Tag Archives: Negro Southern League

1921 Negro League Team Names: Giants, Pirates, EE-lites

My friend and fellow SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) member Mark Aubrey, who resides in Seymour, Tennessee and plies various research opportunities on Knoxville baseball, presented me with a question today regarding the name of a negro league team in 1921, the Knoxville Pirates. He has often seen the team referred to as “Giants”; “Pirates” was a new reference to him.

The reference came from a clipping in the Nashville Tennessean published on August 11, 1921:

Negro League baseball earned its place in the south in 1920, when the Negro Southern League was formed. Nashville’s entry in the Negro Southern League was named the White Sox, changed to Elite (pronounced EE-lite) Giants by team owner, Tom Wilson, the next season. Many details are sketchy concerning final standings, but it is generally accepted that Nashville played .500 ball for the entire season, finishing with a record of 40 wins and 40 losses.[1]

Knoxville was also a member in the inaugural season of the NSL, finishing first in league standings according to one report which gave the east Tennessee team a record of 55 wins and 21 losses. Bill Plott, another fellow SABR member and author of The Negro Southern League, writes that without explanation, wins were forfeited by Knoxville.

“Fred Caulfield, the New Orleans manager, told the (Alabama) Journal that Knoxville was going to have to forfeit games.”[2]

The Alabama Journal printed final standings with Knoxville at 34-30 on the season.

Returning to Mark’s original question, I became curious about the team name for Knoxville, especially from this February 19 newspaper clipping:

To add to the mystery, another clipping explained that while Knoxville baseball was dead (apparently referring to “white” ball) while giving hope that a Negro team was to be formed. Booker Washington Field was the home to black baseball in Knoxville.

Today’s research offered the conclusion that “Pirates” was simply an error by the newspaper. In fact, Plott’s book does not mention the team name; Knoxville “Giants” is correct. It took a little time to return the results, but Nashville Tennessean accounts of games played between August 12 through August 15 use “Giants” and “Pirates” interchangeably. The same is done for “Sulphur Dell” and the prior name of Nashville’s ball park, “Athletic Park”. Both are one in the same.

In total, Nashville took four out of the five games played: 4-2, 11-0, 8-0, and 4-2 before losing in the second game of a double header on August 15, 4-3. Of special interest, and a piece of history that has eluded me, is Nashville’s 18-game winning streak that was halted in the loss to Knoxville. That will be a research project on the near horizon.

Thank you, Mark, for allowing me to participate in the Knoxville mystery; it pointed to new questions seeking answers. In researching baseball, that is usually the case.

Sources

Nashville Tennessean

Newspapers.com

Sabr.org

Notes

Plott, William J., (2015) The Negro Southern League. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.

[1] William J Plott, The Negro Southern League, A Baseball History, 1920-1951, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2015), 21.

[2] Ibid. 22.

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Highlighting Nashville’s Negro Leagues

An early mention of African-American participation in a local baseball game was reported in the Nashville Daily Union and American on the September 18, 1866 with reference to “Brownlow’s Black Boys Base Ball Club” (probably a reference to Governor William Brownlow, who was a proponent of extending civil rights to African-Americans). Whether this was a real team or just a gathering of players from the black community, the game took place in Sulphur Spring Bottom.

Teams organized by the 1900s were the Baptist Printers, Maroons, Methodist Publishing House, North Nashville Tigers, and Nashville Standard Giants. Fisk and Pearl High School ball fields were hosting games on a regular basis, and often Negro League teams traveled to Nashville to challenge the best local teams.

On Tuesday, February 19, 1907, a meeting was held at the residence of J. W. White to organize the Standard Giants Base Ball club as reported in the February 22, 1907 edition of the Nashville Globe:

“Manager White called the house to order and Mr. C. B. Reaves was made President: Mr. J. W. White Manager, and W. G. Sublett, Secretary, and by unanimous voice of the house Mr. Howard Petway who did stunts for one of the professional teams of Chicago last season, was elected captain…

“…Standards will travel extensively, having arranged games with Memphis, Hot Springs, Little Rock…playing all the leading teams, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Birmingham, Macon, New Orleans, and Beaumont, Texas…One peculiarity is that every member claims Nashville as his home. It is composed exclusively of home talent, a characteristic no other team can boast of, and it is certain that every member will put up a fight for the glory of his home.”

NSG_By 1910 the Capital City League was the premier league for African-American teams, with the Standard Giants and other league members playing at Greenwood Park and Athletic Park. The Black Sox, Nationals, Baptist Hill Swifts, Athletics and Eclipse were established teams.

In 1918 the Standard Giants club was purchased by Thomas T. Wilson, a native of Atlanta who had moved with his family to Nashville where his parents studied medicine at Meharry Medical College. As a young man Wilson had accumulated wealth through his interests in entertainment, a local rail line, and ownership in local night clubs.

On March 26, 1920, Wilson and seven investors pooled $5,000.00 and chartered a Tennessee corporation, Nashville Negro Baseball Association and Amusement Company, for the purpose “of organizing base ball clubs and encouraging the art of playing the game of baseball according to high and honorable standards and of encouraging the establishment of a league of clubs in different section(s) of the state.”

Wilson contributed to the baseball success of his players, namely Eddie Noel, Walter Campbell, Henry O’Neal, Joe Bills, Haywood Rhodes, and Blaine Boyd. New teams continued to form and included the White Sox and Maroons; one of the prominent players in the 1917 Capital City League played for the Black Sox was Herbert T. “Hub” McGavock. Playing for the Standard Giants in 1920, after a stint in the Army he returned to play with a New Orleans club where he was a teammate of future Hall of Famer “Turkey” Stearnes.

A best-of-three Negro League “North vs. South” All Star series was held at Sulphur Dell in the fall of 1934. In the first game of a double header on Sunday, October 7, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes of the Kansas City Monarchs hit a home run in the 12th inning to seal the win for the North by a score of 2-1. The North All Stars also won the second game 8-1.

The South lineup came from Birmingham, Memphis, Monroe, and New Orleans; Nashville, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and House of David stars represented the North. Felton Snow, Sammie Hughes, Tommy Dukes, Jim Willis and Andy Porter were chosen from the Nashville Elite Giants.

Born in Nashville in 1901, Stearnes was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. Future Hall of Fame members Willie Wells, Mule Suttles, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson were teammates on the North squad.

Wilson renamed the Negro League Nashville Elite Giants in 1921, and announced that manager J. A. Newton would play “all-comers” including white-only teams. In 1928 a new ballpark had been constructed by Wilson to hold 8,000 fans. Located in Trimble Bottom, the largest Negro community in Nashville, Wilson Park would not only host games but community events, both white and black.

TWP2Tom Wilson Park was often used by the Nashville Vols and many times pre-season games were held versus the Elite Giants.

The Elites played in the professional Negro Southern League until granted membership in the Negro National League for 1930. Just coming off the Great Depression several teams pulled out of the league, including the Birmingham Black Barons who sold one of their stars to Wilson as a drawing card. With Satchel Paige in the Elite Giants fold, however, Wilson moved his club to Cleveland (becoming the Cubs) but returned to Nashville for 1931 when the NNL folded.

Reorganizing the Negro Southern League in 1932, Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords were scheduled for the home opener, drawing a large crowd from throughout Nashville’s populace.

“In 1932 with Joe Hewitt as manager, the Elite Giants were second half champions and played Chicago American Giants in the World Series,” relates Bill Plott, a former sports writer whose book The Negro Southern League is an exhaustive research authority . “World Series is a very arbitrary designation by Chicago and Nashville newspapers; “Postseason Series” is probably more accurate. Chicago won 4 games to 3.”

For 1933 a new Negro National League was restructured and the Elite Giants remained a member of the league through 1947. Wilson moved the club to Columbus, Ohio in 1935, Washington, D. C. in 1936-37, and Baltimore in 1938-1950.

When the Elites relocated to Baltimore the team would still hold spring training in Nashville, and a minor league club was formed to feed the parent club with players. On April 6, 1947 the Nashville Cubs beat their parent Baltimore Elite Giants at Sulphur Dell 5-1 in the first exhibition game of the season.

Nashville’s Butch McCord is first baseman for the winning team. A bevy of successful players have connections to Nashville and the Elite Giants.

Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes was a native Nashvillian who began his career in Nashville in 1920 after attending Pearl High. He later played 10 seasons for the Detroit Stars in the Negro National League and was noted as a prolific home run hitter; reportedly he slugged 144 home runs in 585 games. After joining the Chicago American Giants in 1932, Stearnes played in the inaugural East-West All Star Game in 1933.

Henry Kimbro was a member of the Elite Giants for 12 seasons beginning in 1937, playing in All-Star games from 1943-1947. Born in Nashville in 1912, he grew up on the sandlots of his hometown and played for 17 years in the Negro Leagues. Known for his strong outfield arm and speed around the bases, he retired following the 1953 season with the Birmingham Black Barons and owned a taxi service and a gas station in Nashville.

Born in Alabama in 1905, Felton Snow’s family moved to Louisville and by 1929 he was playing for several local teams. Known as a good fielder, baserunner, and hitter he eventually joined Tom Wilson’s Nashville Elites and became an outstanding third baseman.

Snow played in two Negro League All-Star games, batting .670 in the 1935 All-Star game. His team mates included Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell on the 1936 West All Star team.

Managing and playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants in the 1940s, Snow’s highest batting average in seven seasons as manager-player was .333. He became manager of the Nashville Cubs and retired from baseball in 1950 with over 21 seasons.

Catcher Bruce Petway was known as having superb arm strength during his Negro League career with the Leland Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Chicago American Giants, and Detroit Stars.

Born December 23, 1885 in Nashville, Petway was manager and a team mate of Turkey Stearnes in Detroit between 1923-1925.

Clinton “Butch” McCord began his baseball career in 1947 when he signed with his home town Nashville Cubs out of Tennessee State University. The next season McCord was with the Baltimore Elite Giants. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, the ball field at Tennessee State University is named in his honor.

Born in 1924 in Nashville, Jim Zapp played on Naval teams in Pearl Harbor and Staten Island during World War II. Upon discharge his professional career began with the Baltimore Elite Giants but had a notable season in 1948 as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons.

In Game 5 of the league playoffs Zapp hit a towering home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the score before his team beat the Kansas City Monarchs.

Sidney Bunch began his career with the Baltimore Elite Giants, too, then signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate in Billings, Montana in 1951 and was expected to move up the ranks before his Marine unit was called up during the Korean War.

Hometown favorite Jim “Junior” Gilliam was an All Star for the Elite Giants in 1948-1950 before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gilliam was National League Rookie of the Year in 1953, became a coach with the Dodgers in 1965 and remained with the club until his death in 1978.

The street in front of Nashville’s First Tennessee Park was named Junior Gilliam Way in 2015 in his honor.

© 2016 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Author’s note: To assume the complete history of Black baseball in Nashville can be told is not the aim of this article. Attempts to reasonably research the subject can be frustrating and are often futile as information is often not there. Let’s assume there is more that lays hidden in someone’s journal, scrapbook, or trunk, waiting to be opened.

 

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Birth of the Elites

On March 26, 1920, Nashville’s Thomas T. Wilson and seven others took a bold step that set in motion the establishment of a Negro League team in Wilson’s home town.

With the assistance of investors T. Clay Moore, J. B. Boyd, Marshall Garrett, Walter Phillips, W. H. Pettis, J. L. Overton, and R. H. Tabor a corporation was chartered with the State of Tennessee named “Nashville Negro Baseball Association and Amusement Company”, “for the purpose “of organizing base ball clubs and encouraging the art of playing the game of baseball according to high and honorable standards and of encouraging the establishment of a league of clubs in different section(s) of the state; and also of furnishing such amusements as usually accompanying base ball games and entertainments. Said corporation to be located in Nashville, Tennessee, and shall have an authorized capital stock of $5,000.00”.

133052a_lgWilson had become owner of the local semi-pro team, the Standard Giants, which had been founded in 1907 as a member of the Capital City League by J. W. White, C. B. Reaves, and W. G. Sublett.

These organizations were the predecessors to what would become the Nashville Elite (pronounced ‘ee-light’) Giants. Ever the entrepreneur, Wilson dropped “Standard” from his team’s name in 1921, substituted it with “Elite”, and sought membership in the Negro National League. He built his own 8,000-seat ballpark in Nashville in 1928 and the team played in the Negro Southern League until 1930.

Granted membership in the Negro National  League Wilson signed Satchel Paige for his drawing power, but Wilson moved his club to Cleveland and renamed them the Cubs for one season before returning to Nashville. Eventually he would move club to Cleveland, Columbus, Washington, D. C., and finally to Baltimore.

Wilson would serve as president of the Negro National League from 1938-1946.

The illustrious history of the Elite Giants includes players from Nashville: Henry Kimbro, Jim Zapp, Sydney Bunch, Clinton “Butch” McCord, Jim “Junior” Gilliam. Sam Bankhead and Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge spent time with the Nashville club.

That same history beckons us to honor all those who played “The Game”. Tom Wilson’s dream for Negro League baseball evolved from a Nashville vision to a national treasure. Ninety-five years ago today, March 20, 1920, was a key date in that vision.

Hail to you, Tom T. Wilson, a visionary for the ages.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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12th Annual Southern Association Conference at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field

Rickwood Field, Birmingham’s historic ballpark, is preserved through the efforts of the Friends of Rickwood and maintains Rickwood, built in 1910 as home to the Barons and used by the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons.

Over 200 amateur games are still played there, and each year the AA Southern League’s Barons host a regular season turn-back-the-clock contest dubbed the “Rickwood Classic”; this year’s game will be played on Wednesday, May 27th, as the Barons host the Jacksonville Suns at 12:30 PM. Former New York Mets star Darryl Strawberry will be the featured guest.

2015 ProgramA visit to Rickwood should be on every baseball fan’s list of places to visit. The ballpark hails a time when Sunday doubleheaders were played in the sweltering heat and future major leaguers hoped to move up the ranks to the majors. Each time I visit I think of what it must have been like for Nashville Vols Buster Boguskie, Lance Richbourg, Tom Rogers, Phil Weintraub, Bill Rodda, Boots Poffenberger, and Babe Barna to have played there. And how proud they’d be that it is still there.

It is such an iconic picture of baseball’s past that Rickwood has been used for commercials and movies.

The movie about Jackie Robinson, “42” utilized the ballpark during filming.

Like baseball? Like history? Like the history of southern baseball? Then you’ll need to remember this for the future: the Friends of Rickwood group sponsors an annual conference dedicated to the history of the Southern League (1885-1899) and Southern Association (1901-1961). It is a gathering of historians, writers, fans, and players who are interested in sharing their research, stories, and memorabilia.

The 12th Annual Southern Association Conference was held this past Saturday on March 7 after an informal gathering the evening before.

P1011126What took place? Well, the usual shaking of hands, pats on the backs, and hugs from friendships gained over previous conferences. But that’s not all.

The 28 attendees were treated to presentations on the birth of the Southern League (1884-1885); a perspective on Atlanta’s Henry W. Grady, an integral leader in the formation of the 19th Century league; an image of the 1885 Nashville Americans; a summary of a new book on the horizon about the Negro Southern League; and images and film about the Birmingham Barons.

P1011127Of particular interest to me was film presented by Birmingham and Memphis historian Clarence “Skip” Watkins which included color footage of a game between the Memphis Chicks and Nashville Vols. In color. Wow.

During the all-day event, we were treated to viewings of memorabilia collections and discussions about the old ballparks, teams, and what the future holds for southern professional baseball.

David Brewer, director of Friends of Rickwood, and Watkins came up with the idea in 2003, and the program has been ongoing since that time. The setting has changed from time-to-time, too: Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Nashville have hosted the conference and there may be opportunity to be in New Orleans in 2016.

P1011129Which leads me back to my original questions: if you are interested, you cannot go wrong. New Orleans or Birmingham, the Rickwood Classic or just a visit to the grand old ballpark in Birmingham. If you get your chance, take it in.

You can always ride with me.

 © 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Bleachers in the Sun

There once was a tall marquee that called attention to Nashville’s famous ball field that had been home to amateur and professional teams since 1870. The sign stood over the entrance to Sulphur Dell and proclaimed it as “Baseball’s Most Historic Park”.bis3

The professional Americans, Blues, Tigers, Seraphs, and Vols were joined by the Negro League Elite Giants and a multitude of local amateur teams which claimed “the Dell” as their home field.

In the early days the park had faced the northeast toward the State Capitol. The park was reconfigured in the winter of 1926 so that the sun would no longer be in the eyes of batters during afternoon games, and Nashville was soon to have one of the finest steel and concrete stadiums in the South.

Although the old ballpark had seen its share of historic moments from seasons past, in 1927 the new stadium would soon add new chapters to its history of full crowds, exciting teams, outstanding players and gigantic home runs.

Located just north of the city, Sulphur Dell was situated in an area that was below the street level. It had an unusual contour that was prone to flooding as the banks of the nearby Cumberland River often overflowed during spring rains. One sports writer described the park as “looking like a drained-out bathtub.”

Major league teams scheduled exhibition games in southern cities as they broke training camp and made their way north to begin the regular season. Nashville was a popular stop, and the people of Nashville had grown to love the old ballpark that was dubbed “Suffer Hell” by players who had to navigate the outfield. Those who had never seen the park but had heard of the unique outfield configuration were often victims of its hills that made even the most routine fly ball an adventure.

Babe Ruth, always a fixture in right field for the New York Yankees, reportedly refused to play “the dump” and once moved to left field for an exhibition game in Nashville, saying, “I won’t play on anything a cow won’t graze on.” The bottom of the fence was 22 1/2 feet above the playing surface.

Often the second baseman would field a hard-hit ball that slapped against the bottom of the wooden fence, caroming back into the infield, as the right field fence was only 262 feet from home plate.

That was the Sulphur Dell beloved by Nashville baseball fans. The capacity of the ballpark was around 8,000, and as baseball boomed fans faithfully showed their loyalty by filling the parking lot and streets with their cars, traveling by trolley or bus, and walking the short distance from the city center or from the surrounding residential areas nearby.

As Nashville became a baseball town, the stands were usually buzzing with cheers of support whether on a chilly spring day in April in the 1920’s or a hot sunny afternoon in the 1950’s, but Nashvillians had an insatiable thirst for baseball and enjoyed cheering on their “Vols”. Sulphur Dell had actually become a major tourist attraction.

When lights were added in the late 1930’s, folks could spend an evening supporting the Vols. They did not have to leave work early, and since television was not yet on the horizon, they could turn their attention to the National Pastime that their grandfathers and fathers had enjoyed.

Even amateur teams playing at Sulphur Dell experienced rabid fans that supported them, as baseball was king in the city with the unusual ballpark outfield and short right field ‘porch’.

On Opening Day on April 12, 1932, Nashville’s largest crowd to see a game at Sulphur Dell according to Fred Russell, sports editor of the Nashville Banner. Along with sports writer George Leonard he published Vol Feats 1901-1950, a booklet that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Nashville baseball clubs participation in the Southern Association, documenting the first 50 years of Nashville’s professional team.

But something was missing.

Yes, Nashville had a beautiful park, even with its idiosyncrasies. Its clean grandstand shaded its patrons from the afternoon sun during day games. That’s why the stands had been reconfigured, with the setting sun no longer in the batters’ eyes and the fans could shielded from the heat with a cover that provided shade during the 4 or 4:30 PM starting time.

Fans would often arrive early for batting practice, filling the shaded rear seats until the sun began to move to the west. Then they would move closer to the field as the shadows stretched out into the lower seats.bis1

The Vols were supported by the Negro community, but they were limited to a segregated section of the park where they would watch the game. It was an unusual place to have to sit.  The Negro bleachers were located down the left-field line all the way out to the outfield fence.

In the sun.

Everyone loved to cheer for their favorite teams. Black fans had the Nashville Elite Giants to cheer for in the mid-1930’s, who played at Sulphur Dell in 1932 and 1933 until owner Tom Wilson built his own park in another part of town. Later another Black team came into existence, the Nashville Cubs which played in the Negro Southern League.

Satchel Page brought his barnstorming team to Sulphur Dell, and the fans poured into the park to see the future Hall-of-Famer. When Negro League teams came to town, supporters could sit in the stands, although there was always a section behind home plate that was reserved for whites. The same was not true when white teams were playing; Blacks were relegated to the Negro bleachers.

Those bleachers were located on the foul-territory hill, with a view of home plate that was partially blocked by the grandstand. The distance to the restrooms and concessions was as about as far away as one could get. And if a batter hit a home run over the center field or left field fence, one had to crane his neck to see it go over the fence.

All of the action was not in front of you and there certainly was no cover from the sun.

Then Jackie Robinson broke the major league’s color barrier. In 1947, Robinson took his place in immortality by starting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and things began to change.

And something changed in Nashville, too. Although it was not an event that changed baseball, I believe it did change the hearts and minds of baseball fans in the mid-state area.bis2

On April 8, 1956 the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town to play the Milwaukee Braves. One of the Dodger players was Nashville’s own Jim (Junior) Gilliam, tutored at Sulphur Dell by Willie White. White was the long-time equipment manager for the Nashville Vols, and controlled who had use of the ballpark when the Vols were not using it. He also helped to develop Gilliam in his youth, and no doubt had a profound impact on the young player.

Along with white fans, the Black community came out in droves to support their hero. They filled the bleachers reserved for them, and the Nashville team owners allowed them to sit on the outfield hills, creating their own ‘bleachers in the sun’. Although there is no way to know the percentage of whites or blacks in attendance, the total crowd was announced as 11,933.

The Dodgers rolled to a 12-2 exhibition game victory, and Gilliam pleased the crowd by garnering three singles, a double, walking once, and scoring twice. He was finally retired in the eighth inning on a fly out to left. Gilliam had to have been pleased with his performance in his home town. Willie White must have been pleased, too.

In the mid-1950’s crowds had begun to dwindle as their attention turned to television and air conditioning. Perhaps the demise of the Southern Association in 1961 could be attributed to feelings about black ballplayers still not being able to play even though integration of baseball leagues across the country was ongoing. Major league clubs were no longer going to support segregated leagues.

bis4Southern attitudes had been slow to change. But the legacy of Sulphur Dell is not its odd shape, its high outfield hills, or its fine stadium seating. Its legacy is that through the dark shadows of segregation, baseball provided a way for people to enjoy the game that so many loved, and that everyone could cheer for a hero, no matter his skin color.

And when the park was gone, everyone was in the sun.

Author’s note: This article was presented at the 2006 Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I am honored to be the morning keynote speaker at the 2014 Conference on April 4th. Contact Warren Tormey (warren.towmey@mtsu.edu) for more information

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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