The ABCs of Lowell History: S is for Shackelford and Speed

The ABCs of Lowell History is back for another round. This popular series explores a wide variety of topics in Lowell area history in weekly online articles and is written by volunteers and staff from the Lowell Area Historical Museum.

S is for Shackelford and Speed

Every day, Lowell residents drive by the former Recreation Park with no idea of the depth of history there. Among other things, Negro League Baseball national stars played here, made history here, but today very little is remembered. Two stand outs of that era are John Shackelford and “Speed” McCall.

John Shackelford was born in 1904 in Memphis Tennessee. His father was a high school principal and an attorney. In school John played baseball and basketball. In 1923 he earned the title of the best third baseman in the Southern Athletic Association. After that he entered the Professional Negro League. In 1924, he played for the Cleveland Browns, in 1925 he played for the Harrisburg Giants, in 1926 he was with the Chicago American Giants, and they won the Colored World Series Championship. Later, in 1930 he played with the Birmingham Black Barons.

Shackelford graduated from the University of Michigan’s law school in 1931 and set up his law practice in Grand Rapids. He played for the Fox Colored Giants. Fineis Oil from Lowell bought the Fox team in 1931 and moved them to Lowell. The team’s stars were the Robinson brothers and Shackelford. Shackelford also managed the team. At the debut game on July 31, Lowell’s village president threw out the first pitch, there was a flag raising ceremony, and music during the game was provided by the Lowell High School band. The next week their game was featured as part of the Lowell Centennial Celebration.

The Colored Giants hosted professional Negro League teams like the Indianapolis ABC’s, in Lowell at Recreation Park. During this season the team was drawing crowds of 1,000 fans and it was stated that Shackelford “has yet to meet his equal in this section of the country.”

The 1933 season brought a name change, the “Dixie Gas Stars” entertained Lowell and the baseball community. They were still managed by Shackelford, and he was credited with making them “Western Michigan’s greatest attraction.” From his years and contacts in the professional negro league, Shackelford was able to stack his team with former professional players. At one time the entire infield of the Dixie Gas Stars were all former professional national players. They were called one of the strongest teams in the state.

Under Shackelford’s management, the Colored Giants enjoyed playing small town teams as entertainment. They would clown around through the first few innings, graciously giving the small-town team a chance to look good. Then they would turn up the heat, playing real ball and taking home the win.

Outside of baseball and working as an attorney, Shackelford was involved in the betterment of his community. While still in high school, he had advocated for literacy in the black community. In 1934 he ran for the Third Ward Supervisor in Grand Rapids. In 1936 The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) held a conference in Lansing titled “The Economic Status of the Negro” featured John Shackelford, Grand Rapids attorney, as one of four speakers.

Not much is known about Speed/Speeds McCall but he was the star pitcher for the team through the Shackelford era. He was frequently highlighted in newspaper articles because of how fast he threw the ball. He was called a “fastball artist” and a “star hurler”. In the 1933 season he won 18 games straight.

In 1936 Pete Fineis, team owner died unexpectedly, and the team moved to Grand Rapids under a new owner. Lowell’s time with Negro League baseball was over. The player’s impact can still be felt as we remember the limits that society put on them. The Lansing State Journal in 1933 said of the team “they are considered Michigan’s greatest semi-pro ball team and have several stars who would be up in the majors if it wasn’t for their color.”

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