Washington’s “black Jim Thorpe”
by Ty Phelan
In his 1956 obituary, Ernest “Ernie” Tanner, was referred to as “the greatest athlete ever developed in Washington state”, and it’s difficult to argue. He was a four year, four sport, star at Tacoma’s Central High School, where he excelled at track, football, basketball, and baseball.
Contrary to popular belief NFL Hall of Famer Warren Moon was not the first African American quarterback in Washington state collegiate history. Ernie Tanner quarterbacked the Whitworth College eleven to enviable records in 1908 and ‘09, which included a miraculous upset of the University of Oregon, 16-9. At the time, there were less than 50 male students enrolled at Whitworth College.
Known as the “black Jim Thorpe”, his gridiron greatness was only surpassed by his brilliance on a baseball diamond. The fleet footed shortstop integrated, and led the Tyee White Sox to the Tacoma City Championship in 1910. He was player/manager of the segregated Tacoma Little Giants, 1912- 23. The Little Giants were initially sponsored by William Clark Little (1879-?), a barber and former leftfielder for the 1907 Yakima Black Stockings, but the team kept the name long after Little relocated to Oakland, and were essentially handled by Ernie Tanner for a decade. (Sunday Afternoons at Garfield Park, by Lyle Kenai Wilson, p.12)
In their first season in the Tacoma City League, they were at the precipice of the 1912 championship, but the failure to appear of a scheduled opponent on the last day of the season passed the league title to Tacoma Smelter. In 1913 active measures were taken to keep the Giants out of the local loop. Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity was consulted to organize the League. He specifically lobbied against inclusion of the Little Giants. However, McGinnity’s teams tuned up against the Little Giants as spring training for his Northwest Leagues’ Great Falls Electrics was held at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, the home field of the Tacoma Little Giants. About one of these games it was written, “Ernie Tanner was the whole show for the colored boys as he went 4 for 5 at the plate with two stolen bases.” (Puyallup Valley Tribune, April 13, 1914)
For the next decade the Tacoma Little Giants played independently throughout the Pacific Northwest. They challenged semi-pro and segregated teams in towns with significant black populations such as Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Portland (OR), Pendleton (OR), Roslyn, Yakima, Pasco, Walla Walla, Franklin, and Newcastle. Over their eleven year existence the Little Giants regularly produced some of the best baseball talent out of the Pacific Northwest, such as pitcher Jimmy Claxton.
Ernie Tanner and Claxton were family, literally. Ernie married Jimmy’s younger sister Trixie, on Christmas Day 1916. Only five months later Tanner and Claxton led the Tacoma Giants (then called the Bradley & Chastain Giants) to the “Colored Championship of the Northwest”. This was an annual championship, played from at least 1914-17 between the Seattle Dewdrops, Tacoma Little Giants, and Portland Giants. Many of the players were recruited from other nearby rural nines to augment these clubs for a variety of events, and celebrations such as Emancipation Day.
The 1921 Tacoma Little Giants may be the best black baseball team ever assembled in Washington state history. The roster included Tanner, Claxton, John Claxton (Jimmy’s brother, Seattle Royal Giants), Bob ‘Foot’ Sanders (10 years in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, and Memphis Red Sox), Owen ‘Bazz’ Smaulding (barnstormer, Seattle Queen City All Stars, Gilkerson Union Giants, and St. Louis Blues), Elmer Wilson (Detroit Stars, St. Louis Stars, and Dayton Marcos), and John Prim (the first black ballplayer to integrate the University of Washington baseball team). They struggled to find capable opponents able to handle their lineup, as they frankly embarrassed teams. They beat the Japanese American Taiyo team, 31 to 1. To give you an idea of how good this team was, the 20 year old Sanders, a career Negro Leagues hurler was third on the depth chart at pitcher.
In 1924, Tanner and Claxton teamed up again to integrate the Longshoremen Stevedores of the Tacoma Industrial League. Claxton was the ace on the mound, and clean-up hitter. Tanner’s role was as a pinch runner, defensive replacement, and occasional battery-mate. However, Tanner’s influence extended off of the baseball diamond as a labor leader on the Tacoma waterfront for nearly 40 years. The former labor hall which now houses the branch campus of the University of Washington in Tacoma, was renamed the Ernest Tanner Center for Cultural, and Ethnic Studies
But his story does not end there, his son Jack Tanner (1919-2006), went on to become the first African American federal judge appointed to the bench West of the Mississippi in 1978. Tanner who served on Okinawa, and in Manchuria during World War 2, returned to the Tacoma docks his father worked after the war. Ernie Tanner, Jimmy Claxton, and the great boxer “Yakima’s Ghost of Joe Gans” Henry Woods (82-9 career record) all worked on Tacoma beach gangs in the late 1940’s.
Jack Tanner studied law at the University of Puget Sound where he passed the bar in his first at-bat. He played for a number of black baseball teams in Tacoma, Bakersfield (CA), and Reno. A Washington State civil rights leader he was the President of the NAACP throughout the 1960’s. He represented everyone from Muhammed Ali, actor Marlon Brando, to Indigenous American Bob Satiacum. One of his more controversial rulings on the bench included a finding that conditions at Walla Walla State Prison amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. He was a strong proponent of the Women’s Equal Pay Act as well.