Karl Lindholm: Charley and Doc Sykes, sportsmen of character and integrity
Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series inspired by the centennial of baseball’s Negro Leagues.
“Whether confronting the challenges of world population growth or the nutritional needs of children, building a hospital or overseeing disaster relief, you have been there to serve and to care for the present and future needs of some of the world’s most impoverished people. Your lifetime commitment to CARE and the needs of people in developing countries is a matter of great pride for your alma mater and serves as an inspiration for others who will follow you from this place.”
These are the words of President John McCardell at the Middlebury College Commencement in 1992 when he awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree to Charles Leo “Charley” Sykes, class of 1957.
An honorary degree is the highest honor the College can accord. Charley was being recognized for his many decades of work in the international relief agency CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere).
Charley Sykes prepared for this lifetime of distinguished work as a Political Science major at Middlebury from 1953 to ’57. He was very much a school leader, as President of the Blue Key Honor Society and Vice-Chairman of the MUA (Men’s Undergraduate Assembly — student government).
In a recent phone call, Charley described those years at Middlebury as “challenging.” He was one of only a handful of Black students (“no women”!) at Middlebury in the entire decade of the ’50s.
He was sustained at Middlebury, not by the fraternity life, but rather by what he called “waiter/dishwasher society.” Many of the athletes, on financial aid, had jobs in the dining hall. “My best friends were waiters, like me. I had had great respect and affection for the people who worked in the kitchen.”
Charley was a terrific athlete, excelling especially in basketball but also making his mark as a hurdler in track.
He played basketball on the powerful teams of Coach Tony Lupien in the mid-1950s, alongside legendary Middlebury players Sonny Dennis (4th in career points with 1554) and Tom Hart (27.6 rebounds per game), both of whom are in Middlebury’s nascent Athletic Hall of Fame.
The 1955 Middlebury basketball dream team had three 1000-point scorers — Dennis, a senior (like Charley, an African American); Hart, a junior; and sophomore Charley Sykes. Tall (6’2”) and lithe, Charley could play anywhere on the court. A four-year starter, captain of the ‘57 team, and leading scorer with 16 points a game, he was acknowledged as a “scorer, feeder, and rebounder.” The Campus newspaper reported: “He plays with the ease of a pro and is the picture of poise and composure.”
Like all men at Middlebury at the time, he enrolled in Army ROTC and served in the Army in Korea. Back in the States after his military duty, “I was kind of lost,” he said. “I took some classes at Columbia in Development Economics, and got a job at the United Nations as a security officer. The office of CARE was only four blocks from the U.N. I interviewed for a job there, got it, was assigned to Greece as a field representative — and never looked back.”
Charley is 86 now, living in Reston, Va., with Anya, his wife of 55 years, whom he met in Poland when he was posted there and she was attending law school. Their son, Christopher, was born in Poland, and he now works for CARE and is posted in Brussels. His daughter, Aznieszka, was born in Pakistan, and she and her son now live with Charley and Anya: “three generations under one roof,” he says with enthusiasm and pride. Also inspired by her parents’ model, she works for USAID and served in the Peace Corps.
When Charley discovered that I was teaching a course on baseball during segregation in America, he revealed to me that his dad had played in the Negro Leagues. He was known as “Doc” because he had earned a medical degree in dentistry and supported himself and paid for his education by playing ball.
Frank Jehoy “Doc” Sykes did indeed play ball. He played for ten years on Black teams from 1914 to 1923 with and against some of the best players and teams of the time — both before and after those black teams were organized in 1920 into actual leagues. He pitched for a number of top Black teams of the era, including the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the Hilldale Daisies (Philadelphia), and the New York Lincoln Giants before devoting himself entirely to his dental practice in 1926.
Doc was a pitcher whose overall record (from available box scores) was 22-17. He pitched a no-hitter on Sept. 16, 1922, a 4-0 victory for the Baltimore Black Sox against the Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City) in the Eastern Colored League. Though tall, 6’2”, (one source called him “the long-legged spitballer,”) he was not overpowering, relying on guile, his best pitch the spitball until it was outlawed.
He faced the best Black players of the game — Hall of Famers John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Cannonball Dick Redding, Jud Wilson, and others.
Doc recalled defeating the Chicago American Giants, Rube Foster’s powerhouse team, in 1917: “I don’t think I threw one ball up there that would have broken a thick pane of glass. Foster said to me, ‘Well, College, I see you’re learning some sense.’”
Doc was born in Decatur, Ala., in 1892 to parents born into slavery, and lived for 94 years. “There wasn’t much they could teach me other than truth and honesty and respect for elders,” Doc told baseball historian John Holway in 1982. “There wasn’t too much I could offer my children than what my parents had offered me.”
Doc Sykes’ parents also conferred on him the value of education. He and his four brothers all attended college at Morehouse in Atlanta and his three sisters attended Fisk University in Nashville.
Doc himself left Morehouse (then called Atlanta Baptist) in 1912 after one year, with their blessing, to attend dental school at Howard University in Washington D.C. He was brilliant at Howard, never losing a game in four years. His battery-mate was one of his classmates, another “Doc,” Doc Wiley, who was playing on Black teams in the area and had quite a baseball resume already. He introduced Doc Sykes to weekend and summer semi-pro and professional baseball.
Doc stopped playing baseball in 1923 to concentrate on his dental practice. A few years later, he moved his family and practice back to Decatur, their ancestral home.
In 1931, Doc was at the center of a civil rights event of national impact, the trial of the “Scottsboro Boys.” Nine poor young men, 13-19, were falsely accused of raping two young white women. They were arrested, threatened with lynching, convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death. In the retrial, Doc testified for the defense by providing the judge with over 200 names of black townspeople qualified to serve on the jury. He also provided haven for visiting journalists threatened by the Klan. For these efforts, a cross was burned in front of his home and other threats made. In 1937, Doc moved his family back to Baltimore.
Charley was born in Decatur in 1934 and grew up in Baltimore. In a conversation last week, He mused on one of the central ironies of his life: “You know, I worked in the Clinton administration on ‘refugee issues.’ The legal definition of a refugee is one who has a genuine/legitimate fear of persecution.
“I realized at one point that my family, my father and his generation, were refugees too, from Alabama, in my own country, when they left to come North to Baltimore.”
Charley Sykes, son of Doc Sykes, men of character and honor — Middlebury’s connection to the Negro Leagues.