WINCHESTER — If Spottswood Poles had been born a century later, he would have been a superstar.
Instead, most people in his hometown of Winchester have no idea who he was or what he did.
That’s about to change.
Poles, an African-American who became a hero on ballfields and battlefields alike, will be recognized by city officials and the Valley League’s Winchester Royals baseball team on June 14 with the unveiling of an interpretive historical marker and the naming of a road for him in Jim Barnett Park.
“A lot of folks are working different areas to bring that night together,” Winchester Planning Director Timothy Youmans said. “We recognized a few years ago this guy was pretty significant.”
That may be an understatement. Poles was a decorated hero in World War I, and many of today’s sports aficionados argue he should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Poles was born Dec. 9, 1887, and honed his baseball skills with a broomstick and tennis ball outside his house at 530 Fremont St. He went on to play in the Negro leagues.
In 1906, he joined the Harrisburg Colored Giants baseball team in Pennsylvania. Poles became a professional player in 1909 with the Philadelphia Giants, then signed with the New York Lincoln Giants when the Philadelphia team folded in 1911.
Poles enjoyed his best years in New York, batting .440 in his first season with the Lincoln Giants, .398 in his second, .414 in his third and, in his final season with the team, a stunning .487.
“He was the black Ty Cobb,’” said Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Justin Kerns, comparing Poles to the legendary Major League Baseball player who is ranked third in Sporting News’s list of “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players.”
After leaving the Lincoln Giants, Poles played for the New York Lincoln Stars, Brooklyn Royal Giants and Hilldale Daisies before enlisting in the Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment — the legendary Harlem Hellfighters — during World War I.
The Hellfighters were an infantry unit primarily comprised of African-American soldiers. Many white soldiers at that time refused to fight alongside blacks, so in April 1918 the regiment was attached to the French army.
During his year of military service, Poles earned five battle stars and a Purple Heart.
He resumed his baseball career in 1919 with the Lincoln Giants and stayed with the team until retiring in 1923.
After leaving baseball, Poles operated a taxi business in Harrisburg, Pa., that enabled him to retire comfortably. He died in Harrisburg on Sept. 12, 1962, and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
During Poles’s lifetime, blacks rarely received the same accolades for their accomplishments as their white counterparts. But the biggest barrier to Poles becoming as widely known as baseball legends Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth was poor record keeping.
Even though Poles played professional baseball for 14 seasons and is credited with an outstanding lifetime batting average of over .400, the Negro leagues of the early 20th century did not keep good records. Historians have only been able to fully document two complete seasons from Poles’s prolific career, and the minimum for inclusion in the National Baseball Hall of Fame is four.
A few years ago, Youmans started looking into ways to give Poles credit for being one of Winchester’s most famous sons. In August, Kerns joined the effort by seeking out people on social media who had a connection to Poles.
Their work is finally paying off. Last week, City Council unanimously agreed that an unnamed road leading to Bridgeforth Stadium in Jim Barnett Park will be dubbed Spottswood Poles Drive.
Since the Winchester Royals had already decided to honor Poles during its game against the Woodstock River Bandits on June 14, Youmans said the city decided to use the occasion to formally rename the road and unveil a new historical marker in Poles’s honor.
Kerns said Poles had no direct descendants, but a distant relative, Andy Roberts, “has been a wonderful resource and a good champion as far as Spottswood’s story being told.”
Roberts has been working to put Kerns in touch with other people who knew or were related to Poles, and Youmans said he hopes some of them will be able to attend the June 14 ceremony.
Kerns and Youmans said they are happy that Poles will finally be acknowledged along with other well-known Winchester natives such as singer Patsy Cline, explorer Richard E. Byrd, writer Willa Cather and jazz musician John Kirby.
“I’m proud that he’s here from Winchester,” Kerns said.