Pitching Birmingham: Segregation on the Field

By: Kalin Tate

Alabama native Willie Tate won’t forget watching baseball great Jackie Robinson play in Orlando, Fla. in an exhibition game.

Far from a normal baseball game measured by 2013 standards, in  the early 1900s riots and racial chants were commonplace at a baseball game. Although, there were some breakthroughs for these players, reality was the roadblock in this long dark tunnel.

Black were still treated with little to no respect by the white community.

“Blacks couldn’t play in the big leagues without a fight,” said Tate about the hardships of being a Negro League baseball player. “When Jackie Robinson started playing for the Dodgers, it brought hope to the Negro league ball players.”

It would be later, when players like Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson made the impossible possible. They would break the color line in Major League Baseball.

Like many things during the Civil Rights movement, it  all began in Birmingham with the Negro League Baseball team, Birmingham Black Barons . As an all African-American team they earned respect from some in the community.  The Birmingham Black Barons played at Rickwood Field – shared with the Birmingham Barons, an all-white Minor League Baseball team – which is the oldest baseball field in the United States.

Arguably the best pitcher of all time, Black Baron’s player Leroy  “Satchel” Paige was popular across the country.  Widely known throughout the United States, he was drafted to the major league Cleveland Indians  on July 9, 1948 to join Jackie Robinson as the only black Major League Baseball players at the time.

Jim Robinson, a Negro League baseball player in the 1950s, described his experience playing for the Kansas City Monarchs.

“There were many hardships for us, not just us but all Negro League teams,” Robinson said. “It was hard to find a hotel sometimes because they wouldn’t let us stay because we were black.”

Robinson was well known as the captain of the Kansas City Monarchs, and he was a starting infielder for the team.

“I had dreams of playing in the Major Leagues,” said Robinson about his aspirations to play in the Majors. “I was just happy to play baseball because I had played my entire life.”

Eugene Gruggs, also a Negro League Baseball Player in the 1950s, described some of the hardships he faced.  As a starting pitcher for the Detroit Stars and the Kansas City Monarchs, he faced the same hardships as Robinson.

Playing in the Major Leagues was a dream of Gruggs , a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Gruggs said he is one of few pitchers that played in the Negro Leagues that are still alive.

“It was hard finding places to eat and stay,” said Gruggs. “Our Puerto Rican teammate would have to go in and purchase our food because they wouldn’t serve us.”

At the time baseball was not a safe sport for African Americans to play in the major leagues.

The Birmingham Black Barons stopped playing in 1963 when the Civil Rights Movement reached its peak.  But the Birmingham Barons, a minor league team, had begun to play again as an integrated team after a three-year suspension giving blacks and other minorities a chance to play professional baseball. The tension in the baseball stadium in minor and major leagues still existed, but more people were adjusting to a diverse atmosphere.

The Barons moved from Rickwood Field to Hoover, Ala. in 1987 to play at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The Birmingham Barons gained more attention in 1994 when Chicago Bulls NBA legend Michael Jordan was signed to the team.  Jordan brought over 900,000 fans nationwide to the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in one season.  He was interviewed international journalists  and changed the way the way fans looked at the Birmingham Barons.

The Barons moved back to Birmingham in 2013 to play in the new baseball park, Regions Field.  On April 10, 2013, fans gathered to watch the team play on opening day at the new field.

During each Barons season, the Barons play a “throwback” game at Rickwood Field in vintage uniforms to pay tribute to baseball history in all professional baseball leagues.

Although Negro League baseball players are an important part of history more are retiring and passing away.  Although events such as the throwback game recognize the players, some feel that more needs to be done to acknowledge their contributions.

“I feel that Alabama should have a Negro League Baseball Museum,”  said Kenon Brown, assistant professor for public relations at the University of Alabama. “Even if we can’t have something physical, the players need more recognition.”


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