After a century in an unmarked grave, St. Paul’s Black baseball founder finally gets a headstone
Phil Reid was the owner of the powerful St. Paul Gophers, a barnstorming Black baseball team that dominated the sport in Minnesota and beyond between 1907 and 1910.
ST. PAUL -- Phil Reid’s funeral in October 1912 was among the largest St. Paul had ever seen.
Hundreds of mourners packed the pews of Pilgrim Baptist Church, while an overflow crowd of hundreds more spilled out onto its lawn, paying their respects to a pillar of the city’s Black community.
In addition to a successful businessman and philanthropist, Reid had been the owner of the revered St. Paul Gophers, a barnstorming Black baseball team that dominated the sport in Minnesota and beyond between 1907 and 1910.
But when his funeral procession arrived at Oakland Cemetery a few blocks north of the state Capitol, Reid was buried in an unmarked plot next to his first wife and his brother.
Reid finally received a headstone on Tuesday morning, when the St. Paul Saints unveiled a new rose granite marker at his gravesite.The team later honored Reid at CHS Field before their game against Indianapolis.
“Phil was a visionary and a pioneer,” Saints general manager Derek Sharrer said. “He’s such a huge personality. It’s a story that I don’t think enough baseball fans have heard about.”
A great sports fan
Philip Edward Reid was born in the slave state of Kentucky in 1854, writes historian Todd Peterson in his book, “Early Black Baseball in Minnesota.”
By the late 1880s, Reid had worked his way up from waiting tables for the railroads to tending bar at the Eureka Saloon in downtown St. Paul.
A decade later, he had established himself as a liquor and cigar importer in the city, opening his own bar in 1901 at Kellogg Boulevard and Cedar Street, according to local Black baseball historian Frank White.
Known throughout the Twin Cities as “Daddy,” Reid quickly became one of the wealthiest Black men in St. Paul and a leading figure in the African-American community, counting among his friends the boxer Jack Johnson and future Negro National League founder Rube Foster, Peterson writes.
“He was a great sports fan,” White said of Reid. “At some point, he decided, ‘I’m going to have a baseball team.’ And not just any baseball team, but the best baseball team.”
Reid recruited top Black ballplayers from across the country, putting together powerful rosters that included Walter Ball, Candy Jim Taylor, Chappie Johnson and local multi-sport superstar Bobby Marshall.
During the team’s inaugural season in 1907, the Gophers wowed their hometown fans by beating the slumping St. Paul Saints in an exhibition game.
Two years later, the Gophers beat Frank Leland’s Chicago Giants — widely regarded as the best African-American ball club in the country at the time — in a five-game series to claim the world championship title of Black baseball, according to White.
These games earned the Gophers a sterling reputation, but they didn’t pay the bills. Like many other Black teams of the era, Reid’s nine made their money by barnstorming across the Upper Midwest, playing weekend series against local amateur teams.
During the four seasons Reid managed the Gophers, they won nearly 75% of their games, according to Peterson’s research.
“It’s an amazing win-loss record,” White told the Pioneer Press in April. “And they played everybody. They played a lot of teams and took on all comers.”
After the 1910 season, Reid left town to marry an actress and singer named Belle Davis. The Gophers would be reborn under new ownership a handful of times, but Reid would never manage another baseball team.
He died on Oct. 16, 1912.
“There was a great outpour of all classes,” according to Reid’s obituary in the Twin City Star. “Everybody loved ‘Phil’ Reid. He had many friends — because it was his ambition to make them.”
Reid had purchased three adjoining plots in Oakdale Cemetery years earlier. An upright headstone marked the graves of Reid’s first wife and brother.
It’s unclear why no marker was ever installed for Reid himself, but White speculates it has something to do with the legal battle over his estate between Reid’s widow and his son.
White, who Sharrer regards as “the preeminent Black baseball historian in the state of Minnesota,” first approached the Saints about correcting this oversight after the team in 2019 opened its City of Baseball Museum at CHS Field, which includes an exhibit on the Gophers that White helped develop.
“We started thinking through ways we could rectify the situation,” Sharrer said. “We decided the best way to do it was to give him the headstone he deserved.”