‘Colored Ghosts’ made Calumet appearance

CALUMET – In their day, they were known as the softball version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

The Iowa Colored Ghosts, also known as the Harlem Tops and Sioux City Ghosts, made a living by touring small towns all over America between the early 1930s and middle 1950s.

In 1946, they made a trip to the Copper Country.

Their opponent that early fall day at Agassiz Field was a Liberty Loan team considered by most observers to be the finest ever assembled in northern Houghton County.

Johnny Caserio, now 95 years old, is the last living member of the Liberty Loan squad. He says his team had talent to spare.

“We were strong at every position,” Caserio recalled recently. “We felt we were capable of winning any game.”

“We had many guys who were standouts in hockey, like Don Nichols and Johnny Whittaker …. he was one of the best ever. And Enkku Kemp was also a very good baseball pitcher, he could really throw hard.”

No less than three future Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame selections played for Liberty Loan in a period between 1940 and 1954. While Liberty Loan was located in Hancock, its players came from the Calumet-Laurium area.

Whittaker, Jack Mugford and Fred Barry all toiled for the Calumet team, the latter began playing in the middle 1950s.

But the team also boasted stellar players like Nichols, Kemp, Ed Jenich, Jim Rost and Chuck Stenson.

The Ghosts, who toured the country extensively for 20 years, featured a strong team. In some 2,000 games in that period, they were defeated less than 100 times.

They played in front of crowds sometimes exceeding 25,000 and went to many states, as well as in Canada and Mexico.

Credited by many historians as helping to break down the barriers of racial discrimination that existed in those days, the team insisted that certain restrictions be lifted before they played a game.

The team also gained comparison with the Harlem Globetrotters because they performed some comedy before games.

That included playing shadow ball, stealing first base from second base, using melons instead of a ball and riding bicycles in the outfield.

But as their record attests, they were serious when it came to playing the actual game.

Schaaf recalled that their pitcher, Frankie Williams, was “very, very fast.”

“Liberty Loan had some good athletes and fine hitters,” Schaaf said. “But they didn’t do much against him.”

For the large crowd on hand, the final score was immaterial. Schaaf recalled that the Ghosts “won by a couple of runs.”

Caserio, who didn’t recall the outcome of the game, said the Ghosts were a talented team. He said he never kept track of scores or averages.

“I just liked to play the game,” he said simply. “Bowling was the only sport where I kept track of the scores.”

Incidentally, Caserio was the first bowler in the northend to compile a 200 average for a season.

The Ghosts batters had problems with the slants of pitchers Bobby Giroux and Rost that day.

Giroux was born with a physical defect that essentially put his hands where his elbows were located. But he developed into a very good pitcher who commanded an outstanding drop pitch.

“He (Giroux) played many years and won a lot of games,” Schaaf pointed out. “He fielded his position, could hit and was very fast on the bases.”

In a side note, some of the members of the Ghosts put together a barnstorming basketball team when winter arrived and toured the West Coast for many seasons.

Ben “Bear” Dunn, in particular, was a very good hoopster and often hit double figures in the days when scores were often in the high thirties. Diminutive “Shoes” Evans provided the comedy with his slick ballhandling.

A couple of Negro League baseball teams reportedly played in the Calumet area back in the 1920s and 1930s. And a black barnstorming team played the Hancock Merchants in the 1950s, losing to the locals.

But the Iowa Colored Ghosts were the only black softball team ever to make it up here.

White teams like the House of David, and later the King and His Court, also played exhibitions in the Copper Country. The legendary Eddie Feigner made a couple of visits – the last in 1979.