It has been 60 years since Robert Abernathy first batted against the great Satchel Paige. But he recalls it vividly today. Every detail, every nuance, is burned into his memory.
“It was in Louisville, Ky.,” Abernathy says, sipping on a Coke and sitting at the kitchen table of his Bordeaux home. “I was just a youngster, 17 years old. We played the day after the DerbyI’ll never forget. There were about 15,000 people there. I got up against Satchel, and I looked at the first two pitches [both were balls], and he said, ‘Woo, you got a pretty good eye.’
“The next one I hit long but foul. He threw another one and I hit it long but foul again, and Satchel said, ‘I see you can hit too.’ I worked the count to 3 and 2, and then he stared at me and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’
“Then he threw another pitch, and I didn’t swing until the catcher was throwing it back. It was that fast. He blew it by me.” Abernathy remembers heading for a seat in the dugout. As he remembers it, Satchel Paige just smiled.
Abernathy, who later became Paige’s teammate in the Negro American League, smiles at the memory too. Now, that is all that remains of their first confrontation. A memory.
No cameras recorded the exchange between batter and pitcher that day in 1935. Almost certainly, no box score documented the exhibition game for posterity. Abernathy no longer owns the uniforms he wore in the days when he played with teams like the Kansas City Monarchs, the Indianapolis Clowns and the New York Cubans. Most of his old photographs were lost long ago.
To a large extent, for players like Abernathy and the fans who saw them in action, memory is the impermanent and sometimes imperfect keeper of the game. There are odd snapshots here, a few newspaper accounts there. But, especially in the South, much of the history of the Negro leagues, as they were called, is recorded only in the minds of the people who were there.
“It is a part of history that has been lost,” says Derek Elliott, a Tennessee State University history professor who has worked to increase awareness of the Negro leagues and their players, more than 15 of whom still live in Nashville. It is a rich and compelling history still largely unknown to a later generationthe history of a remarkable, vibrant corner of the world that African-Americans built in reaction to Jim Crow laws and an unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” that excluded blacks from major league baseball organizations until Jackie Robinson cracked through the barrier in 1947.
Most Nashvillians don’t know it, but 65 years before the Oilers contemplated moving here, Nashville was already a big-league town, the home of the Elite (pronounced “Ee-light”) Giants of the Negro National League. The Elites were owned by Tom Wilson, a local entertainment promoter, nightclub operator and, by most accounts, a numbers racketeer.
Wilson found plenty of talent for the Elites at home, recruiting from Nashville kids who had grown up with the game that then stood unchallenged as the national pastime. “Nashville was a mecca for baseball,” says Abernathy, who went on to run his own dry-cleaning business and a liquor store once his baseball days were done. “When I was a youngster, there were 20 or 30 ball teams. Every business had a club. We didn’t have anything else to do. We’d come home from school and play till dark. You could play all day on Saturday and Sunday unless your parents made you go to church. There were a lot of good ballplayers around here.”
Wilson organized the Elites, as an independent team, in 1921. When the Negro Southern League was formed five years later, the Elites were charter members. In 1930, they began to play with the most prestigious of the Negro leagues, the Negro National League.
Wilson not only built a hometown team; he also built his own stadium. One of only two black-owned ballparks in the Negro leagues, Wilson Park was situated in Trimble Bottom, north of the Fairgrounds, near the confluence of Second and Fourth Avenues. It was squarely within the African-American communityand beyond the control of the city fathers who governed Sulphur Dell, the old ballyard on North Fourth where the all-white Nashville Vols played.
The Elite Giants christened Wilson Park in the spring of 1930. On opening day most of the stadium’s 4,000 or so seats were filled with fans who had seen the posters tacked to telephone poles and taped to store windows in black neighborhoods. “I remember when they opened that park, they had Satchel Paige pitching for Birmingham against Jim Willis,” says Wesley “Doc” Dennis, who lived only a few blocks away. Dennis was 12 years old then. But, like a number of other Nashville kids who grew up watching Wilson’s team, he later played for the Elites.
“Wilson always wanted to have the best,” remembers Henry Kimbro, another of the Nashville players ultimately recruited for the Elites. In addition to owning the Elites, Wilson also served as president of the Negro National League. Aided by his own business acumen and contacts, and the city’s central location, Wilson ensured that the best black ballplayers from around the countryplayers who would have been living legends in the white major leaguesplayed regularly in Nashville.
They may not be household names now, but in the 1930s every serious white baseball fan knew of Oscar Charleston (nicknamed “the black Ty Cobb”) and Buck Leonard. There was catcher Josh Gibson (“the black Babe Ruth”), who was credited with 75 home runs in one season and who, unlike Ruth or anyone else, once hit a ball completely out of Yankee Stadium. There was Cool Papa Bell, so fast that there was no white player with whom to compare himso fast, it was said, that he could turn out the lights and be in bed before the room got dark.
In Nashville, white and black fans alike turned out to see these great Negro league stars. Specifically, they came to see the lanky, rubber-armed Paige. Possessed of a virtually unhittable, bullet-train fastball and pinpoint control, Paige was probably the greatest pitcher in the long sweep of baseball’s history. He was also the game’s most audacious showman. Paige understood, even then, that baseball was first and foremost an entertainment.
During the 1930s, when he was at the zenith of his powers, Paige sometimes invited his outfielders to sit on the infield grass, serenely confident that no hitter would lay a bat on the ball. Then, he’d vow to strike out the opposing side on nine pitchesand proceed to make good on his promise.
“He threw so hard, the ball looked like an aspirin,” remembers Sydney Bunch. After four innings, Bunch recalls, the catcher’s hand would be so swollen that he’d have to be taken out of the game. “Nobody,” echoes Abernathy, “was gonna hit [Paige] when he was right.”
In 1931, Wilson purchased Paige’s contract from the Birmingham Black Barons. Unfortunately for Nashvillians, Wilson moved the team to Cleveland for the season, hoping to make more money. Frequently, he rented Paige’s services to other teams for one game, charging $250 to $500, then splitting the proceeds with the pitcher.
After the ’31 season, Paige spent the winter in South Nashville, and Henry Kimbro got to know him fairly well. “He stayed out on Clayborn Street,” Kimbro says. “I think [Wilson] took care of him.”
Especially during games, Paige’s good-natured trash-talking sometimes rankled Kimbro, who admits to having a peppery temperament. (In the passion of a game, he once went after Josh Gibson with a bat.) Like Paige, Kimbro never lacked confidence in his own ability, and with good reason: He boasts a career batting average of .315 and was a regular in the Negro league All-Star Games during the ’40s. At 84, his still-muscular torso suggests the strength he once wielded.
“Satchel would kid a whole lot,” Kimbro says, gnawing on one of the toothpicks he constantly chews. “He used to make me so mad. Just like a little kid. He’d say things like, ‘See if you can you hit this one.’ Man, that guy could throw it hard.
“But you couldn’t blow that ball by me with a cannon. I was as strong as a bull. And wrists?goodgodamighty. I could set Satchel afire. You did not throw a ball by me.”
Wilson Park was not just a venue for baseball. It also became a sort of social nexus for Nashville’s African-American community. On Sunday afternoons, entire families would turn out in their finery. Teen-age boys and girls gathered along the third-base stands to talk and flirt. Outside, anyone with something to sell, from homegrown vegetables to used cars, gathered in search of buyers.
Wilson, however, fell victim of his own successand to the Depression. Negro league owners always faced financial challenges, but hard times made those challenges even harder. Wilson began searching beyond his small ballpark for bigger venues and larger payoffs.
After moving the team to Cleveland, Wilson brought the Elite Giants home againbut not to Wilson Park. Instead, they played mostly at Sulphur Dell, which could accommodate bigger, although strictly segregated, crowds.
Before the 1935 season, still looking for greener outfields, Wilson relocated again, to Columbus, Ohio. The next year the Elites jumped to Washington, D.C., and in 1938 they moved on to Baltimore, where they remained until another Nashvillian, William “Soo” Bridgeforth, bought the team in 1950 and moved it to Birmingham.
Throughout their wanderings, the Elite Giants, stocked with so many local players, always retained a hometown flavor. The team’s operations were always based in Nashville. The Elites often returned to Sulphur Dell throughout the 1930s and ’40s, and local fans always regarded them as Nashville’s team.
Even after the Elite Giants departed, black baseball thrived in Nashville. In the 1940s, the Nashville Cubs played at Sulphur Dell in the Negro Southern League, a step below the highest level. In its first season, the team was called the Black Vols, following the common practice of simply adding “Black” to the name of the city’s white team. The resulting monickers were sometimes curiousconsider the New York Black Yankees or the Atlanta Black Crackers.
Near the end of black baseball, the Nashville Stars also played at the minor-league level. A local semipro team, the Morocco Stars, often drew thousands of fans to Hadley Parklarger crowds, often, than those at Sulphur Dell.
Historians disagree as to how the caliber of play in the Negro leagues measured up to the white big leagues, but no one doubts that stars like Paige, Gibson, Bell and Leonard would have shone just as brightly in the majors. Jackie Robinson wasn’t even regarded by his compatriots as one of the Negro leagues’ top playersyet he became the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1947.
On the other hand, some of the stupefying records set by Negro leaguers, such as Gibson’s home-run totals and Paige’s career wins, include games that were played against semipro teams on barnstorming tours. What’s more, statistics in the Negro leagues were so haphazardly kept that is is virtually impossible to compile reliable records. “The one thing that has kept so many [Negro leagues] players out of the Hall of Fame is the dearth of statistics,” says Prentice Mills, who for several years published a journal on the history of black baseball from his Nashville home.
Many years, the leagues didn’t even publish final team standings. In 1932, for example, the Elite Giants were declared winners of the season’s second half. In the Nashville Guardian, the newspaper that served the city’s African-American community in the ’30s and ’40s, box scores appeared infrequently. And when they were printed, says Mills, box scores for away games were often wrongdown to the final score.
Nonetheless, Negro leaguers could more than hold their own against their white counterpartsand they proved it whenever they were allowed to compete on the same field. In the ’30s and ’40s, major leaguers were permitted to participate in as many as 30 all-star exhibition games against black players after the World Series ended. In the North and on the West Coast (such interracial mixing was too explosive for the South), crowds flocked to the spectacles. According to most objective assessments, the Negro leaguers won more than 60 percent of the time.
Robert Abernathy remembers playing in a postseason game in 1946, when he and Paige were playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. “We were in East Los Angeles, and the park was full of people23,000 or 24,000, all up and down the sidelines. We were playing Bob Lemon’s All Stars, I think, and they had Country Slaughter and Stan Musial.
“That day Satchel struck out 18. And he told them what he was going to throw. He said, ‘Y’all are making all that money, and I ain’t making anything. But see if y’all can hit my fastball.’ Strike one. Then, ‘Now here’s my faster fastball.’ Andwhoom!it would be a little faster. He had about five different fastballs, all different speeds.
“We won 11-2. They were complaining to the umpireand he was their umpire. He told ’em, ‘If it’s good enough for me to call, it’s good enough for you to hit. You just can’t hit him!”
Still, the Negro leagues were indisputably separate but unequal when it came to travel, accommodations and scheduling. Most black baseball teams existed in a continuously precarious financial balance. “My action was to try to hustle money to pay the overhead,” explains former owner Soo Bridgeforth. It was hard going. “To tell you the truth,” he says, “most of the black owners were in some kind of illegal business”usually the numbers.
In the Negro leagues, spring training was a cost-prohibitive luxury. And once the season started, they played far fewer league gamestypically between 50 and 80than their white counterparts, whose regular-season schedule ran upwards of 140 games.
To make ends meet, black teams filled their weeks with exhibition games, often against small-town teams they encountered en route to their next league contests, and they embarked on barnstorming tours after the regular season ended. Frequently, they played two or even three games in one day.
“Sometimes two teams like the Elite Giants and the Cuban Stars would go traveling and play everywhere,” says Henry Kimbro, a veteran of many such tours. “We might go from Baltimore all the way to Birmingham.”
Keeping a full schedule often required frenetic, cross-country sprints. “We might play in New Orleans on a Sunday and then in Baltimore on Tuesday,” Kimbro recalls, “or in Baltimore on Sunday and Kansas City on a Tuesday.”
The schedule might have seemed less arduous had they traveled by train, as white major leaguers did. But for the most part, especially in the South, black baseball teams jostled along two-lane highways in rattletrap, unairconditioned buses.
Every Negro leaguer in Nashville can tell wide-eyed stories of sleeping and eating on a bus en route to a game 1,000 miles away. Bridgeforth remembers one trip that began on a Friday night in Huntsville, Ala. “We had an afternoon game the next day,” he recalls, “in Milwaukee. The bus left Huntsville about midnight, and we got to Milwaukee just in time for the players to get a bite to eat before the game.”
For much of Henry Kimbro’s career with the Elite Giants, the team traveled in a decrepit old Chevrolet bus, and even now he betrays a tinge of excitement when he recalls the bus that replaced it. “Tom Wilson bought one of those brand-new flexible buses made by Buick. It had reclining seats and everything. Everybody was crazy about that bus.”
Often, though, the team buses had to function as mobile homes, not just because of impossible itineraries but because of the even harsher, more unremitting reality of segregation. On the road, the scarcity of black-owned accommodations decreed whether players got to sleep in a bed or eat in a diner. “Most of the black hotels weren’t much better than the bus,” says Bridgeforth. “And there weren’t but a few of them anyway.”
“I’ll never forget when we we played in Missouri one night,” recalls Robert Abernathy, “and there was no place there to stay. We had to go 75 miles for lodging. It was about 2 in the morning when we got there.”
If they found no restaurants that would serve them, black teams stopped at grocery stores. “One guy would buy bread, one would buy a sack of tomatoes and lettuce, one would buy bologna, and we’d eat on the bus,” Kimbro says. “Bologna sandwiches and cheese.”
On barnstorming tours, recalls Sydney Bunch, the players sometimes even had to dress and undress on the bus. “We weren’t allowed in the dressing rooms,” he says. “Down in Mississippi, we’d go two or three days with no bath. We might go to the Greyhound station and wash up a little, but you’d still be stinkin’. Those were hard times.”
Jim Crow, of course, held sway in Nashville too. At Sulphur Dell, unlike Wilson Park, segregated seating restrictions were rigidly enforced. At Nashville Vols’ games, blacks were relegated to the hot, uncovered bleachers. When black teams played at the Dell, and white fans were in the minority, the demarcation lines shifted. But the color barrier never went away.
When Bridgeforth owned the Black Barons, he wasn’t even allowed into the office at Birmingham’s municipally owned Rickwood Field. “They counted the money,” he says, “and the secretary would come to the door to give it to us. We might have 9,000 people at the game, and we’d get paid for 7,000.”
In 1946, when the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor-league contract, the walls of segregation in baseball finally began to crumble. Within the next few years they came tumbling down. Suddenly, white big-league scouts were converging on black baseball games, and opportunities opened for the playersopportunities many had thought they’d never live to see.
Blacks and whites had played in racially mixed professional leaguesat least in the Northuntil 1887, when Jim Crow demanded that the game be segregated. Rickey chose Robinson to reintegrate the game not only because of Robinson’s skills alone but also because Robinson had agreed not to fight back against the inevitable slurs, cheap shots and beanballs he would encounter. “They didn’t get the best player,” says Robert Abernathy, who was Robinson’s teammate on the Kansas City Monarchs. “They got the player they thought would fit in.”
When he heard that Robinson was headed to the Dodgers’ AAA club in Montreal, Abernathy wished him good luck and offered some advice: “I told him, ‘You’re gonna have to calm that temper down’he had a temper like a rattlesnake. ‘You’ll have to take a lot. Some people don’t want to see you make it. But you’ll make it.’
“Jackie said, ‘Keep on playing the way you’re going, and you’ll make it too.’”
Although he was one of the Negro leagues’ best players, Henry Kimbro knew that he had little chance of being considered for the major leagues in those first, tentative years of reintegration. “They’d have put me in there and shot me the next day,” he says, “because the first time somebody did something to me, I’d have been up at ’em. No way in the world I wouldn’t have fought back.”
Others from Nashville, however, did get a chance. One of the first was Sydney Bunch, for whom Kimbro served as a mentor when they both played on Soo Bridgeforth’s Black Barons team.
After a game in Huntsville one Friday night in 1949, Bunch remembers, “we came into the dressing room, and Mr. Kimbro told me, ‘There’s a man here waiting on you.’ Now back then, a white man wouldn’t be looking for you unless you were in trouble. I said, ‘I ain’t done nothin’. And Mr. Kimbro said, ‘Yes, you did. You hit the ball tonight. You’re going to play for a white team.’”
The white man turned out to be a scout for the Dodgers, and he signed Bunch, on the spot, to a minor-league contract. On Sunday afternoon Sydney was on a plane from Nashville to Billings, Mont.a town he’d never heard of before. It was his first baseball trip that wasn’t by bus.
“I was only the second black from Nashville to leave for the white leagues,” Bunch says. (Junior Gilliam was the first.) “My mother worked for Mayor Ben West, and he organized a little parade when they carried me out to Vultee Airport.”
Billings was a world apart for Bunch. That September, for the first time, he played a game in the snow. He saw more money than he’d ever earned in the Negro leagues$350 every two weeks, he recalls. Most of all, though, he had to adjust to a town with only a handful of African-Americans.
In other ways, however, the experience was depressingly familiar. Even so far from the South, Bunch and the team’s other black player couldn’t stay in the hotels where their white teammates stayed; they had to find black families willing to put them up. White players brought food to them on the bus from restaurants that wouldn’t serve blacks. In places like Boise and Pocatello, Idaho, Bunch remembers, “fans would turn loose black cats when we came to town.”
Yet over that summer, as the Billings Mustangs steadily won more games, the townspeople gradually warmed to the two African-Americans on their hometown team. “Some people began inviting us into their homes,” Bunch says. “One man let us borrow his car whenever we wanted to look around. People would give us free clothes and things from their stores.” The next fall, when the Mustangs returned to Billings after winning a league title on the road, it seemed that the whole town was waiting to cheer the team: “The crowd was so thick, the bus could hardly get through.”
The next season, Bunch was told, he would report to the Dodgers’ AAA teamone step removed from the big leagues. But he never made it. His Marine reserve unit was mobilized for the Korean War. By the time he was discharged, major-league baseball had passed him by.
Despite Jackie Robinson’s prediction, Robert Abernathy never made it to the majors either, even though he came within one slide of making it. In 1948, when he was playing with the New York Cubans, he attracted the attention of major-league scouts, who were impressed by his speed in centerfield and his sweet, line-drive stroke.
But on June 16 in Newport, R.I.he remembers every detailAbernathy broke his leg sliding into home. The injury effectively ended his career. Two weeks later, six other players from the Cubans were signed to big-league contracts.
Integration, ironically, ultimately killed the Negro leagues. After 1948, many of the top teams folded, and, by the early 1950s, those that remained had been reduced to a minor-league sideshow, depleted of the stars who had invested their teams with such drawing power.
Crowds still poured into Sulphur Dell, especially to see all-star exhibition games or games featuring the Indianapolis Clowns, whose comic routines were a novelty. But the glory days of black baseball were numbered.
“The last time we played in Birmingham,” remembers Soo Bridgeforth, “I bought six dozen baseballs for the game. They cost me $90, and I didn’t get enough money [from attendance] to pay for the balls. That made me have to fold.”
It’s understandable that Larry Walker should be fascinated by the history of the Negro leagues. He was named for Larry Doby, the first black man to play in the American League, and he grew up reading stories about his namesake and other legends of black baseball.
In 1993, Walker gave up his job as a data processor to pursue a long-held ambition: He opened a store devoted entirely to Negro league baseball. The Old Negro League Sports Shop, at 1213 Jefferson St., is a tiny island of a building. But it’s packed full of historya long-obscure history that the store’s patrons, many of whom aren’t even baseball fans, are eagerly discovering.
“The interest has come from everyoneyoung, old, black and white,” Walker says. They come to buy the reproduction caps and jerseys of long-extinct teams like the Philadelphia Stars and the Chicago American Giants. They come for autographed bats and balls, reprints of old game posters, baseball cards, pennants, books and the old black-and-white photos that line Walker’s walls.
But here, like perhaps nowhere else, they can also come to hear first-hand stories of the Negro leagues, told by the players themselves. During almost any business hour at Walker’s store, chances are good that at least one of the old veterans who lives nearby will stroll in for a visit. For any fans lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, players like Henry Kimbro or Butch McCord or Jim Zapp can tell stories about what barnstorming was like, or demonstrate how they shortened their swings against Paige.
Often, the players just drop by to chat with each other. For them, Walker’s store is a place of dreams. “Having this place has given them somewhere to get together,” Walker says. “They all come through at least once a week. Some of them are here every day.”
Kimbro was in the store one afternoon about a month ago when a group from Seattle rushed breathlessly in. They were in Nashville for a conference of the National Society of Black Engineers, explained Dawnmarie Cooper, who was accompanied by several of her pre-engineering students. “I’ve been trying to educate my boys about our past,” Cooper says. She bought a stack of cards and photos to take home to her sons.
All the while, Kimbro signed autographs and talked with Cooper’s students. Eventually, another boy, who’d been waiting in the van, idled in. “Come on,” she scolded him. “You’re missing a part of history.”
You’ll find no living trace of Wilson Park today, only trucks littering a lot full of weeds. Only those who played or watched games there can tell you where the grandstand was or how the curve in the present road defines the old rightfield corner. Only they can still hear the echoes of the bustling crowds or the voice of Tom Wilson cheering on his team over the loudspeaker.
The strange, sloping right field of Sulphur Dell, which once led outfielders to call the place “Suffer Hell,” is now utterly flatit’s been transformed into a parking lot behind the new Farmers Market. In the spot where the old park once stood, at the very place where Union soldiers introduced baseball to Nashville in 1862, nothing remains but a historical marker .
The marker explains how Grantland Rice gave the place its name. But it offers no clue that the Elite Giants once played here, and breathes no hint that all the now-legendary black players, from Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to Cool Papa Bell, were drawn here in those days when baseball was segregated.
But the players remember. And when they get together in places like Larry Walker’s shop, the Negro leagues come to life again.
The other day, Soo Bridgeforth and Doc Dennis were reminiscing about one long-gone summer night when Satchel Paige pitched against the Elite Giants in Sulphur Dell. “Our best hitters were Henry Kimbro, Ed Steele and Pijo King,” Bridgeforth recalled. “Satchel looked around and saw that Kimbro was coming up, and he walked the bases full just to get to him. Then he struck him out, and Steele and Pijo after that.”
“And I was on deck,” Dennis said.
When a listener mentioned the rumor that Kimbro could hit even Paige’s fastest humming “bee ball,” Bridgeforth and Dennis laughed out loud.
“He didn’t hit him that night,” Bridgeforth chortled. “Not that night.”
For the next hour, Bridgeforth and Dennis continued to tell storiesa slew of them. All about the old baseball times. All about the old days.
Then Bridgeforth rose to leave. His ride was waiting for him. Otherwise, he said, he could have told stories all afternoon.
A wealth of information about Negro leagues baseball is available, on the Internet, via the Negro Leagues Baseball Online Archives ( http://www.infi.net/~moxie/nlb/nlb.html. )
The website, which was developed by Nashvillians Prentice and Mary Mills, includes information on all of black baseball’s teams, as well as player bios and profiles, photos and histories. R.H.
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