Dec 9, 2019
Journalist-author/Alabama native Bill Plott (Black Baseball's Last Team Standing: The Birmingham Black Barons) joins the show to help us discover more about the legendary Negro League franchise regarded by most baseball historians as the “jewel of Southern black baseball."
The first Black Barons team began in 1920 as charter members of the Negro Southern League, an eight-member circuit that largely mirrored the all-white minor-league Southern Association – right down to the sharing of ballparks. Three years later, Birmingham made the leap to Rube Foster’s major league Negro National League, black baseball’s highest professional level at the time – soon to feature eventual All-Star legends like George “Mule” Suttles and Leroy “Satchel” Paige.
The team survived the Great Depression by bouncing between the major Negro National and minor Negro Southern leagues during the 1930s, finally returning to the bigs in 1940 via the newly ascendant Negro American League.
The 1940s was the zenith of the franchise's history, catalyzed by new owners Tom Hayes (a prominent Memphis funeral home operator) and sports entrepreneur Abe Saperstein – whose Harlem Globetrotters provided off-season employment to some of the players. (Reese Tatum, the team’s popular center fielder, joined the ‘Trotters as "Goose" Tatum, the “Clown Prince of Basketball” – eventually earning greater fame for his achievements on the hardwood than those on the diamond.)
The Black Barons were among the Negro Leagues’ elite teams, winning NAL pennants (though losing Negro World Series’) in 1943, 1944 and 1948 – and featured a who’s who of standout on-field talent such as Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, Lyman Bostock, Bill Powell, Bill Barnes, Joe Bankhead, Ed Steele, Bill Greason, Artie Wilson, Jehosie Heard, and a teenage sensation named Willie Mays – many of whom left for the soon-to-be integrated major leagues.
Birmingham soldiered on post-integration into the 1950s, striving to maintain professional relevance and outlasting most of the remaining Negro League teams in the process; by 1960, the Black Barons had been reduced to a barnstorming outfit, fading into obscurity against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement – giving up the ghost for good in 1963.
Still, the team’s legend – and original ballpark (Birmingham’s Rickwood Field) – live on.
PLUS: Charley Pride gets traded for a team bus!