Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Julius "Play Ball" Caesar

            One of the most interesting and colorful characters of turn of the twentieth century Portland was a man commonly known as Julius Caesar. He was born a slave sometime between 1830 and 1850, according to his own account near Columbus, Mississippi. He was originally known as George Taylor, named after his master’s family, but came to be known as Julius Caesar because he loved to recite speeches, especially from Shakespeare. As a young man his master gave him his freedom, because he planned to emigrate to California. Caesar decided to come west with the Taylor family and they settled near Corvallis.
            Caesar soon went out looking for adventure and took a job as a cabin boy on a ship making the run between San Francisco and Portland. The stories about Caesar’s life are confusing and impossible to verify, but at one point he said he worked on ships for twenty-five years, working his way up from cabin boy to chief cook. He worked as a bootblack in San Francisco for a while and became well known in that city. It was while he was in San Francisco that Caesar became interested in politics and began to make speeches in support of Republican candidates for office. During the presidential election of 1880 Caesar spoke at the California State Republican convention in San Jose and made quite a name for himself, for his oratory and for his colorful clothes.
            Sometime in the mid-1880s Caesar settled in Portland and became a well known figure in his red vest and battered plug hat. He was a favorite of the firemen of Chemical Engine Co. #1, whose headquarters was next to the central police station at Second and Oak St. and he spent a great deal of time in that neighborhood. He owned two businesses in Portland, one a butcher shop, the other a shoeshine stand at the corner of First and Alder. According to his story he made a lot of money at both jobs, but a weakness for alcohol and a bad marriage left him broke later in life.
            Julius Caesar was a fanatical sports fan, especially for baseball, and was a regular figure at local sporting events. In the 1890s he was adopted as the mascot of the Multnomah Club and attended their baseball games in wild outfits, often declaiming speeches in his lofty oratorical style, or singing “coon songs,” which were a popular form of music at the time. His love of baseball is what most Portlanders remembered about him after his death. It was also the source of his favorite practical joke. He loved to walk up behind well dressed young ladies, or couples, and surprise them by yelling “Play Ball!”

            Julius Caesar suffered from discrimination and hazing by bigots, especially when the Multnomah Club baseball team played away games. In 1901 when the Multnomah team lost to the East Side team many of the eastsiders pelted Julius Caesar with stones and dirt clods. He suffered these indignities stoically, just as he suffered the patronizing attitudes of the westsiders. Although he was often an object of ridicule among white Portlanders, he was taken much more seriously in the Black community. In 1896 he was elected sergeant at arms of the McKinley and Hobart Colored League and campaigned actively during the presidential election. He became an important ally of Joseph Simon, state Republican Party boss, and other prominent Republicans and spoke at campaign rallies in Oregon and Washington in 1896 and 1900.
            After 1900 with his health declining he decided that he would not work anymore. He was quoted in the Oregonian in 1901, “Now, don’t mention work to me. It gives me a pain. I have worked too long. I have worked right here in Oregon 51 years. No gentleman works. They use their brains and live without work. Hereafter I am going to depend on my brains. There is nothing in work.” Although his claim that he was in his seventies and that he had worked for 51 years was questionable, he was able to raise enough money from his oratorical skills to supply his meager needs, at least for a few years.
            By 1905 he was deep in alcoholism and his health was failing badly. He refused to go to the County Poor Farm but he did accept free medical care from Multnomah County. He was reduced to picking cigar butts from the gutter and drinking anything he could get his hands on – especially “Chinee gin” a raw and dangerous bootleg product of Chinatown. He spent his days at Schiller’s Cigar Store on the corner of Fourth and Washington. Schiller’s was the leading gathering place for sportsmen in Portland. W.C. ”Jerry” Powers, one of Portland’s most famous bookies, worked behind the counter, selling cigars, updating sports scores on his chalkboards and taking bets. Powers, who would be murdered in 1921, and Julius Caesar became friends.
            On July 4, 1906 Julius Caesar was found dead on a pile of lumber under the dock at the foot of Alder Street. There was some suspicion that he had died by violence, but his health had been failing for years and most Portlanders accepted that he had died of natural causes. The Fourth of July had been Caesar’s favorite holiday, when he would dress in red, white and blue and make patriotic speeches, but he was not seen on that day in 1906. He hadn’t been able to afford a new suit in years and his clothes had become tattered. Jerry Powers raised $105 to buy a tombstone and plot for his friend and Caesar had a well attended funeral before being buried in Lone Fir Cemetery. His tombstone bears the inscription: Julius Ceasar Born December 23, 1830 Died July 4, 1906. While the birth date is an inaccurate guess (it’s more likely that he was born in 1850) and his name is misspelled, the top of the stone bears Julius Caesar’s favorite saying, “Play Ball.”

Illustrations are from the Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR and from the author’s personal collection.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent period story. Puts me in mind of San Francisco's Emperor Norton.