Negro League Baseball Player, Handball Champ & CPD Chief Engineer
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter January 10, 2014 8:10PM
John Dawson, who played baseball in the Negro Leagues, was a champion handball player and a chief engineer for the old Police HQ at 11th and State.
Updated: February 14, 2014 6:18AM
To the people at police headquarters, John Dawson was the resourceful chief engineer, ready to solve any lighting, heating or air conditioning problem and get that elevator fixed before morning court calls clogged the lifts with the Johns and Janes charged with dumb and disorderly behavior the night before.
Yet his rich life included a stint as a baseball player in the Negro Leagues, where he was a catcher for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Philadelphia Stars. He was good enough to get a tryout for the Cubs. They took a pass, but told him to keep trying.
Mr. Dawson didn’t want to waste years working for a dream that might not happen.
He landed a city job and became a top player at handball, one of the oldest sports in the world. He was also a sought-after referee at tournaments at Chicago’s Rainbow Beach and at the U.S. Handball Association National Three-Wall championships held each year near Toledo.
In 2009, Mr. Dawson was diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors told him he had 18 months, but he lived three years longer than expected. He died Tuesday in hospice care at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center at age 71, according to his son, John Jr.
Despite experiencing the meager harvests of the sharecropper’s child, and racism from when his baseball team barnstormed the South, he retained an ability to see humanity in people. As a business representative with Local 399 of the operating engineers union, he helped people find jobs regardless of their ethnicity, friends said.
Mr. Dawson recalled his Negro League days for Cam Perron, a student at Tulane University who has documented players’ careers and helped them win pensions. “To see the South, Southwest, Canada, etc. . . . was phenomenal,” Mr. Dawson said in an excerpt in Massachusetts’ Arlington Advocate in 2010. “It was the worst of times because the South at that time was totally segregated. Signs such as: White Only, Colored Only were prevalent. Sitting on the back of the bus and in Colored Only sections of Rickwood baseball stadium (This was where I was in Birmingham) and theatres.”
He was born in Helena, Ark., to sharecropping parents with 10 children. He was No. 8. He learned early on not to dawdle at suppertime. “If you get there late, you didn’t eat,” his son said.
When he was three, the family moved to a three-bedroom South Side apartment. His father worked as a mechanic and his mother landed a job at Continental Can. “The girls slept in one room, the boys in another room,” his son said. There was one bathroom for all 12 Dawsons, a step up from the outdoor privy in Helena.
With no wide-open spaces, the children expelled pent-up energy by exploring Ogden Park at 65th and Racine and by jumping off garage roofs onto piled-up mattresses.
Mr. Dawson graduated from Lindblom High School. At that time, he was the only African-American student, according to his son. It wasn’t unusual for him to hear the “N” word.
Still, “My father had an air of confidence,” his son said. He became a captain of the baseball team and a city all-star, he said.
“He had a tryout with the Chicago Cubs,” said Dr. Layton Revel, founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research. “After that he went to the Negro League team of the Philadelphia Stars.” That same year — 1961 — he played for the Birmingham Black Barons, Revel said.
But he wanted to get on with his life, marry and have children, his son said. He started out as a city garbage collector before taking exams and working his way up to the jobs of chief operating engineer and director of operations. Later, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Chicago State University.
He worked for the departments of Water and Public Works. Eventually he became chief engineer at the old Police headquarters at 11th and State. He also was engineer for several police districts, said Joseph Flores, a retired traffic officer.
“I remember the phone ringing at 2 in the morning a bunch of times” when the engineers he supervised needed help, his son said. “He would walk them through a problem.”
Rainbow Beach became a second home to him. There he played Three-Wall Handball, a variation popular in Chicago and Toledo. In other places, the game is typically played on one or four walls.
At 5 feet 11, he was a wall of muscle, with a massive chest and arms. Handball kept him in shape.
He and his wife, the former Gloria Hariston, raised their children, John Jr. and Michelle Humphries, in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
At golf outings, “He would include me, the little 10-year-old boy who didn’t quite know how to play,” his son said. “It was our time. I would always root for him and he would always root for me. It was us against the golf course.”
“He taught me how to be a man, how to take care of my family,” his son said.
Mr. Dawson retained his Southern manners, addressing people as “Mr. “ or “Mrs.” “Just a courteous fellow to be playing against, in victory or defeat,” said a fellow handball player, the Rev. Gene Smith of St. Linus Parish in Oak Lawn.
In addition to being gracious, he was generous. When the homeless left their holding cells and exited police headquarters, he was at the back door, ready with sandwiches he collected himself. “Bums, drunks—he’d stop by at this wholesale place and pick up boxed lunches and hand them out,” Flores said.
“He was a favorite among the Rainbow Beach guys in Chicago and traveled quite often to Toledo for our national championships,” said Vern Roberts, executive director of the U.S. Handball Association. “He was a wonderful person to be around because he would always volunteer to help.”
Often, he helped at games at Lake Forest College, a handball powerhouse. He mentored players and slipped them money if they looked hungry, Flores said. “John would approach them and say, ‘Young man, stay in school, keep your grades up. You get yourself a decent meal and new handball gloves.’”
In addition to his wife and children, he is survived by his sisters, Ercy Brooks, Pearle Aikens and Helen Hope; his brothers, Lucius, Solomon Jr. and Eugene, and four grandchildren.
A wake is scheduled at 10 a.m. Saturday with an 11 a.m. funeral to follow at Cross Temple Church of God in Christ, 9100 S. Bishop.