First in a series

“One of the best backstops in Indiana.”

“He is the terror of all pitchers.”

“His long hitting is attracting the attention of the entire Midwest.”

John “Snowball” Merida had it all in terms of baseball skill. If he were alive today, Merida would fit into that coveted “five-tool” player category – meaning he could hit for average, hit for power, run the bases well, field his position and possess a strong throwing arm.

What Merida didn’t have was the right color skin for the prejudicial times. He was a Black man. And he grew up in Spiceland, Indiana.

Henry County historian Richard P. Ratcliff recently called this newspaper’s attention to Merida’s story, covered years ago by The Courier-Times and Knightstown’s Tri-County Banner, but perhaps lost in the rapidly turning pages of time.

Merida was Henry County’s Jackie Robinson. It would be a big swing and a miss if another Black History Month goes by without mentioning Merida, who he was and what could have been.

Years before baseball would become a big part of his life, John Merida’s mother were longing to be “safe at home.”

In a book about Merida written by Alex Painter, how and why the family came to Spiceland becomes crystal clear.

“Though predominantly rural and fairly small, with a population of just a few hundred in the 1870s, Spiceland had an African American community that predated even the conclusion of the American Civil War,” Painter writes.

In another paragraph, Painter states, “Though Spiceland wasn’t free of racial prejudice, it was considered ‘light years ahead of their white neighbors.’ In fact, one account from the 1880s states that Blacks from North Carolina regarded Spiceland as ‘Jerusalem.’”

It was Spiceland where a strong Quaker church congregation “fought slavery fervently,” Painter wrote. It was Spiceland where the Underground Railroad led many Black slaves to safety, thanks in large part to a man named Seth Hinshaw. And it was Hinshaw who helped renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the most important figures in 19th century history, find refuge in nearby Greensboro after a vicious attack in Pendleton.

So John “Snowball” Merida had landed in the right place, even if it was at the wrong time.

While his ancestors were slaves, he was destined to become a household name on baseball fields from Spiceland and New Castle to Indianapolis and Cincinnati, even on to Kansas City.

“A half century before Jackie Robinson graced a major league baseball field, John Merida was an indomitable force of integration among the patchy meadows, dusty sandlots and ramshackle municipal parks, all situated among the unassuming cornfields of the Hoosier state,” Painter wrote. “As a Black man in the first decade of the 20th century, he’d ultimately reach the pinnacle of the sport that was available to him.”

After starring for Spiceland Academy from 1895 to 1903, “Snowball” played on seven other teams over the next decade, including the Montpelier Oil Boys, New Castle’s Krell-French Piano team, the Cincinnati Black Tourists, the Dublin Base Ball Club, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Minneapolis Keystones and the Kansas City Royal Giants.

Wherever he went, “Snowball” made life miserable for opposing pitchers.

An Indianapolis newspaper writer described him this way:

“He is the terror of all pitchers. His long hitting is attracting the attention of the Middle West and if he were a white man, he would be in the professional leagues.”

Why was he nicknamed ‘Snowball?’ More on that next week.