Reece "Goose" Tatum , born May 3rd, 19181 near Jersey, AR,2 was a Negro League baseball player from 1940-1949, as well as a Hall of Fame basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Tatum was the fifth of seven children born to Benjamin Franklin Tatum and Mary Alice (nee Burns) Tatum.3 He spent his earliest years growing up in rural south Arkansas near the communities of Jersey in Bradley County, AR and Harrell in Calhoun County, AR before moving as a young child to small town of Calion in Union County, AR. Later, Tatum attended Burnt Mill High School near Norphlet, AR and Washington High School in El Dorado, AR.4 He acquired his nickname "Goose" as a youth, though it's not entirely clear when or how.5 Multiple origins for the nickname were reported, but the most common version claimed that Tatum picked up the nickname while playing youth football,6 perhaps because of his long, flapping arms.7 8
Tatum's athletic career was most noted, and still best remembered, for his showmanship and comedic performances, primarily as basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters. Yet, during the prime of his baseball career in the 1940s, Tatum was also one of the most popular players and best drawing cards in the Negro leagues.9 10 Among his well-known antics as a baseball player were to perform pantomime on field, kneel to pray before at-bats, participate in infield shadowball, and attempt hidden ball tricks. And though his strong on-field personality undoubtedly made him overrated as a player, he also possessed a naturally athletic physique of considerable skill and ability. He was only 6'3'' tall, but had remarkably large hands and notably long, lanky arms that spanned about 84 inches, making him an ideal first baseman.11 And notwithstanding his gangling form, Tatum also had good coordination and could jump well. 12 At his peak, he was an average or better switch-hitter. And though his performance as a player fell in the later years of his career to be among the league's worst, he remained a fan favorite throughout and developed a lasting legacy that ultimately helped define black baseball.
Tatum's baseball career began in the late 1930s with semi-pro teams in his hometown of El Dorado,13 including the El Dorado Black Lions in 1937 and 1938.14 He may also have played around this time with the Forester Braves in the sawmill town of Forester, AR.15 In 1939, Tatum attempted to begin his professional career by responding to a newspaper ad seeking prospective players to join the independent Louisville Black Colonels.16 17 According to one report, Tatum made his way to Louisville by freight train.18 Later, in the spring of 1941, Tatum earned a position with the Birmingham Black Barons after attending spring training with the team in Shreveport, LA.19 20 He quickly drew attention for his showmanship skills, which were regarded as among the best in baseball.21 These skills were particularly noted by Birmingham manager W. S. Welch and co-owner Abe Saperstein, who were also the manager and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters of basketball fame. Tatum returned to Birmingham at the beginning of the 1942 season, but his performance failed to impress and he was sent in June to play with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Gophers in the short lived Negro Major Baseball League of American, a league organized and controlled by Saperstein. When the league and team ceased operation in July, Tatum briefly toured with the other former Minneapolis-St. Paul players on a team billed as the New York Lincoln Giants.22 In late August, Tatum was picked up by the independent Cincinnati Clowns, with whom he quickly became a fan favorite.23 Tatum's growing popularity persuaded Welch and Saperstein to give him a position with the 1942-1943 Harlem Globetrotters, despite any notable experience in basketball. Tatum made good with the Globetrotters and earned considerable fame, maintaining a position with the team through 1955.
Tatum's most successful year in baseball came in 1943 with the Cincinnati Clowns, who were admitted to the Negro American League for the first time that season. He enjoyed what one paper called a "meteoric rise" in Negro baseball, gaining recognition for both his showmanship and his performance as a player.24 Though not exceptional, his hitting paced well-above league average that season.25 In July, he was selected to his first East-West All-Star game, which was played on August 1st at Comiskey Park in Chicago.26 Though he did not play in the game, Tatum did perform an exhibition of his comedic abilities beforehand.27 A week later, on August 8th, Tatum was recognized with "Goose Tatum Day" during a double-header between the Clowns and the Birmingham Black Barons in Minneapolis, where he had played the year before. He went 4 for 4 in the first game and hit a home run in the second.28 Tatum later said in 1945 that this double-header was one of the highlights of his baseball career up to that point.29 In September, Tatum was selected to play in the annual North-South all-star game to be played on September 26th in New Orleans, but did not appear in the game.30
Tatum entered the Army Air Force in late 1943 and was stationed at the Lincoln Army Air Field in Lincoln, NE.31 While there, he obtained the rank of Sergeant and also starred with the integrated Lincoln Army Air Field Wings basketball and baseball teams. In 1944, Tatum helped the Wings baseball team win the Nebraska state semi-pro tournament.32 The Wings also earned a entry into the 1944 National Baseball Congress semi-pro tournament in Wichita, KS, but were quickly eliminated.33 In June 1945, Tatum was able to briefly return to Cincinnati Clowns while on furlough, but returned to play the rest of the summer in Lincoln.34 In July, Tatum went 9 for 16 with 20 total bases in the Nebraska semi-pro finals, helping the Wings repeat as champions.35 Tatum was expected to again play with the Wings in the 1945 National Baseball Congress tournament, but was transferred to McDill Field in Tampa, FL in August, just shortly before the tournament began. Before reporting to McDill Field to begin his new role as a physical trainer,36 Tatum was again able to make a brief return to playing with the Clowns for a few days while furloughed.37 Tatum remained at McDill Field until March, 1946, when he was granted his discharge.38
Tatum quickly returned to professional athletics after leaving the service. He rejoined the Harlem Globetrotters for a tour of Hawaii in April and returned to the Cincinnati-Indianapolis Clowns for the 1946 Negro American League season. He was once again selected to the East-West All-Star games, but did not play in either the first or second game.39 He finished the baseball season with the Cincinnati Crescents on an exhibition tour of Hawaii under the management of Globetrotters directors W.S. Welch and Abe Saperstein.40 He rejoined the Clowns in 1947, but his performance began to decline, especially as a hitter.41 Despite this, he was again named an East-West all-star, going 2-4 with four runs scored in his first and only career appearance in the first 1947 East-West game played at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 27th.42 In addition, he headed a Negro league all-star team that toured with the Clowns in September,43 and singled off Hall of Famer Bob Feller during an off season exhibition game in Los Angeles with the Kansas City Royals winter team on October 19th.44 Meanwhile, it was well reported that Tatum was being scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies.45 Although a $10,000 contract was rumored,46 a deal with Philadelphia failed to materialized. Personal issues had began to plague Tatum, among which was a fine for spiking an umpire, and a recent fight with Hilton Smith of the Kansas City Monarchs in which Tatum reportedly stabbed Smith.47 Tatum's showboating at the East-West all-star game also received scrutiny from famed sports writer Wendell Smith in the Pittsburgh Courier.48 Moreover, Tatum was hospitalized in April 1948 with a case of appendicitis, which threatened to delay his start to the baseball season. He recovered quickly and was able to play out the rest of the season with the Clowns, but was not selected to another East-West game. In late December, he was arrested and briefly jailed for failing to pay lawyer's fees, days after the birth of his son, Reece Tatum Jr.49
Tatum's last regular season in Negro baseball came in 1949. With the Negro American League suffering from a loss of talent due to the integration of organized baseball, Tatum was able to improve his batting average to .320 for the Clowns.50 In the fall, he toured with the Harlem Globetrotters baseball team51 before returning to the court with the Globetrotter's basketball team in the winter as usual. The following year, however, the Globetrotters began playing a year-round schedule, including during summer months, and Tatum opted to thereafter focus solely on basketball. Tatum's international profile as a Globetrotter continued to rise for several more years, but his personal issues also continued to add up. He faced various legal battles, including child support,52 alimony53 and tax evasion54 suits, and also fought a bitter salary dispute with owner Abe Saperstein.55 In addition, he was also prone to drink and argue, as well as occasionally go missing for days. In April 1955, after reportedly missing seven scheduled games, Tatum was suspended and ultimately released from the Globetrotters.56 In the aftermath of the fallout, it was reported that Tatum was being recruited to return to baseball in the Negro American League.57 However, Tatum instead decided to partner with former Globetrotters teammate Marques Haynes to form the Harlem Magicians, a barnstorming basketball team similar to the Globetrotters.58 After this partnership ended a couple years later, Tatum formed and operated his own independent basketball team, the Harlem Stars.59 Meanwhile, he made an ostensible return to Negro baseball in 1958 when it was purported that he had purchased and taken over the management of the Detroit Stars of the Negro American League, subsequently renamed the Detroit Clowns.60 However, it was later clarified that the Detroit club was in fact retained by owner Ted Rasberry and Tatum was only named the nominal owner as part of a publicity stunt.61 Tatum did make breif appearances with the Clowns that season,62 63 but otherwise had minimal involvement with the team and frequently disappointed fans by failing to show up for games in which he was the headlining attraction.64 As a result, the Detroit club dropped Tatum the following year and reverted to being known as the "Stars."65 Similarly, Tatum teamed in 1962 with Negro baseball legend and business partner Satchel Paige to form and co-star on a Harlem Stars baseball team. Paige, who had also toured with the Harlem Stars basketball team, regularly pitched a few innings of each game. Tatum, now in his mid 40s, occasionally appeared as a pinch-runner,66 but otherwise only appeared as a clown67 or failed to show up to games altogether.68
For several more years, Tatum continued to perform with his basketball team, renamed the Harlem Road Kings in 1962. His teenage son, Reece Jr., joined the tour for a time before he was killed in an auto accident near Texarkana, TX on April 2nd, 1966 while driving to a tour stop.69 In early January 1967, Tatum himself was hospitalized near his home in El Paso, TX with a liver condition.70 Shortly after he was released from the hospital, he collapsed at home on January 17th and died later that night in a nearby emergency room.71 72 He was buried in Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso after a private family funeral.73 In 1974, he was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, the institute's first black inductee.74 In 2011, he was selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Statistics at Baseball-Reference.com.
Statistics at the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database.
1 Tatum's WWII draft card and most other contemporary sources give his birth date as May 3rd, 1921. However, Tatum appears in the 1920 U.S. Census, enumerated in February 1920, and is listed as 1 year and 7 months old, suggesting that he was actually born in May 1918.
2 Most modern sources give Tatum's birthplace as El Dorado, AR. However, most sources during Tatum's life, including his WWII draft card, death certificate and obituary, give his birthplace as Calion, AR. Furthmore, in Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration, by Darren Ivy and Jeff Krupsaw, Tatum's sister Dr. Thelma Powell suggested that Tatum was actually born near Hermitage, AR. This latter birthplace is more likely, since the Tatum family was living in Bradley County, AR near the town of Jersey in the 1920 U.S. Census. Tatum's next oldest sibling, his sister Thelma, was born in Jersey, AR in 1916, and his next youngest sibling, his brother Clenton Taylor, was born in nearby Harrell, AR in 1923. The Times (Shreveport, LA), 1/29/1956 and the Arkansas Gazette, 4/18/1954 both suggest that Reece was also born in Harrell, AR. The Times (Shreveport, LA), 1/23/1966 suggests that Reece was born in "Bradley, Ark.", which probably refers to Bradley County, thereby making Jersey, AR the most likely place of Tatum's birth.
4 Arkansas Gazette, 1/8/1974
7 The Weekly Review, (Birmingham, AL), 9/29/1945, p.7
8 Sawmill: The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies, by Kenneth L. Smith, p.190-191
11 Tatum's height and arm measurements were often exaggerated. He was listed as 6'3" in his WWII draft card. 84 inches was the most commonly reported arm span for Tatum.
13 The Weekly Review, (Birmingham, AL), 9/29/1945, p.7
15 Sawmill: The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies, by Kenneth L. Smith, p.190-191
17 Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration, by Darren Ivy and Jeff Krupsaw
25 The Seamheads Negro Leagues Database gives Tatum a 124 OPS+ in 1943.
41 Seamheads.com Negro Leagues Database credits Tatum with a 60 OPS+ in 1947.
62 1958 Negro American League Statistics at CNLBR.org. Tatum as listed as playing in less than 10 games.
64 Indianapolis Recorder, 9/6/1958, 11; Evening Independent, 7/15/1958; Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN), 8/29/1958
65 Alabama Tribune, 4/10/1958, p.7. It seems that Tatum's former team, the Indianapolis Clowns, felt that the bad publicity generated by Tatum's frequent failures to appear with Detroit hurt the public profile of their franchise, since both teams were named the Clowns and were easy to confuse.
74 Arkansas Democrat, 1/15/1974