bismarck’s owner. Troupe was only 18, but he could really hit. The Bismarck Tribune didn’t mince words and labeled him “the Babe Ruth of colored baseball.” He was also quite the catcher, using a rocket arm to frequently throw out runners. Morlan had no trouble shifting to the outfield, playing a mixture of left field and center. Troupe admired Morlan quite so, even mentioning him in his autobiography “20 years too late.” In the passage, he said Morlan was one of three “Local boys with good talent.” Morlan indeed had above average talent, sticking with the Bismarck club for three years.
Local Jefferson sportswriters nicknamed Morlan “Wild Bill,” but scarcely kept tabs on him once he left Iowa. His local Jefferson contests against the likes of Grand Junction, Rippey, Paton and Churdan, were heavily documented, but not usually beyond typical play-by-play. Once Morlan left for Nebraska and later North Dakota, local reporting were few and far between.
Morlan’s future Bismarck teammate, Mr. Paige himself, was mentioned almost in passing in a Jefferson Bee column in August of 1933, pointing out how the team had recently signed a “new six foot, four inch hurler.” No mention of his greatness or his unrivaled skill with the fastball, or even his skin tone. The article quickly returned to the play-by-play action, which was apparently more interesting than Morlan’s role on one of baseball’s first, fully-integrated professional teams, a squad that would become the first mixed squad to win a national tournament.
Neil Churchill simply desired victories. He wasn’t in it for the notoriety. The Bismarck dealership owner was one of the, if not the best, businessmen in town. He had money and wanted to build a great team. He refused to stop at white players. The July 17, 1933 edition of the Bismarck Tribune stated “Churchill announced that he is taking steps to improve Bismarck’s offensive strength. He is in communication with a Negro catcher, recommended by Davis, and hopes to have him here by next Sunday’s game at the latest. He is also communicating with another heavy-hitting infielder.” Despite that notion, 1933 was a contentious year in America for black citizens. There were a reported 24 lynchings of African-Americans, while they were still banned from Major League baseball. Jackie Robinson wouldn’t break the color barrier until 14 years later when he took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball, and America, weren’t at all close to integration, except up north. North Dakota, at least on the diamond, was more than willing to share roster spots with African-Americans, if only for their athletic talents. Town teams from Jamestown and Valley City both deployed African-Americans in addition to the squad from the Capital City. Churchill persuaded the great and powerful Paige to spurn the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro Leagues in August to come play in Bismarck. He was promised $400 per month and a car, which was reported in both “Baseball: The People’s Game” by Harold Seymour and “Color Blind” by Tom Dunkel.
Morlan’s game-winning RBI was only the start of something absolutely breath-taking. Various newspaper reports had Bismarck finishing the season with an undefeated record, piling up 14 wins, no losses and just three ties. Paige alone won six of his seven starts in the month of August. Larry Tye, author of “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” said Paige averaged 15 strikeouts per game once arriving in Bismarck, allowing just 1.25 runs per nine innings. Bismarck would eventually secure the North Dakota state championship, capturing victory in a three game series against Jamestown. Paige knocked in the game-winning run in the 10th inning of game two, to take a 1-0 series lead. The teams tied the first game, 7-7, but Bismarck would go on to win the next two, clinching the title with an 11-5 win in the third game. Morlan yet again was one of the hero’s collecting a pair of hits and scoring a run in the title-clinching rubber match.
Morlan concluded the 1933 season with a .344 batting average, helping Bismarck to 38 wins, 12 losses and five ties. The Bismarck Tribune regularly praised Morlan’s talents, running several headlines with the Jefferson native as the star. The paper even recounted an incredible play from the Bismarck left-fielder in August of 1933. An opposing batter smoked a line drive along the left field line, which looked headed for the wall, Morlan broke from his position near center field at full speed, launched himself high in the air to snag the ball from reaching the fence eventually tumbling into a car, bumping his head and spraining his ankle, with ball still in glove. The Capital City writer said it “was the most spectacular catch ever seen on the grounds.”
Paige, to the shock of a few but no surprise to many, did not return to Bismarck for the 1934 season, breaking a promise he made earlier that spring. Paige was notorious for skipping town no matter where he was, typically searching for the next big contract. His former teammates were unfazed, and still produced quite a summer run amongst the sweltering Great Plains heat. The North Dakota squad tallied 61 wins and just 18 losses. Morlan batted .259 though the Bismarck Tribune noted how his average was likely higher due to several box scoring errors. The Jefferson slugger was 3-for-4 with a home run and four runs scored in the season finale, a contest in which Bismarck absolutely demolished their opponent, Beluah, 21-0.
Morlan’s repeated success earn him an invitation join a swath of North Dakota semi-pro all-stars in an effort to take down the American League all-stars at the tail-end of the 1934 season. The Bismarck Tribune hailed the decision to include Morlan, who they said is “easily the class of North Dakota’s professional outfielders.” Quite the high praise for the Bismarck defenseman, and what an honor, as the American League All-Stars featured 1933 AL MVP, Jimmie Foxx. The two-time World Series champion finished his career with 534 home runs, producing 12 thirty homer seasons, His MVP season was aided strongly by his Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting average, home runs and RBI. In a final score that caught many across the nation by surprise, the North Dakota All-Stars, propelled by Negro League veterans such as Red Haley and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe (a future hall of famer), absolutely throttled their professional counterparts, winning 11-3.
Morlan played a fringe role on the historic 1935 Bismarck squad, which is why he is not picture in the only known team photo from the Bismarck semi-pro era. He began the year as a trusted left fielder, riding high off his North Dakota all-star selection a year prior. Churchill really began loading up the roster as the season got underway, signing future Baseball Hall of Famer Hilton Smith, another Negro League star, and later. Morlan was firmly entrenched in the lineup that boasted Paige, Smith, Troupe and Haley before bad luck struck. Morlan broke his arm in June, canceling the remainder of his season.
Though Morlan wasn’t an active member of the 1935 National Baseball Congress tournament team, he was brought along to Wichita, Kansas as a bench coach, along with fellow inactive Ed Hendee, signifying Churchill’s admiration for Morlan’s baseball insight and expertise. Churchill added Kansas City Monarchs ace Chet Brewer to his roster as well as Radcliffe and Barney Morris.
The NBC was a creation of “Hap” Dumont, hoping to crown the best semi-pro team in the nation. The field drew teams from all over the Midwest, including all-black squads from Memphis and Monroe, Louisiana as well as all-white teams from Oklahoma, Nebraska and California. Bismarck was the only integrated team, and absolutely ravaged the talent-heavy field. Bismarck won all of their seven games, piloted by four victories from Paige, who struck out a record 66 batters, a feat that still stands to this day. Nearly 10,000 fans attended the championship game, where Bismarck defeated a team from Duncan, Oklahoma, 5-2. The NBC is still held annually in Kansas, drawing semi-pro teams from all over the country. Wide-spread publicity followed as they took on the famous Kansas City Monarchs of Negro League fame a few days later and several other barnstorming teams. Paige recalled many years later in the Chicago Tribune how that 1935 Bismarck squad was the greatest he’d ever been a part of.
The intoxicating success would not last long, as Paige spurned Bismarck and others trickled away.
Morlan left Bismarck and signed with Valley City for the 1936 campaign. In a testament to his athletic ability, the Jefferson native joined Valley City’s pitching staff. In Morlan’s first game against his former team, he was getting shelled in a 12-4 loss in June of 1936. That Valley City team featured Walter “Steel arm” Davis, who briefly played in the Negro Leagues for the Chicago Giants, Dayton Marcos and Detroit Stars. He was suspended once for punching an umpire and was later killed in a bar fight in 1941.
Valley City also employed “Lefty” Bill Foster, one of Paige’s top pitching rivals during those days (Bismarck Tribune, 6.5.1936). Foster was later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 after a 14-year career in the Negro Leagues. He’s well-known as perhaps the best left-handed pitcher in Negro League history. He struck out 685 batters across 12 NL seasons.
Morlan’s first season with Valley City would be rather short-lived. The team apparently ran out of money as the North Dakota semi-pro league was quickly dissolving. Valley City canceled an early July game before completely dissolving the squad all-together, leaving Morlan and his fellow caucasian and black teammates without a paycheck. The news came as a sudden shock to everyone involved, but Valley City’s bankruptcy was the beginning of the end for North Dakota semi-pro baseball. Several other teams were quick to follow suit. Town baseball was on a dramatic death spiral as teams from all over the state folded up shop that summer.
Paige, who estimates he pitched in more than 2,000 games throughout the world, finally cracked the Major League system in July of 1948, signing with the Cleveland Indians, a full 15 years after heading north.
Life calmed down quite a bit once Morlan hung up the spikes. He returned home to Jefferson and began a family.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Part II dives into the family life of Bill Morlan as well discussion of the book the Bismarck team inspired, “Color Blind.” That piece can be found here.