Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Southern League of Colored Base Ballists

Don't you hate it when you feel like a coward and you have no reason to do so? Oh, I haven't done anything cowardly, at least not that I can think of, but a project on which I am about to embark makes me less sure of my manhood. Not that manhood, the other one. It is sobering to write about men who, obviously, have more bravery in their pinky fingers than I would have even if I were trapped for three days in that cloning scientist's lab from "South Park" and emerged as 30 Ray Steeles, which would only be terrifying for the high school French teacher I used to torture. There is no way that I or anyone else in this country today can understand the concept of putting your life on the line simply because you wanted to play baseball every day. But that is exactly what a special group of African-American men did a century-and-a-quarter ago.

Being a baseball aficionado makes one a bit of a baseball snob, and I assumed that I knew virtually everything about baseball's Negro Leagues, where some of the best athletes in the world were relegated for decades thanks to the stupidity of era's white people. The side effect of listening to me drone on about the history of the organized black leagues, the famous teams before the organized leagues, and their players is similar to the side effect of having eight shots of tequila, followed by a dozen martinis. But as is usually the case when I think I know everything, I eventually learn that I know nothing. A few weeks ago, I discovered something that I felt as if I should have already known, but that apparently isn't all that well known. Savannah was one of six cities to field teams for what was the first attempt at an organized Negro baseball league.

There is very little information about the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists. Researcher Bill Plott, who belongs one of the country finest group of junkies, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has dug up most of what we know about the league. In March of 1886, a number of Southern newspapers carried notices asking "colored base ball clubs" with a "fair record" to join the league by sending their information to the league's headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida. Opening Day was scheduled for May 10 but, as was often the case in fledgling leagues both white and black, a variety of problems pushed back the beginning of the season until June 7.

Savannah had not one, but two teams when the league began play; the Broads and the Lafayettes. There were also two teams from Memphis, three from Jacksonville, and one each from Atlanta, Charleston, and New Orleans. A third team from Savannah, the Jerseys, was listed in some later game accounts before the league's only season ended in August, with the two teams from Memphis both claiming to be champions. Unfortunately, that's about all Mr. Plott was able to find, and no one else has augmented his research. Granted, black baseball got about as much news coverage in the mainstream media back then as anyone not named Tiger Woods or something involving sex or sex tapes does today.

The official "organ" of the 1886 league was the "Southern Leader", a black-owned newspaper in Jacksonville that appears to have ceased publication in 1888. If there are any copies or microfilms of the paper, no one knows of them. What fun it would be to make that archaeological discovery to see if there were some semblance of reports or box scores for the games. More importantly, what fun it would be to learn about the men who made up these teams, who wanted to play baseball in a part of the country where it was often dangerous for them to simply be out in public. Reconstruction laws that helped blacks in the South thrive were dying, and Jim Crow was settling in to reign for the next seven or eight decades. Some of the fears we have today are rather silly when you think about a bunch of guys who risked their lives to simply play a game they loved.

I don't know if my quest will get anywhere, but if there is information on the men who made up those Savannah teams, as well as the league's other teams, I will do my best to find it. The league did not exist in a vacuum. Those teams were made up of real men with real stories, and some of the teams kept playing for years after the league folded. Who knows. Perhaps it will turn into a masterpiece that will finally force my friend Jim Morekis at "Connect Savannah" to finally admit that when it comes to baseball, I am always right (while he is merely always right about everything else).

A note about the photo at the top. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City appears to be in serious financial trouble. I am ashamed to say I have never been there, nor will I likely get there in the near future. While we are lucky to live in an era that has seen the end of segregation and, largely, the end of racism, the paradox is that we pay lip service to "never forgetting", then promptly forget those who helped get us to this point by enduring humiliation that, absent a time machine, we will never be able to imagine. If you have it within your budget, and I know most of us don't right now, the museum sure could use some help.

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