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.