By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

Alice Sykes says her father was not a man who talked much and especially about himself.

If the late Dr. Frank Sykes had been a talker, he would have had many amazing stories to share. On the baseball field, the Decatur native was one of the all-time great pitchers in the Negro Leagues.

Sykes also had a pivotal role in a court trial in Decatur that lead to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that changed the country’s judicial system.

“I was the youngest of four with three older brothers,” Alice Sykes, now 77, said. “I was 13 years younger than my youngest brother. I guess my Dad shared all his stories with the boys.

“By the time I came along I guess the stories had gotten old. I have learned a lot about him from what others have written or said. Being honored by the (Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame) is just another wonderful chapter in his life.”

Sykes is being inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 6.

The Sykes story starts with his birth in Decatur on April 10, 1892. His father, Solomon Sykes, had been born into slavery. After the Civil War, Solomon Sykes owned a saloon in Decatur and became one of the most prominent businessmen in the Black community. He and his wife Ada were able to send all eight of their children to college.

Frank first went to school in Chicago in 1909 to study embalming so he could help out at the family funeral home in Decatur. During his time in the Windy City, Sykes discovered he had a talent for throwing a baseball.

The next year found Sykes enrolled at Atlanta Baptist College, which is now known as Morehouse College. He transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1914 to study dentistry where he got his degree in 1918. All the while, Sykes was sharpening his pitching skills.

The 6-foot-3 Sykes developed an elusive spitball, which was a legal pitch at the time, to go along with a powerful fastball. He threw both pitches sidearm, which made them even more intimidating to the batter. His pitching motion led to him being referred to as the “black Walter Johnson.”

Sykes pitched four years at Howard and never lost a game. He called it “a record that can be equaled but never broken.”

The first experience in pro ball for Sykes came in 1914 while on summer break from college.  He played for the Brooklyn Royal Giants and the New York Lincoln Giants. Hall of Fame pitcher Smoky Joe Williams was a teammate.

Like many pitchers making the jump from college to pros, Sykes had to adapt his game. He discovered that his fastball was more effective the slower he threw it. He explained it to author John Holway in an interview in 1988 for the book “Blackball Tales.”

“There was an easier way to beat teams than trying to throw it by them. We played the Chicago American Giants, and I don’t think I threw one ball up there that would have broken a pane of glass.”

After college, Sykes played with several more pro teams until joining the Baltimore Black Sox in 1920. He continued his dental practice while playing on the weekends. He quickly became known as “Doc” Sykes. The team’s ace pitcher had a reported salary of $300 a month.

Sykes dominated in 1922 with a 22-4 record that included a no-hitter against the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. He faced the minimum of 27 batters. Two batters did reach base but one was caught stealing and the other was out via a double play.

In 1924, Sykes ended his baseball career and moved his family and practice to Decatur following his father’s death. Just like his father, Frank would become a pillar of the Black community.

Decatur was tested in 1933 when a re-trial of the Scottsboro Boys case was moved to the River City from Birmingham. Considered a key case in the advancement of judicial equality, nine black men were accused of rape by two white women on a freight train in Jackson County. The original trial had an all-white male jury convicting the accused and sentencing all but one of them to death.

Because of violence that surrounded the trial in Birmingham, the case was moved to Decatur. The same verdict was rendered, but the defense argued that the defendants did not receive a trial by a jury of their peers.

The prosecution argued that there were no black men in Morgan County, who were qualified to serve in the jury. The defense offered several Blacks in the community as witnesses to show that was not true. One of them was Sykes. A photo of him on the witness stand received national attention when it was published in several different publications.

“My father always said that there were several people who testified, not just him,” Alice Sykes said. “It just happened that he was in the photo that became famous.”

The efforts from Sykes and the others who testified did not end in vain. The United States Supreme Court later threw out the case and ordered another re-trial. The ruling advanced the importance of requiring racially diverse juries. It was a key moment in the early days of the Civil Rights movement.

Most of the sentences were eventually overturned, but not before the men spent several years in Alabama prisons.

Sykes received backlash from the community, particularly the Ku Klux Klan. He had death threats and received hate mail. A cross left burning in the yard in front of his dental office led to Sykes to making the decision to move his family back to Baltimore in 1937.

A career as a respected dentist was followed by him becoming an elder statesman for Negro League history. Sykes died in 1986 at age 94. His ashes were spread on the Morehouse College campus.

Baseball historian Gary Joseph Cieradkowski calls Sykes an example of standing up for what was right against overwhelming odds and physical danger to influence generations of Americans to fight for the better society.

Decatur’s Phil Wirey nominated Sykes for the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame. He hopes this honor will lead to something even greater.

“I think he should be in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame just on what he did as a baseball player,” Wirey said. “When you take his whole life into account, it’s an amazing story.”

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