LOUDONVILLE — By now many in the area are familiar with the story of Charles Follis, and north central Ohio’s role in it.
Follis was a Wooster man who became the first black professional football player by signing a contract with the Shelby Blues on Sept. 15, 1904. What you may not know is Follis also played baseball, in Loudonville.
While still under contract with the Shelby Blues, Follis also played for the Loudonville Walk-Over baseball club. The name was derived from the team sponsor, the Walk-Over Shoes store. It’s unlikely that Follis lived in Loudonville, implying he was likely paid to join the team as a ringer.
On Aug. 10, 1905, the Loudonville Democrat referenced an upcoming game against the Crystal Rooks of Crestline, at Pastime Park on Aug. 16. The Rooks were undefeated up to that point, but the Walk-Overs felt confident they could change all of that thanks to Follis and another player, TeLinde, being on the team.
Eventually, Follis transitioned into the professional Negro League (becoming the first black to make the transition from college to the Negro Leagues), and ended up as the star of the Cuban Giants. Although known as a power hitter, Follis often led in the team in stolen bases, double-plays, and even recorded two triple-plays in his career.
Unfortunately his time was cut short at the age of 31, when he became ill and succumbed to pneumonia.
Follis was born in 1879 in Cloverdale, Virginia, the son of slaves. He came north as a young boy when his parents moved to Wooster. Not only did he attend Wooster High School, but he helped form the varsity football team there and was even elected as captain by his white teammates.
In 1901 he enrolled at the University of Wooster, where he showcased as the halfback and ripped off a 70-yard touchdown against Branch Rickey’s Ohio Wesleyan team. His prowess on the field earned him the moniker “The Black Cyclone.”
In 1902 Follis was recruited to join the professional Shelby Blues. He may have been a pro at that time, but the first signed contract that’s been found was dated in 1904, making him the first black professional football player in the country.
Rickey was another recruit to join the Blues. Follis became a star with the Blues as well as a close friend of Rickey’s.
Though best known for football, Follis was a star on the baseball diamond as well. At Wooster he became known as the best catcher in the Ohio circuit … with Branch Rickey from Ohio Wesleyan #2.
His rival-turned-friend Rickey eventually became the general manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and recalled how impressed he was with Follis’ skill on the field and handling of racial pressure off the field. Follis’ influence directly contributed to Rickey’s most famous decision.
In 1947 Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a major league contract, breaking the color barrier in the MLB. Rickey credited Follis for showing him that blacks could compete and handle the pressure.
More information on the Cleo Redd Fisher Museum can be found at this link.