From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Birmingham Black Barons were among the most successful baseball teams in the Negro Leagues, featuring such all-time greats as Leroy "Satchel" Paige, Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, and Willie Mays. With players from Birmingham's Industrial League, the team was organized in 1920 by club officer Frank Perdue as part of the Negro Southern League. That same year, player and manager Rube Foster organized the Negro National League: the first true major league for black baseball players. The Birmingham Black Barons were among the first eight teams invited to join.
The Black Barons played at Birmingham's historic Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in use today. The park was built by A. H. "Rick" Woodward, who rented it out to the Black Barons and to white teams in the area. Seating was segregated, with a designated section for seating black fans when the white teams played. Baseball and local churches served as the two biggest factors in the social life of Alabama's African American communities at the time. The Black Barons played home games at Rickwood on alternate Sundays and at other times when the white Barons were not playing at home. Local preachers often dismissed their congregation before noon when the Black Barons were in town, telling their parishioners that they would meet them at the game. Indeed, the success of the teams became a point of community pride.
Most of the players came from poor areas around Birmingham. They had played baseball in the street as children and then sought jobs at local companies, such as Alabama Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO) and Stockham Valve, so that they could play in Birmingham's Industrial League. Hopefuls in rural areas often worked for coal companies, which also sponsored teams. Baseball became a way to escape the hard labor and professional limitations that segregation imposed on African American society in the South.
In 1920, Perdue, the first president of the Negro Southern League, paid $200 for the rights to the Black Barons in the League. He sold the team to hotel owner Joe Rush, who took the team to Foster's Negro National League. The Black Barons joined as an associate member on a trial basis in 1923, finishing with a 23-15 record. In 1925, the Black Barons became full members of the Negro National League.
During the 1920s, the Black Barons' managers included Joe Hewitt and Reuben Jones. The major star during this era was slugger George "Mule" Suttles. He would become a National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 2006 and the all-time home-run leader for the Negro Leagues with 237 homers. Suttles also became just the second player in Negro League history to hit 20 homers, 20 doubles, and 20 triples, playing in only 78 league games. After a losing season and with attendance declining, the Black Barons returned to the Negro Southern League in 1926, but their stay was short. They rejoined the Negro League and its higher level of competition in 1927 and qualified for the post-season championship games behind the pitching of rookie Leroy "Satchel" Paige. The team lost the Negro League World Series to the Chicago American Giants in four straight games. Paige would later become the first African American inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Unofficial records indicate that he pitched in more than 2,500 games (including 153 in one season), tossed more than 100 no-hitters, and was still pitching professionally while in his fifties.
From 1928 to 1930, the Barons fielded teams with losing records. Financial problems caused by the Great Depression sent the team back to the Negro Southern League in 1931. Managers during the 1930s included Clarence Smith, W. Jones, A. M. Walker, and Sam Crawford. The Black Barons tried an unsuccessful return to the Negro League in 1937 but landed back in the Southern League for the 1938 and 1939 seasons. Management rebuilt the team by again recruiting from the industrial leagues, and the team joined the Negro American League in 1940. Notable during this period was player Sam Bankhead, a seven-time all-star who had a 22-year career in baseball. Wingfield Welch led the team as manager from 1940 until 1945. Tommy Sampson took over in 1946, and Piper Davis led the team to its league championship in 1948.
The decade of the 1940s represented the apex of the franchise's history, fueled by the purchase of the team by Memphis funeral home operator Tom Hayes. He partnered with Abe Saperstein to get the financial backing needed to hire the best players available. Saperstein, a white man who also owned the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, and Hayes shared ownership until 1952. During that time, Saperstein provided off-season employment to some of the players by adding them to the roster of the Globetrotters. Reese Tatum, a popular centerfielder for the Black Barons, joined the Globetrotters and became known as "Goose" Tatum, the Clown Prince of Basketball, earning greater fame for his basketball achievements than those in baseball.
The 1943 team—led by League legend Lorenzo "Piper" Davis—won the Negro National League pennant but lost the Negro World Series to the Homestead Grays. The Black Barons repeated as National League champs in 1944 but again lost the World Series to the Grays. The Black Barons' last attempt at a world title came in 1948. The team boasted numerous Negro League stars, including Piper Davis, Lyman Bostock, Bill Powell, Bill Barnes, Joe Bankhead, Ed Steele, and a teenage Willie Mays but lost again to the Grays.
The 1948 Negro World Series was for all intents and purposes the last real World Series for African American baseball. It was also the final year of the Negro National League's existence. Some teams disbanded, and others joined the Negro American League. The previous year, Jackie Robinson had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broken baseball's Major League color barrier, a move that eventually led to the demise of the Negro Leagues. Some of the Barons, most notably Mays, drew the attention of scouts and became part of the African American contingent that helped the major leagues make the transition to full integration. Former Black Baron Dan Bankhead played in the major leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers before the end of the 1947 season. Five players from the 1948 team—Mays, Bill Greason, Artie Wilson, Piper Davis, and Jehosie Heard—signed major league contracts, but only Mays had a career of any significant length.
The Black Barons continued to field teams during the 1950s, managed by Vic Harris, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Hall of Famer Willie Wells, and Jim Canada. They worked under William "Sou" Bridgeforth, who purchased the team in 1952. Charley Pride, who was a pitcher-outfielder for the team in 1954, gained fame outside of baseball as a country singer. The Barons obtained the future Country Music Hall of Fame inductee by trading a bus to the Louisville Clippers for his contract.
By 1957, some players were signed to minor league contracts, but none made it to the majors. More frequently, the Black Barons became a fall-back option for those players who were unable to join organized baseball. In 1959, the Black Barons finally won the Negro League Championship, but only five teams remained active in the league. The league opened the 1960 season with just four teams and officially disbanded at the end of the year. The Black Barons unofficially stayed together another two more years as a barnstorming team that traveled around to play teams formed by local communities. They disbanded in 1963.
Of the former members of the Birmingham Black Barons, five have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Willie
Mays, Satchel Paige, Willie Wells, Bill Foster, and Mule Suttles. Paige, Mays, and Davis also have all been inducted into
the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Cook, Ben. Good Wood: A Fan's History of Rickwood Field. Birmingham, Ala.: R. Boozer Press, 2006.
Fullerton, Christopher D. Every Other Sunday: The Story of the Birmingham Black Barons. Birmingham, Ala.: R. Boozer Press, 1999.
Holway, John. The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History. Fern Park, Ill.: Hastings, 2001.
Swaine, R. The Black Stars Who Made Baseball Whole: The Jackie Robinson Generation in the Major Leagues, 1947-1959. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006.
Whitt, Timothy. Bases Loaded with History: The Story of Rickwood Field, America's Oldest Baseball Park. Birmingham, Ala.: R. Boozer Press, 1995.
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published August 29, 2008
Last updated October 30, 2012