Article by Mike Worcester from the Cokato Historical Society's newsletter In the Midst Of, May, 2015, Vol. 35 No. 2.
Cokato Enterprise, May 31, 1915
It is understandable how a modern audience might be taken aback a bit by title of this article. Please realize though it is not us writing. Notice the quotation marks? This title comes from the headline of a May 13, 1915, Cokato Enterprise article.
The “giant” being referenced is Bobby (Bob) Marshall, who by the time he arrived in Cokato was a legend in the Minnesota sports community, going back to his days as a student at Minneapolis Central High School.
How town team baseball is played now differs markedly from a century ago. Teams would supplement their local talent with paid players from other communities, sometimes from quite a distance.
With games typically, though not always, played on weekends and holidays, players who came from a distance, like Marshall’s trips from Minneapolis, this was not an impediment to their playing.
Just who was Bob Marshall? The article did not do his career and life, and the significance of his one season in Cokato, much justice.
The April 1 City Pages article, “Blackball”, described Marshall as “the Bo Jackson of his era”. Said author Ryan Whirty: “He [Marshall] broke color barriers and records on the University of Minnesota football team, where he would earn a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. A true renaissance man, he would become one of the first black players in the NFL, while also running track, boxing, wrestling, and playing hockey — and become a successful lawyer in his spare time.”
Six years before his one season in Cokato, Marshall played for the St. Paul Colored Gophers, who barnstormed the state, garnering both positive and negative — and very often virulently racist — coverage.
Undeterred, that 1909 team compiled a record of 28-5-1.
By the time Marshall played for Cokato, he was thirty-five years old, but still a force in the sports community. One key question we were unfortunately unable to answer — how exactly did a “giant” in the baseball world like Marshall end up in Cokato?
"Hunt & Poke" Cokato Enterprise, March 16, 1950.
The Hunt & Poke column of the March 16, 1950 Enterprise provided a clue. It noted how the 1915 Cokato team had a number of paid players, including Rube Ursela, a former University of Minnesota teammate of Marshall’s. It was never explicitly stated that this connection brought Marshall here, but it would make sense.
At the time of his Cokato playing days, Marshall also had a job as a grain inspector for the state of Minnesota, one he would hold until his retirement in 1950. It was that retirement which promoted the Hunt & Poke article, noting that testimonials for Marshall were actively being sought for his retirement party.
Moorhead State University history professor, Stephen Hoffbeck, wrote in the Winter 2004-05 Minnesota History magazine that upon Marshall’s death in 1958, scant attention as paid to his contributions.
“The newspaper tributes by then were short,” wrote Hoffbeck, “devoid of the recognition due to one of the state’s greatest athletes, as if the new generation of writers had lost some of the collective Minnesota memory.” Marshall is now receiving, in our modern era, the attention he deserves. It does sometimes take a longer duration than it should for people to be given the adulation they earned.
The Cokato west side ball field, summer 1914.
We do not have any images of Marshall during his year with the Cokato team, but we do have a nice image of the west side ball field where he, and many others, entertained the crowds. It was located in a grain field about two blocks southwest of the Cokato school building. Typical of ball fields of its time it featured a small grandstand and seating for each team. Spectators would sit on the grass or stand to watch along the base paths and would quite often line their cars up on the far reaches of the outfield.
There are many images available on-line of Marshall, and in the excellent book, Swinging For the Fences: Black Baseball In Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005.)
While Bob Marshall’s life and career intersected for only a brief time here in Cokato, our duty at the museum is to ensure it is chronicled. Much like the signs which say “Lincoln Slept Here”, we can say with forthright honesty that, “Marshall Played Here”.