This is a special day in southern baseball history: In 1954 on this day, April 9th, Nat Peeples became the first and only black player in the Southern Association. It would become a token attempt to integrate the league.
Let’s quickly jump ahead a few years: In the Wednesday, September 7, 1960 edition of The Sporting News, Nashville Banner sportswriter George Leonard reported that Gabe Paul, Cincinnati Reds vice-president and general manager, had announced the Reds six-year working agreement with Nashville would not be renewed, effective December 15.
Why would an affiliation that had been amicable and proven to be positive for both clubs be negated? Was it because of low attendance at Sulphur Dell? Was it because the affable Gabe Paul could not get along with management of the Nashville club? Was it because Nashville was a city that did not give the Reds players an opportunity to play in a competitive league?
No, no, and no. The reason given by Paul is because the Southern Association “does not allow the use of Negro players”.
Gabe Paul’s explanation was profound. Whether there was a secret agreement between the clubs or whether no owner would take a stand against segregation is unknown.
On January 24, 1962, the Southern Association suspended operations due to a lack of enough major league working agreements.
The first year of play in the Southern Association was 1901. Nashville won the first two championships, following up with league titles in 1908 and 1916 and ruling the league with six straight championships from 1939–1944.
1948 and 1949 were championship seasons, too.
The Atlanta Crackers won thirteen Southern Association championships, more than any team in the 61 years of the storied league.
Earl Mann owned the Atlanta Crackers. The team had been a member of the league since 1902, and Mann was the face of the club. He scheduled an exhibition game in 1949 that brought in the Brooklyn Dodgers to play his Atlanta ballclub.
“The team and its ballpark were segregated, but in 1949 the Crackers made history when they played against Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in a three-game exhibition series. The final game on April 10, 1949, drew an all-time Ponce de Leon crowd of 25,221, including 13,885 black fans. The Crackers won one of the three games, and the series marked the first time in Atlanta history that blacks and whites competed against each other in a professional sports event.” – Georgia Encylopedia, Atlanta Crackers Original entry by Tim Darnell, Atlanta, October 19, 2006
A few years later, Earl Mann would lead the charge in an attempt to integrate the Southern Association. The club had an affiliation with the Milwaukee Braves, and two Negro players were considered to play for the Crackers: Hank Aaron and Nat Peeples. The future Hall of Famer Aaron would be called up to the parent club, and Peeples remained with Atlanta after spring training.
On April 9, 1954, outfielder Nat Peeples is sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Atlanta in the season opener in Mobile, becoming the first black player in a Southern Association game. Peeples starts the next game and plays the entire nine innings.
“Nat Peeples, an outfielder for the Atlanta Crackers, made history as he broke the color line in the venerable, tradition-rich, class-AA Southern Association. In the Crackers’ opening game of the season against the Mobile Bears in Mobile, Alabama, Peeples batted in the fifth inning as a pinch hitter for pitcher Noel Oquendo. He took the first two offerings for balls and then tapped the third pitch weakly back to the pitcher for an easy out. In the second game of the season, played the next night, Peeples started in left field and batted in the important third spot in the lineup. In four plate appearances Peeples walked once and made routine groundouts in his other three at-bats.
“He did not play in the third and final game of the series in Mobile. The Crackers then returned to Atlanta to open their home season. Peeples had not played in Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Park when, on April 17, the Crackers optioned him to the Jacksonville Braves of the class-A South Atlantic League. After appearing in only 2 games and without ever hitting the ball out of the infield, Peeples never again played in the Southern Association. He was the first and only Negro to play in the league.” – NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2004 Earl Mann, Nat Peeples, and the Failed Attempt of Integration in the Southern Association by Kenneth R. Fenster
Peeples, who was born in Memphis, was sent down to Jacksonville within a week. Although he would play on integrated teams he never made it to the major leagues and would finish his career at Mexico City in the Mexican League after the 1960 season.
Peeples died on August 30, 2012 in Memphis at the age of 86.