You know you're a quality baseball team when the legendary sports columnist from another city showers you with accolades.
That's what happened in the Oct. 17, 1925 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier, when W. Rollo Wilson congratulated the Darby-based Hilldale Club for throttling the vaunted Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League in the second Colored World Series.
"Hail to the kings!" Wilson blared in his column. "The Column salutes Clan Darbie [sic], champion of Negro baseball. Well do the boys who have fought under the Hilldale banners deserve their honors and right modestly do they bear them."
Thus, 90 years ago, the Philadelphia area had a national champion in the Hilldales, a club guided by owner/manager Ed Bolden, who steered the team to the Eastern Colored League pennant, then the World Series. The '25 squad also included future Hall of Famers Judy Johnson, Biz Mackey and Louis Santop.
"Though the team was based in Darby, Hilldale represented a source of pride for Philadelphia's African-American population," said Courtney Smith, Cabrini College associate professor of history. "The franchise was supported by an all-African-American corporation that Bolden founded in 1917 as the team transitioned to the professional ranks. Fans in Philadelphia celebrated the World Series victory with a banquet at which prominent members of the community spoke in praise of the team."
From the beginning of the season, Hilldale was the ECL favorite, and the city's black media -- namely, the Philadelphia Tribune -- fawned over the squad.
The paper's beat reporter, C.M. Brumbach, presaged the campaign with gushing articles about Hilldale's outfield crew -- Otto Briggs, Clint "Buckeye" Thomas and George Johnson -- and especially Bolden, whom Brumbach called "a name that is on the lips of every wisher to see the game played as it should be and all honor to the man who conceives and directs the battles of this now famous club."
The rocky road began during the preseason, when Johnson made some waves by calling for a players' union and Bolden came under fire for leading the hiring of a white man as manager of umpires.
The season itself didn't exactly go as planned, either. After a solid start, the Hilldales became mired in a mid-season slump that dropped them to second place for most of June.
But in early July, the club started to flourish by claiming wins in several series, including one against in-state rival Harrisburg. By the end of the month, Hilldale was back in first place, clubbing the Baltimore Black Sox and the New York Cubans, and it clinched the ECL pennant with another sweep of Harrisburg in mid-September.
Ahead lay the mighty Monarchs, vanquishers of the Hilldales in '24, and the Colored World Series between the ECL and NNL held vital, off-field significance.
"In the 1920s, the Negro League World Series was extremely important in establishing legitimacy for the leagues and creating bragging rights for teams and communities," said Kent State professor Leslie Heaphy of the Society for American Baseball Research. "It also helped the leagues mirror the accepted structure of the majors, and that helped these new leagues."
In addition, a bitterness existed between the leagues, with ECL head Bolden and Negro National League president Rube Foster flinging counter accusations of roster-raiding and other baseball sins.
"The ECL was a new league and wanted to establish itself just like the NNL, so finding the best players was their goal," Heaphy said. "Did they raid NNL teams? Yes, but regularly, not that I am aware. Instead, I think some of the accusations come purely from the personal rivalries and issues that led to the creation of the ECL in the first place. Bolden's accusations against Foster created a mutual set of feelings of distrust and blame."
On-field, pitching proved the deciding factor. The Monarchs rotation was crippled from the start, because of an injury to Hall of Fame flamethrower "Bullet" Rogan, and the Hilldale crew of Scrip Lee, Rube Currie, Phil Cockrell and Nip Winters shone.
The first four games were contested in Kansas City, and while Hilldale took three of the four, the quartet of clashes included two extra-inning games and nip-and-tuck play. But in the end, the Kaycees simply didn't have enough gas to keep up, and when the series moved to Philadelphia, the Hilldales won two straight to clinch the best-of-nine, closer-than-it-appeared showdown.
"Hilldale won the series in six games, and most of the games had close final scores," Smith said. "The team had to earn its World Series victory against a team that had won the series in 1924. The Monarchs did not relinquish their crown without a fight."
Still, the 1925 Hilldale Club established itself in the black baseball firmament and became one of the best Negro League units ever. As the Courier's Wilson wrote, "The House of Bolden was desperately eager to even things with the West, and it was not to be denied."