By Ron Keurajian
“The Black Legion probably is the craziest and the most dangerous mob ever formed in the United States.”
– Inspector John A. Hoffman, Detroit Police
Detroit, like most major American cities, has a storied history of crime, murder and gangland violence. Jimmy Hoffa, the Mafia, the Collingwood Massacre and, of course, the Purple Gang – a Prohibition era bootleg mob reputed to have killed more than 800 – are forever linked with the Motor City.
When I was young, my neighbor, Mr. Sinclair, once told me of a clandestine organization known as the Black Legion. “The Legion,” he said, “made the Klan look like boy scouts.” Mr. Sinclair’s story of mayhem was hard to believe. It sounded just too violent to be true. However, a new baseball book confirms the brutality.
I recently received a copy of Terror in the City of Champions (Lyons Press, 2016) written by journalist and author Tom Stanton, who teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy. I have read countless books on baseball, and this has to be, by far, the oddest I have ever read. It is just as much a horror story as it is a detailed writing about the World Champion 1935 Detroit Tigers. The text is very engaging because of Stanton’s easy writing style and partly because of the unpredictability of the chapters. I had to read on to find out what was around the corner, or I should say, pages.
Frank Navin’s Tigers of the early 1930s was a team mired in the basement of the American League. The team was struggling financially and Navin needed to turn his fortunes around. Lagging ticket sales and Navin’s propensity for playing the ponies were eating into the team’s cash flow. The Tigers needed a shot in the arm and that shot turned out to be Philadelphia Athletics’ catcher Mickey Cochrane. Navin would make the fiery Cochrane the Tiger’s new skipper. The book gives a detailed account of how Cochrane came to Detroit as player-manager and the importance of good baseball in the Depression-torn city.
“In rough times, Detroiters had often found comfort in their sports teams,” Stanton writes.
Navin found Cochrane’s competitive spirit and mental intensity assets in building a pennant-winning team. Cochrane’s debut in Detroit and the prospects for pennant-winning baseball is well documented in the book.
The book also gives wonderful accounts of other notable events of the time from the Detroit Lions to Joe Louis. Stanton’s words take you back to the yesteryear of Detroit and the days of Henry Ford, Harry Bennett (Ford’s enforcer), Dutch Clark, Father Coughlin, Hank Greenberg and Goose Goslin. I found Stanton’s detailed description of Detroit’s architecture very delightful.
You finish a chapter on baseball and the winning seasons of 1934 and 1935, and it’s a great baseball read. Then you read on and the next chapter opens up with some poor soul taking a .38 slug to the head and his body dumped in a desolate pond outside of Detroit.
The Black Legion was a paramilitary group and self-appointed protector of the Constitution. Its roots can be traced back to the upper Midwest, most likely Ohio. Its founder was Dr. Billy Shepard. It had divisions throughout Michigan and Ohio. Detroit and its tributary city, Highland Park, could boast thousands of members. Today, most associate the Legion exclusively with Detroit. I have heard more than one historian refer to the Legion as the “Detroit KKK.”
In a chapter titled “Major-General Bert,” Stanton goes into great depth about the origins of the Legion, its self-appointed leader, Virgil “Bert” Effinger, and of the group’s clandestine meetings mostly in less populated areas of the state.
The Legion terrorized many ethnic and religious groups that didn’t fit their model. Jews, Blacks and Catholics were foremost on the Legion’s hit list. Labor unions, communists and leftists also ran afoul with the Legion. Needless to say, pro-labor artwork by artists like Diego Rivera and Ben Kroll would not have pleased “General” Effinger and his men.
Stanton goes into frightening detail about the Legion and methods they employed when dealing with those they did not approve of. Bombings, assassinations and whippings were common. Countless innocent victims died by the hand of the Legion. The random terror of this group comes through loud and clear in the text. The reader will find it hard to believe an organization like this actually existed in 20th century America. The Legion ordering people to get a divorce or face death was common. Forced initiation at gun point was an effective way of increasing membership; take the oath or die worked well.
Most disturbing were ghastly episodes of human hunts where the Legion would target and hunt down an “enemy” of the group and riddle their victim with bullets. The violent death of one Silas Coleman reads in graphic detail. And were a Legion member to step out of line, they were stripped down and given the cat of nine-tails or, in some cases, simply had their head blown off with a scatter gun. The pages are riveting if not ghastly.
There are some great baseball stories to be found within. Henry Ford, according the book, attended his first major league game on Sept. 17, 1934, with his son Edsel. I find it funny that the famed Detroit auto-magnate didn’t step into Navin Field until the age of 70!
In another tale, Cochrane let the team decide whether the error prone “Gee” Walker would stay on the team or be released. The Tigers voted to keep him on the team – an unheard of solution in the modern-day game.
Schoolboy Rowe’s 16-game winning streak of 1934, Tiger fans pelting Cardinal’s outfielder Joe Medwick with fruit and an assortment of trash during the World Series and Cochrane’s little-known nervous breakdown can be found within the pages.
Terror in the City of Champions shows the greatness of baseball in Detroit and the evil of a home-grown terrorist organization that existed side by side. The Legion flew just under the radar for many years with impunity. It is a book of baseball and true crime that will appeal to a broad range of readers. A stunning work that sometimes you have to read out of the corner of your eye.
Ron Keurajian is a long-time contributor to SCD and the author of the award-winning “Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs – A Reference Guide” (McFarland Publishing, 2012).