Jackie Robinson said these words to Nat Peeples in the spring of 1954. Consider: Jackie Robinson -- the man who broke baseball's color barrier; the man whose face graced a postage stamp and whose name ranked among a century's most important; the man whose legacy has been recounted countlessly, thoroughly, and still recently -- this man, Jackie Robinson, the man we honor today, told another man, Nat Peeples, that the other man's job was tougher.
Surely, the question is begged: who was Nat Peeples? Just like Robinson, Peeples was a baseball player. Just like Robinson, Peeples was a veteran of the Negro Leagues. Just like Robinson, Peeples played about a decade in Organized Baseball. Just like Robinson, Peeples broke a color barrier (if only briefly). Yet, unlike Robinson, Peeples would be little more or less than an historical footnote, half-a-century later, were it not for books like Bruce Adelson's Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South (University of Virginia Press, 275 pp.), a brilliantly important work focusing on the men who toiled, sacrificed, and collectively triumphed in making the National Pastime truly national.
This story is Nat Peeples's, just as it is the story of dozens of men who integrated the various Southern minor leagues in the 1950s and 1960s. Peeples's story is but one of many in Adelson's work, but it is perhaps the most poignant. In 1954, Peeples was a 27 year-old outfielder who had spent the previous three seasons in the Brooklyn and Milwaukee systems. Milwaukee's affiliate in the Double-A Southern Association, the Atlanta Crackers, was owned by an individual named Earl Mann, who had experienced financial success when Robinson and the Dodgers played exhibition ball in Atlanta five years earlier. By the winter of 1953-54, Mann wanted a black player on his team.
In the coming decade, Atlanta would distinguish itself among its regional peers -- and subsequently become a major league city, the South's first -- for its eventual willingness to see the wisdom and opportunity inherent in integrated sports teams, but Mann was ahead of his time. The Crackers were a member of the Southern Association, and that league was -- and, as we shall soon see, would remain -- a particularly tough nut to crack. A quick perusal of the Association's entries (Birmingham, Memphis, Little Rock, New Orleans) confirms as much. The Dodgers had a farm team in the Association, the Mobile Bears; the Dodgers had no interest in placing black players on that roster.
Mann selected Peeples among the eight black (African-American or dark-skinned Latin-American) players employed by affiliates of the Braves, and he mailed Peeples a contract for the Atlanta club. Peeples returned the contract without signing it, and a week later Peeples received the document a second time. Peeples decided to call Milwaukee and speak with the general manager. He confirmed Peeples was assigned to Atlanta. Peeples then phoned Mann. Adelson quotes Peeples's account of the conversation:
I was sick about it because back in 1954, I didn't know how it all was going to work out. I played through the South when I was with the [Negro League] Kansas City Monarchs. I knew what those towns were like. Earl Mann said, "Well, come to spring training, and we'll see what happens." And that's what I did.
Adelson relates that the Milwaukee Braves also wanted to give Peeples a try in Atlanta. Their Class-A affiliate in the South Atlantic (or "Sally") League, Jacksonville, had integrated the year before. For the most part, the effort -- while obviously met with hateful, unconscionable resistance by many -- established a foothold. Jacksonsville's best player was a man named Henry Aaron; it was said he "led the league in everything except hotel accommodations." But not every black player in the Braves' system was so gifted, and even back then, when player development practices were more fluid than today, teams were concerned about the orderly progression of player development. Adelson notes the Braves were cognizant of the risks of letting a player languish in a lower level or of skipping a player to Triple-A or the majors too soon.
During the exhibition season, Peeples was a star on the field and at the gate. According to Adelson, Peeples hit .348 with six home runs; during a two-game series against the big club from Milwaukee (with African-Americans accounting for about thirty percent of the 7,000 or so fans in attendance) Peeples received a boisterous ovation, more enthusiatic than the reception for the Milwaukee's black players -- including Aaron, then a rookie -- and second only to Eddie Mathews, a former Cracker. The Atlanta Daily World wrote:
In a way, Peeples was a Southern Association trailblazer, though almost entirely in an academic sense. For whatever reason, he failed to make the Opening Day starting lineup. He went hitless in four at-bats and was demoted to Jacksonville, never playing an inning in the field in the Southern Association. Adelson makes a compelling case that the stated reason for Peeples's demotion, the need to season the outfielder a bit more (Peeples had jumped from Class-B ball to Atlanta), even if logical, was more or less pretense. Mann would later admit Southern Association officials pressured him and the Braves organization to move Peeples before a confrontation occurred.
Peeples would confirm this interpretation of his demotion in an interview with Adelson; he recalled his conversation with Mann accordingly:
Mr. Mann had told me he had called all of the towns in the Southern Association. Mobile said they'd play whoever we brought there. He said Birmingham and Memphis were the only towns that said I couldn't play. That really was bad, especially since I was born in Memphis. I couldn't understand it at first. But at that time, I said, "Well, this has never been tried before. No black has ever tried to play in the Southern Association."
Technically speaking, none would ever try again. As the decade continued, civic leaders in Southern Association cities would enact measures, such as park ordinances, designed at resisting developing federal caselaw that threatened to erode the Jim Crow system. The league's members suffered economically in the wake of this obstinance. Other Southern leagues slowly but surely integrated, but the Southern Association will forever stand as the hold out. Its members collapsing under their own weight, the Southern Association disbanded in 1962. The Atlanta Crackers jumped to the more progressive International League and, a few years later, to the National League.
The Southern Association reconstituted in 1964, picking up some old Sally League teams and resuscitating some of the old Southern Association teams. Birmingham was one, and the city was months removed from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing (in which four African-American girls perished) and the terrorizing violence that resulted from that unspeakable act. Birmingham returned to the minor leagues with four non-white players, including future all-star Bert Campaneris. Seventeen years after Jackie Robinson broke the big league color barrier, the Southern minors were fully integrated.
Seventeen years. Needless to say, seventeen years is a long time. Seventeen years ago, something named the Soviet Union existed (if tenuously). Seventeen years ago, the Greatest Generation, now passing away by the thousands per day, was in its early or mid-sixties, still quite active and perhaps not even retired. Seventeen years ago, I could not drive. Seventeen years ago, Ryan Zimmerman was in kindergarten. Seventeen years -- nearly a generation.
* * * *
Adelson presents many stories similar to that of Nat Peeples's story -- similar but yet different in distinctive ways. And herein resides the genius of Adelson's work: Nat Peeples and countless other Southern black minor league pioneers speak in this book, and speak at length. In a sense, Adelson's narrative is but an annotation of excerpts of interviews with these gentlemen -- starting with Percy Miller, the first black player in Carolina League history with the Danville (Va.) Leafs in 1951, the year in which black players initially integrated three Southern minor leagues -- and selected excerpts from newspapers at the time, including a wide variety of black newspapers. Adelson obviously spent his forty days in the historian's desert and withstood temptation; he lets the subjects speak for themselves without unwarranted confusion, amplification, or perversion of their words. Adelson lets these men speak; by God, they have well-earned and deserve that dignity.
To the extent Adelson adds a gloss to his narrative, he does so in a reasonable sense, contextualizing the broader story of these minor league pioneers in the political, legal, and societal climate of the times. For this reason, while Adelson arranges the book chronologically from 1951 until about 1970, he dwels most significantly on 1953. That year constitutes a clear plurality of the book's narrative. The decision is sensible and appropriate; for, that year, the future of minor league integration was, in Adelson's words, "held in abeyance."
Nearly sixteen months transpired between the initial argument and the issuance of the opinion in Brown v. Board of Education This case -- so watershed in the public consciousness that it requires no explanation -- was argued in December 1952. It was reargued in December 1953. In the meantime, a baseball season transpired. (Actually, one full season and a month of a second transpired; the opinion issued on May 17, 1954.) Because it was held over for a term, the case inspired an enhanced sense of anticipation and anxiety. Within this climate, black players played in the South. Some of them were black, Adelson makes clear. A very few, and many of them were lonely, abused, and made to be humiliated.
Some leagues were more welcoming to black players than others. The Piedmont League integrated in 1953, Adelson notes, and the members that did integrate did so with multiple black players. Twenty-five percent of York's roster was black; this was a new team to the league, and Adelson hints the club motivated some of the other teams to imitate. Portsmouth, Newport News, and Richmond also integrated. These teams gave the Piedmont "the largest contingent of African American players to start a color line," Adelson notes. Four teams did not integrate: Hagerstown, Lynchburg, Roanoke, and Norfolk. The first of these clubs was unaffiliated, but the other three were owned by the Cardinals, the Red Sox, and the Yankees, respectively -- and those teams had no black players at the big league level to that point. (The Red Sox would not integrate until 1959.)
Adelson's segment on the Piedmont League drives home a point he makes elsewhere: Brushing Back Jim Crow is not only about the pioneering players, but the black fanbases in these slowly integrating cities. It is interesting to note minor league integration largely outpaced general societal integration; Richmond, for instance, was not lunchcounter-integrated, so to speak, for another five years after its hometown club integrated. Obviously, baseball's slow but tangible progress altered societal dynamics -- though just as obviously, the dynamics change at different rates from city to city. Perhaps the most striking distinctions are found in what is now called the Hampton Roads area. It is reasonable to suspect attitudes might differ greatly between that region and, say, Roanoke (whose team disbanded in July of 1953), but the difference in fan treatment in Newport News and Norfolk was stark. In the former, the grandstand had been integrated as early as 1948, and the overflow crowd at the 1953 league all-star game eliminated any segregation at all without incident; in the latter, blacks were forced to wait at an out-of-the-way, often-unattended Jim Crow gate, and on many occasions they would not be admitted until the middle innings. However, this treatment would not continue, owing to a theme Adelson progressively develops: the growing collective economic power African-American citizens possessed. They boycotted the Tars, and the effect was profound. As the Southern Association clubs eventually realized (too late, as it were), Norfolk's new ownership for the 1954 season needed African-American presence at the gate -- and the Jim Crow gate would not do. The owners changed course, integrating the team, hiring an African-American head trainer, offering the black community discounted tickets, opening the main grandstand to all patrons, and eliminating the separate (and certainly not equal) Jim Crow entrance gate. Armed with the league's largest market, the new owners saw their team lead the circuit in attendance and celebrated a league title.
And such it was, a microcosm for change.
Which is not to overstate the point. This was a horrid time in our nation's history, and Adelson does not sugar-coat the abuse these players received or the bloodshed that flowed outside the ballparks. I have heard it said on television -- heard it a hundred times if I've heard it ten -- that we "cannot forget." Adelson's work assists us in this mission. May I never forget who Nat Peeples, Percy Miller, and countless others profiled in Brushing Back Jim Crow were and what they did. I recommend you read this book; quite deliberately, I have focused only on a small percentage of the material and memories therein.
* * * *
I stuttered as a young child. When I was three and four years old, my mother enrolled me in speech therapy. She wanted only the best program for me, and the best was located in downtown Richmond. We lived in a suburb, and we generally had no occasion to venture downtown. Loving and smart mother she is, my mom made speech therapy an adventure of our own. I was very young at the time, of course, but for some reason I have an excellent memory; I remember the frustration of not being able to express myself clearly, even at that young age. It was my first encounter with humiliation, and it stung. She took the sting out. She made speech therapy fun.
On the mornings of my appointments, she would drive us to the bus stop in south Richmond. I remember the office building outside the stop so vividly from my childhood memories, and it looks the same today. I pass by it sometimes on the way to work. We would take the bus downtown, and I remember the excitement every time we boarded. It was thrilling in the sense a little kid finds the most routine things in life so thrilling. How I miss that sense!
I still remember scanning the other people on board, and the differences were so stimulating: little old grannies, the last generation to shop downtown at the institutional department stores Thalheimers and Miller & Rhoads; men in suits headed to work; burly men in overalls, no doubt construction workers during the high-rise boom of the late 70s and early 80s; and kids -- black kids or white kids -- riding downtown to go to college classes at VCU. Upon reflection, it was the first time I realized there were people in this world outside of my family and my immediate surroundings, and these people were different than my mom and me in varying ways and degrees.
It never occurred to these people -- black and white -- could be formally separated on something as thrilling as a bus. But, twenty years earlier, they were. When my mom would take me to lunch afterwards and order me one of those little silver dollar hamburgers, it never occurred to me that I was sitting at a lunchcounter previously designated or prohibited to be occupied by certain people. But I was. I reflect on these memories -- some of my first, and undoubtedly some of my best until the day I die -- and I am ever-so thankful I never personally witnessed segregation.
I am lucky in this sense, but from this luck derives a duty to know -- to know what it was like, to educate myself to a positive end. And then, even though I was not there to witness it, never to forget what it was like. I cannot forget. I can't forget the individuals who -- standing on Jackie Robinson's firm shoulders -- made Willie Harris playing in my hometown seem like second-nature.