The story of the first African-American baseball player in Grand Forks, a man named Bishop Dorsey, is one of great athletic glory – but marred by deep woe.
Bishop Dorsey, known as “Bish,” was born in Missouri in 1876, but lived in Grand Forks from childhood. Bish Dorsey became noted for his superb baseball skills from the time he was old enough to pick up a bat and ball.
At age 19, in 1895, his name began to appear in newspaper stories about the local semi-professional ballclub. Sportswriters wrote that Dorsey was a “brilliant” center-fielder; as well as a “stone wall third baseman,” whose “throwing to first [was] perfect.”
Dorsey worked at various jobs, serving as a bellhop; as an elevator operator at the Security Building; and as a railway porter. He was a key player on the 1899 Grand Forks team that won the state championship. Bish Dorsey also got married in that championship year, and all might have been bliss. But everything changed one fateful night, on November 27th.
Dorsey was working as a bartender in Sullivan’s Saloon in East Grand Forks, the wicked sister city with legalized alcohol. A fellow named John McCabe, known only as a cook for a threshing crew, and new to the area, was drinking to intoxication in Sullivan’s saloon. McCabe started a verbal altercation with Bish Dorsey; and McCabe verbally abused Dorsey, using a racial slur.
Dorsey punched the 55-year-old McCabe; and McCabe smashed Dorsey in the face with his beer glass, causing bloody lacerations on Dorsey’s chin and neck. Barkeeper Sullivan intervened; restraining Dorsey, and telling “him not to make a fool of himself.”
Dorsey immediately left the saloon; and John McCabe finished drinking and headed towards the front-door. Bish Dorsey then rushed through the saloon, brandishing a cordwood stick and “struck McCabe a vicious blow on the head,” killing McCabe instantly.
Dorsey escaped to Grand Forks, but then surrendered to Minnesota authorities. The court tried Dorsey for first-degree murder; and Dorsey’s lawyer used a “temporary insanity” defense. The court deemed Dorsey guilty of third-degree murder, sentencing him to twenty-one years in Stillwater State Prison.
Dorsey’s friends supported him and cared for his wife, who was pregnant. On this date in 1900, Dorsey expressed his “heartfelt thanks” to his teammates for their compassion. He then wrote a farewell letter, in which he gave his best wishes to the team, asking them to remember him every time they took the field, for he feared the prison doors had closed on him forever and that he would “probably never come out alive.”
Those friends provided for Dorsey’s wife and child in his absence; continually sending petitions, asking Minnesota to commute his incarceration. Dorsey was a model prisoner, wanting only to come home, and finally, in 1912, after countless appeals from his stalwart friends, he was pardoned.
Bish Dorsey, ballplayer, husband, and father, returned to Grand Forks, but then disappeared from the written record, his story lost in the elusive undercurrents of history.
Today’s Datebook written by Dan Bihrle and Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Bish Dorsey . . . Heartful Thanks,” Grand Forks Herald, January 10, 1900.
“It Was A Night Of Bloodshed,” Grand Forks Herald, November 28, 1899, p. 1.
“Murder: Colored Porter In A Grand Forks Saloon,” Minneapolis Tribune, November 28, 1899, p. 1.
“Funeral Services,” Grand Forks Herald, December 1, 1899, p. 3.
“The River And Prohibition,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, December 15, 1899, p. 4.
“Coroner’s Jury,” Grand Forks Herald, November 29, 1899, p. 5.
“The First Degree,” Grand Forks Herald, December 14, 1899.
“Farewell Letter,” Grand Forks Herald, January 12, 1908.
“Back In City,” Grand Forks Herald, February 16, 1912.
“Dorsey Is Sentenced,” Grand Forks Herald, January 9, 1900.
“There Is Much Interest,” Bismarck Tribune, January 8, 1900, p. 2.
“Attorney William R. Morris . . . At Once,” The Appeal [St. Paul, MN], February 3, 1912, p. 3.
“The City,” Grand Forks Herald, June 21, 1896.
“Bish Dorsey Makes a Stone Wall,” Grand Forks Herald, May 10, 1898.
“Bishop Dorsey Conductor . . . Security Block Elevator,” Grand Forks Herald, January 5, 1897.
“Petitions Are Being Circulated,” Grand Forks Herald, December 8, 1905.
“Bishop Dorsey,” U.S. Census, 1900, Stillwater, MN, Washington County, Minnesota State Prison.