Doc Sykes: An impact bigger than baseball
By: Zach Finkelstein
The greatest contributions from Negro Leagues pitcher Franklin “Doc” Sykes would not be found on the back of a baseball card.
In the game of life, Sykes proved to be a legendary team player.
While Sykes enjoyed a playing career worth chronicling, the man made his greatest impact as an expert witness during the racially-charged adjudications of nine young black men in Scottsboro, Ala., in 1931.
Considered seminal cases in the advancement of United States judicial equality, the Scottsboro trials were held after two white women -- who were reportedly breaking the law themselves -- falsely accused the nine boys, ages 12 to 20, of rape in order to justify their own whereabouts onboard an Interstate cargo train.
The boys' collective guilt was treated as a fait accompli by the public, with newspaper headlines assuming their responsibility before all-white juries tried, convicted and sentenced to death all but one defendant in a matter of a day.
Recognizing the obvious injustices that took place, Sykes volunteered to testify during the appeal stages that several black juror candidates were denied the ability to serve. The efforts from Sykes and others who shared his commitment to equality did not end in vain, as the United States Supreme Court ultimately ruled in a manner that advanced the importance of requiring racially diverse juries.
Sykes endured a wrath for his heroism. After speaking publicly and offering shelter to visiting black journalists covering the cases, Sykes found himself on the receiving end of death threats -- including one instance in which he reportedly had to make a high-speed escape from a car of Ku Klux Klan members.
Sykes, by any measure, was a Hall of Fame-level person for his willingness to help others during their darkest days. But his playing career is noteworthy, too.
Dr. Sykes -- the pitcher converted to a full-time career in dentistry that commenced during his time on the mound -- eventually moved from Alabama to Baltimore due to the harassment endured post-trial.
On the field, the 6-foot-2 righty recorded his signature game on Sept. 16, 1922, when he notched a no-hitter against the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. That season was arguably his best as a professional, during a career that saw him suit up for clubs in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore -- after attending Howard University and Atlanta Baptist College, which is now known as Morehouse College. The righty's career season, punctuated by the aforementioned no-no, ended with Sykes boasting a 12-5 record and a sterling 1.80 ERA.
Sykes came from an athletically gifted family, as his younger brother Melvin played a season in the Negro Leagues following a collegiate career that saw him star on both the baseball field and basketball court.
Sykes died Nov. 10, 1986, at 94 years old, leaving an indelible mark for his efforts on and off the field of play.