Asheville Celebrates Connections with Negro Baseball League

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They were some of the best players the game has ever seen. Names like Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Josh Gibson.

All of them black. All part of the Negro Leagues.

By C. Brandon Chapman


Baseball has always
been considered a reflection of American society, (remember hot dogs,
baseball, and Mom’s apple pie?), but nowhere has it been more evident
than in the segregated leagues that flourished during the early part of
the 20th century. Talented ballplayers who were African-American or
Latino were not allowed to compete against white players in the Major
Leagues. Instead they were relegated to the Negro Baseball Leagues and
other venues with fewer resources and little opportunity for a lasting
career. The Kansas City Monarchs, Georgia Peaches, Chicago Elite,
Memphis Grays, Newark Eagles, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Mobile Tigers,
Philadelphia Stars, and Homestead Grays were among the leading teams in
the Negro Baseball League.


Black celebrities such as Satchel Paige and Louis Armstrong owned some
of these teams, while white promoters owned others. Paige might have
been the greatest pitcher of all times, with his repertoire of pitches
including the single windup, triple windup, hesitation windup,
step-and-pitch-it, sidearm throw, and the famous “bat dodger.” He would
often boast that he would strike out the first nine men he would face
in a game, and he often made good on his promise! Another player, Josh
Gibson, a power hitter who hit more than 70 homeruns in 1931, was once
called the “black Babe Ruth,” to which he responded: “Babe Ruth was the
“white Josh Gibson!”


Some black teams included white players, as well as Hispanics and Jews.
These teams traveled by bus, sometimes playing as many as four games a
day and traveling over 300 miles in the night to reach the next town.
Visiting players in the Sally League in the early 1960s usually stayed
at Rabbits Motel on McDowell Street, according to Gene Hammonds, a
native of Asheville and former teacher and coach at Asheville High
School. In comparison with the white major leagues, black players had a
longer season, less pay, more road trips, no relief pitchers, and no
disabled list unless a player was on crutches.


In 1916, Asheville Black business owner and developer Edward W.
Pearson, Sr. founded the first African American baseball team in
Asheville, the Royal Giants. Pearson always sought ways to foster
prosperity in the African American communities, and developed
businesses and venues to showcase talents. He developed Oates Park
(built in 1914), and Pearson Park (located in the Southside district of
Asheville). Oates Park was the primary home field of the Asheville
Royals Giants during the mid-1910s and 1920s.


The Asheville Black Tourists played in McCormick Field in 1929,
attracting even white fans who held reserved seats. This team was
competitive with such cities as Atlanta and Greenville, even playing
the famous Cuban Reds, known for their antics and “shadow ball” (a few
innings played for entertainment).

The Asheville Blues, a member team
of the Negro Southern League in the 1940s, was owned and managed by
C.L. Moore, who was a beloved coach at Stephens-Lee and a top coach in
the Southeast.

Jim Pendleton, a Blues shortstop in the Negro National
League in the late 1940s, reached the Major Leagues in 1953 and played
for the next eight years for the Milwaukee Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates,
Cincinnati Reds, and Houston Colt .45s (50).


In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Brooklyn Dodgers played
exhibition games against the local affiliate, the Asheville Tourists,
on their way north from spring training. Black players were housed in
private homes since they could not stay in segregated hotels
(Hammonds).


In 1948, one year after breaking the color barrier in baseball, Jackie
Robinson arrived in Asheville with the Brooklyn Dodgers to play an
exhibition game. The stands were filled with around 5,500 people, 2,000
of them in the segregated bleachers along the third-base line. Robinson
flied out to deep left field and grounded out to the shortstop, but
history had been made in Asheville. (The next day Robinson had four
at-bats, but didn’t score.) Another African-American, catcher Roy
Campanella, also played for the Dodgers.


A local sports hero and mentor to many youth in Asheville was James
(“Son”) Jenkins, who used sports to teach life skills. At Stephens-Lee
High School he was a guard in basketball and a running back in
football. He fought in World War II, returned to complete high school,
and earned a football scholarship to Morris Brown College in Atlanta.
He then played with the Indianapolis Clowns baseball team as the
starting centerfielder and helped lead the team to the Negro League
Championship in 1952. He was a friend, mentor, and roommate to Hank
Aaron. Later Jenkins played for the Detroit Stars, the New York Giants,
and the Dodgers’ organization (Jenkins C1, C3).


Fred Worthy was another local standout in the early 1940s, who played
football as a running back and was compared to Charlie “Choo-Choo”
Justice. Worthy played football at Shaw University in Raleigh and
played baseball for the Asheville Blues as a shortstop (Hammonds).


Another Asheville native, Wayne Coleman, was drafted in the late 1950s
by the Baltimore Orioles as a shortstop and later played for the New
York Mets (Hammonds).


In the early 1960s came Willie Stargell. In his autobiography Willie
Stargell, the Pittsburg Pirate remembers Asheville as having “class:”
“The city, the setting and the situation all inspired me to my finest
year in the minors. In Asheville, I showcased the ability that Coach
Reed and Bob Zuk had seen in me, and for the first time I loved playing
professional baseball (Stargell and Bird 78-79).”


He liked being able to walk through the front door of a restaurant. As
a 20-year-old in a segregated town, Stargell appreciated the social
life that the 12,000 African-Americans offered to him, frequenting the
businesses around the Eagle Street/Valley Street area and the Southview
[Southside] Avenue area (79). He felt he was on “a dream team,” played
center field, and was called “On the Hill Will” because the majority of
his 22 homers ended up on the hill beyond the right field fence (81).


John Dusenbury, a graduate of Asheville High School, was part of the
1969-70 school year, which saw the schools integrated for the first
time. He was drafted after graduation by the Philadelphia Phillies and
later traded to the Pittsburg Pirates organization (Hammonds). In an
interview with Brandon Chapman, Dusenbury said in terms of integration,
he believed baseball was ahead of the culture, though Asheville was
much better than other places [to play] considered by many to be in
“the South.”


Today several African-American players who have played for the
Asheville Tourists have gone on to the majors. Many players from the
local high schools and colleges, such as Cameron Maybin, Charles
Thomas, and Justin Jackson, are contributing to the farm teams and to
the major leagues, and Danny Montgomery is a professional scout with
the Colorado Rockies.


Julia Ray, a long-time resident of Asheville, is the niece of William
“Gus” Greenlee, former owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. In an
interview by Anita Carter-White, Ray stated that, as a young man,
Greenlee moved from Marion, N.C. to look for job opportunities in the
North. He landed in Pittsburgh, PA where he became a shrewd businessman
and amassed a fortune, which he used to build a team that became a
legend in Negro Baseball League history.


In 1932 Greenlee built the first black-owned baseball stadium in the
United States – Greenlee Field on Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill
District. The Pittsburgh Crawfords was one of the best-financed teams
in baseball and fielded five future Hall-of-Famers (Brown).


Greenlee made charitable contributions to hospitals and the NAACP. He
gave informal gifts of money to the Hill’s needy people to help with
food, medical care, and college tuition. During the Great Depression,
he established a soup line in the Hill District (Brown). According to
his neice Julia Ray, Greenlee was very generous to African Americans
who left the South looking for better lives in the North. When they
arrived in Pittsburgh, he helped them find jobs, places to live, and
get a fresh start in the community.


Asheville has much to be proud of in its historic connections to baseball.


During the week of March 11-15, 2008, a series of events have been
planned by fifteen Asheville area organizations to honor the
accomplishments of the Negro Baseball League. Inspired by the March 15
Asheville Symphony Orchestra premier of American composer Richard
Danielpour’s Pastime, the Symphony’s initiative involves participants
from UNC-Asheville, the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement,
the Center for Diversity Education, Asheville High School, Asheville
Middle School, Hall-Fletcher Elementary School, the Asheville Tourists,
the YMI Cultural Center, W.C. Reid Center for Creative Arts, the
Asheville Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony Guild, the Stephens-Lee
Alumni Association, Asheville Playback Theatre, and the Lake Eden Arts
Festival.

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