The Black Barons

Birmingham Black Barons logo

Birmingham Black Barons logo

Throughout most of the history of the Negro Leagues, those leagues were strongest outside the American South. Of course, with all the legal restrictions of Jim Crow that made sense. It was simply harder to create a successful team without running afoul of some rule, written or otherwise. There were exceptions. Memphis and Baltimore had successful teams, as did some other towns. But easily the most successful was the team from Birmingham, Alabama-the Black Barons.

The Birmingham Barons were a successful minor league franchise and in 1920, a new black team was formed from players in the local black industrial league using a play on the white team’s name. It rolled off the tongue with great alliteration and it was an instant success. They were part of the Negro Southern League through 1923. It was a black league formed by Rube Foster as something of a minor league that would draw the best black Southern players who could then be filtered into Foster’s Negro National League. The team played in Rickwood Park, a stadium that was rented to both black teams and to white teams (obviously not at the same time). By 1924 they were considered good enough to join the Negro National League itself. They lasted two years then slid back to the Southern League because the team was unable to keep its finances in order (a common theme among early Negro League teams, especially in the South).

They got back to the Negro National League in 1927. They brought with them a right-handed pitcher named LeRoy Paige who bore the nickname “Satchel.” In 1927 the NNL ran their season as two halves with the two winners facing each other in a post season series, the winner of  which went on to the Negro World Series against the winner of the Eastern Colored League. Behind Paige and slugger Roy Parnell the Barons won the second half, but lost the playoff to the American Giants. It was the highpoint of the 1920s for Birmingham. They stacked up losing seasons for the rest of the 1920s.

The NNL folded after the 1930 season and Birmingham moved back to the Southern League where they stayed through 1936. They moved back to the newly formed NNL in 1937, stayed through 1938, then, with both financial and management problems they ended up back in the Southern League. In 1940 they joined the new Negro American League.

It led to their greatest period of success. Under manager Wingfield Welch they won NAL pennants in 1943 and 1944. Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Lester Lockett, and Jake Spearman led the team into the ’43 Negro World Series, which they lost to the Homestead Grays. The addition of Dan Bankhead and “Double Duty” Radcliffe,  helped them to another pennant in 1944. Again they lost to Homestead in the Negro World Series. They had one last great year in 1948 when, with Davis now managing, they took a final NAL pennant. This time they had Joe Bankhead, Lyman Bostock, and a rookie outfielder named Willie Mays (yes, THAT Willie Mays). Again they couldn’t get past Homestead..

By 1948 the Negro Leagues were faltering. It was the last Negro World Series between the NNL and the NAL. The NNL folded, but the Black Barons hung on in the NAL. They’d lost much of their talent to the white minor (or major) leagues but hung on in Birmingham through the 1950s. In 1953 they picked up a pitcher named Charley Pride (later a significant country music singer). Lacking much money, the team gave the Louisville Clippers a team bus for Pride. In 1959, now named the Giants, they won the championship of what remained of the Negro League (five teams). The next year, 1960 was the end for the NAL. The team hung on two more years by barnstorming, but finally folded in 1963.

Usually, when I hear about or read about Negro League teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, the Monarchs, even the Eagles or Elite Giants names are mentioned. The Black Barons are seldom mentioned. That’s unfortunate. The Birmingham Black Barons were a very good team, putting five former players (Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Willie Mays, Bill Foster, and Willie Wells) into the Hall of Fame. They won three pennants in the NAL and a second half championship in the first version of the NNL. Their attendance was generally good and the caliber of play was equally good. They deserve a mention now and then.

 

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2 Responses to “The Black Barons”

  1. glen715 Says:

    I love this stuff, V. I really do. And of course I knew that Willie Mays had played with the Black Barons.

    What I DIDN’T know before was the one of my country music favorites, Mr. Charley Pride, was a member of the Black Barons. I looked up more on this and I found this article from 2011 that I’m copying/pasting here. I’m sure that you knew that as the country music fan that I am, you would certainly be getting a comment from me on this particular post!

    Before the article, I’m sharing with you one of my favorite Charley Pride songs. I grew up listening to Charley Pride, and, sadly, he and Merle Haggard are two of the last country superstars who I grew up listening to who are still alive. It was a huge loss when George Jones died a couple of years ago.

    This is my favorite song by Charley. It came out when I was a mere lad of 14 years old, and went up to number 6 on the country charts in 1975. You might like it too, V! And the video also includes some pictures from his baseball career, including a baseball card of Charley when he played for the Memphis Red Sox.

    One thing about this, though. It was evidently played a little over-modulated when it was recorded for the video, so for best sound quality, I suggest you play it at about 75 percent volume.

    Glen

    ______________________________________________

    The Rangers were having a team meeting at 9 a.m. on a cold crisp Monday morning at their Spring Training complex.

    Out behind the clubhouse, Nolan Ryan Field was empty except for a lone figure — all by himself — jogging slowly across the shimmering green grass toward center field. He wore a Rangers cap and a blue/red team warmup jacket. He had a bat in his right hand and a glove in the other. A towel was draped across his left arm.

    There was nobody else around as Charley Pride jogged toward the clubhouse. A country music legend of epic proportions, he has played sold-out concerts for millions of fans around the world, he has had 36 No. 1 hits, he was the first African-American to be a regular at the Grand Ole Opry and he is in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

    But on this morning, he was doing what he has been doing every spring for 40 years. Pride is back in camp with the Rangers, in uniform and working out with them in the morning.

    “It’s always great to see Charley Pride in camp,” manager Ron Washington said. “It wouldn’t be the same without him.”

    Only this year it is different. He is one of the owners of the team. When Chuck Greenberg put together a group to buy the Rangers, he recruited Pride to sign up as well. Pride agreed and is now part-owner of the Rangers.

    “It has a nice ring to it,” Pride said. “I like it. I don’t have any policy-making authority, but they do ask me my opinion. I did used to play you know.”

    This is February and it is Black History Month. At a healthy 73 years old, Pride remains one of the giant figures in African-American history, not as a Civil Rights leader, but as a former Negro League baseball player who obliterated boundaries in possibly the most white-intensive music genre in the business.

    “No one had ever told me that whites were supposed to sing one kind of music and blacks another,” Pride said. “I sang what I liked in the only voice I had. ”

    It is a powerful voice, whether he is singing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., or at the private concert he gives every spring in the Rangers’ clubhouse. As the son of a sharecropper in Mississippi, Pride always loved singing and baseball. He did both well.

    “Every kid has a dream and mine was to be a Major Leaguer,” Pride said. “When I saw Jackie Robinson go to the big leagues, I knew that was my way of getting out of the cotton fields. My desire was to get all the records by the time I was 35 or 36 years old and then go into singing.”

    He was signed as a pitcher by the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. The Yankees gave him a Minor League contract in the mid-1950s, but he never made it above Class C because of an arm injury.

    Teammates listen to him strum his guitar and sing and ask why he didn’t quit baseball for music. Pride would tell them, “I want to go to the Major Leagues. Years from now, when they ask who hit the most home runs, I don’t want the answer to be Babe Ruth, I want it to be Charley Pride.”

    He ended up back in the Negro Leagues with the Louisville Clippers, but they traded him and Jesse Mitchell to the Birmingham Black Barons for a team bus. Pride said later, “Jesse and I may have the distinction of being the only players in history to be traded for a used motor vehicle.”

    He did not give up the dream. It was only after unsuccessful tryouts with the Angels and Mets that he finally left baseball behind in the early 1960s and embarked on a legendary music career. Only Elvis Presley sold more records for RCA.

    “Back then, there were only a handful of clubs and thousands of kids trying to make the Major Leagues,” Pride said. “When you were 18, everybody wanted you. When you were 25, they weren’t interested anymore.

    “Nowadays, if you hit .202 with five home runs, you get a $5 million raise. Back then, we got $100 a month and $2 a day in meal money … and we were happy to get it.”

    The Negro Leagues are now only a distant memory. For Pride, those memories remain vivid.

    “I remember we played a night game on Friday in New Orleans,” Pride said. “We had to leave at midnight and go to Baltimore for a Sunday afternoon doubleheader. We were playing the Indianapolis Clowns … Henry Aaron’s old team. We were leaving at midnight and somebody had to stay up all night with the bus driver and talk to him so he wouldn’t fall asleep.

    “We had a big keg of water and I sat on that. I got me some bologna, a box of saltine crackers and a Pepsi. I’d sit on that keg and talk to the bus driver. When we got to Baltimore, I went to the back of the bus and took a nap.

    “When I woke up, I went out there and pitched a nine-inning complete game. We won. For the second game, I went out to play the outfield. It was a seven-inning game. I hit a three-run shot and we’re winning, 7-5. They bring me in to pitch. Fifth inning, I get them out. Sixth inning, I get them out. Bottom of the seventh, they got me and we lost, 9-8.

    “Old [Hall of Fame pitcher] Robin Roberts and I, we used to talk about how we always pitched nine innings. One time, I’m up there playing at my place in Branson (Mo.). I’d do the whole concert — hour and forty minutes, no warmup act — and afterward, I’m signing autographs for my fans. And there’s Robin Roberts there to shake my hand. You know what he said to me?

    “‘Charley … you’re still pitching nine innings.'”

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