Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American Southby Bruce Adelson
While Jackie Robinson is justly famous for breaking the color line in major league baseball in 1947, other young African American players, among them Hank Aaron, continued to struggle for acceptance on southern farm teams well into the 1960s. As Bruce Adelson writes, their presence in the South Atlantic, Carolina, and other minor leagues represented not only a
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While Jackie Robinson is justly famous for breaking the color line in major league baseball in 1947, other young African American players, among them Hank Aaron, continued to struggle for acceptance on southern farm teams well into the 1960s. As Bruce Adelson writes, their presence in the South Atlantic, Carolina, and other minor leagues represented not only a quest for individual athletic achievement; simply by hitting, fielding, and signing autographs alongside their white teammates, African-American ballplayers helped to end segregation in the Jim Crow South.
In writing this book, Adelson interviewed dozens of athletes, managers, and sportswriters who witnessed this important but largely unrecognized front in the ongoing civil rights movement. When nineteen-year-old Percy Miller took the field for the Danville (Virginia) Leafs in 1951, his presence on the roster was not the result of altruism: the team's white owners saw attendance flagging and recognized the need for more African-American fans. Two years later, Hank Aaron and his two black teammates for the Milwaukee Braves' Jacksonville (Florida) farm team were regularly greeted by racial invective, even bottles and stones, on the road. And Ed Charles endured nine years of discrimination in the southern minor leagues before breaking into the majors and finally winning the World Series with the Mets in 1969.
Slowly, through the vehicle of baseball, these African Americans shattered Jim Crow restrictions and met the backlash against Brown v. Board of Education while simultaneously challenging long-held perceptions of racial inadequacy by performing on the field. Brushing Back Jim Crow weaves their firsthand accounts into a narrative that spans the long season of racism in the United States, gripping fans of history and baseball as surely as a pennant or a home runrace.
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Color Lines Start
to Fall: 1951
I think it is all right to play Negroes. I played with them in professional football and once the game is underway you don't realize that you have them on the team--Just another ball player as far as I am concerned.
--ACE PARKER, MANAGER, DURHAM (N.C.) BULLS, 1951
Nineteen fifty-one marked the first time minor-league color barriers in Texas (J. W. Wingate), Tennessee (Bob Bowman), and Virginia and North Carolina (Percy Miller) collapsed. The achievements of these men began the slow process of southern baseball integration. However, their organized-baseball tenures were quite brief, ranging from a handful of games to three weeks. In the early days of integration, teams had difficulty locating players with sufficient experience to last beyond more than the briefest time in organized baseball. Some teams were also clearly more interested in the African American ballplayer for his novelty, his entertainment value, and his ability to attract fans to the ballpark than in his baseball skills. Nevertheless, these men played a crucial role in baseball integration. Their presence, however brief, opened the door, setting the stage for the large influx of players to come.
J. W. Wingate's experience illustrates what African American ballplayers faced in the early days of minor-league integration. Before spring training began, the Lamesa (Tex.) Lobos of the Class C West Texas -- New Mexico League announced plans to integrate their circuit. Owner Cy Fausett committed himself to finding a nonwhite athlete capable of playing at the Class C level and enduring the expected adverse reaction of those resistant to integration. Lobos manager Jay Haney, whose previous opposition to employing African Americans evaporated after he had the chance to play baseball and associate with minority teammates while in the armed forces, actively sought out qualified ballplayers locally and as far away as California. Eventually, Wingate and Connie Heard were invited to join the Lobos for a tryout.
However, a few weeks after practice began, Haney announced the players' release, noting that they "fell short of the rigid standards he had set for the first Negro players in Organized Ball in Texas only on ability." Wingate, the more promising athlete of the two, was the victim of a numbers crunch as Lamesa prepared to open the 1951 season: He was the seventeenth player on a team with only sixteen roster slots.
But just as Wingate prepared to join an all-black team in Tennessee, Haney called him back, adding him to the Lobos' squad. Once he began to play, Wingate's performance quickly dissipated some of the racially motivated criticism of his signing. Hitting safely in his first six games and collecting three doubles, Wingate silenced those who doubted his ability to play professional baseball for an all-white team.
Unfortunately, this success was short-lived as Wingate's performance quickly fell off. His slump eventually prompted Lamesa to release the twenty-three-year-old shortstop before the end of May. Although he batted a respectable .250 for the Lobos, Wingate (who left Lamesa to play for the Negro American League's Kansas City Monarchs) did not instantly manifest the star qualities expected of African American ballplayers who crossed southern minor-league color lines. Many believed, with some justification, that white fans, already discomfited by the prospect of watching blacks and whites playing interracial baseball, would have their angst salved only by the opportunity to watch the best African American athletes available, making the act of purchasing tickets to integrated games easier to swallow. Countless black ballplayers in the 1950s faced this same reality. If they did not produce immediately, they would find themselves released from the team or banished to the end of the team's bench. As Lamesa and other franchises discovered, employing African American ballplayers with staying power would be more difficult than baseball executives first anticipated.
As baseball took its first tentative steps toward integration, the rest of the South was also approaching an important intersection. Jim Crow remained firmly rooted throughout Dixie. Communities maintained the status quo of separate-but-unequal facilities for whites and blacks. Racially motivated violence occurred in different locations. Crosses were burned in Goochland County, Virginia, in front of the homes of three African American business owners. Two soldiers were arrested in Macon, Georgia, for objecting to being called "niggers" by a white bus driver.
Despite such incidents, plans for effecting drastic change were afoot. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and like-minded groups and individuals pursued a strategy of attacking segregation in the federal courts. Lawsuits pushing the integration of interstate transportation and graduate education had already won favorable rulings and prompted a wave of similar constitutional challenges to the southern way of life. In cases where lower federal courts or state courts ratified Jim Crow restrictions, most of the decisions were immediately appealed to the United States Supreme Court in the hope that the high court would eventually right the wrongs of Jim Crow.
In a ruling by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in June, Judges Timmerman and Parker opined that the school segregation law before them was valid, resulting in their upholding segregation in a South Carolina school district. Their decision was quickly appealed to the Supreme Court. Although this lawsuit did not garner nationwide attention at the time, just three years later it would. As part of a consolidated appeal that also involved the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education, the decision of Judges Timmerman and Parker was overturned by the high court in what would become known as Brown v. Board of Education, the monumental decision that rocked the South by declaring segregated schools to be unconstitutional.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala.--A campaign to focus national attention on racial violence in Birmingham was launched this week by the Birmingham branch of the NAACP following the May deliberate burnings of two Negro homes [in an area once zoned as white-only] in this city's nine unsolved racial bombings ... Four days before last Christmas, less than 48 hours after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking down Birmingham's racial zoning laws, the home of Monroe Monk was bombed.--Norfolk Journal and Guide
CINCINNATI--FBI agents and Cincinnati police still are trying to track down the letter writers who threatened to kill [Jackie Robinson]. Scores of federal and city officials were assigned to Sunday's Brooklyn-Cincinnati doubleheader in response to two letters which said Robinson would be killed while he was playing. Robinson dismissed the threat on his life. [He] proceeded to drive in four runs in the first game ... and went one for two in the second game.--Norfolk Journal and Guide
GREENSBORO, N.C.--Applications by five Negroes for admittance to University of North Carolina graduate schools have spurred the university trustees to prevent an influx of Negro graduate students. The trustees have approved the formation of a special committee to map plans for expansion of the North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham. Enlarging the graduate school at the all-Negro college would make fewer Negroes eligible for graduate work at U.N.C.--Norfolk Journal and Guide
Discrimination at Friendship International Airport [Baltimore] will be put to a legal test by attorneys Donald G. Murray and Mrs. Juanita J. Mitchell who are representing several citizens who have been refused service in the airport's restaurant and other facilities. --Baltimore Afro-American
Another frontier was crossed in Organized Baseball last week with the signing of the game's first colored umpire. He is Emmett Ashford, 35, a postal worker who has 15 years of softball umpiring behind him. Ashford was signed for work in the Class C Southwest International League. The league president, Les Powers, in announcing the move, stated emphatically that it was not an attempt to exploit Ashford. "This experiment," President Powers asserted, "is not based on anything pertaining to race. Ashford will be given a permanent job if his work merits it ..." Powers told reporters five cities had already requested Ashford's services. He declined to identify them but did say that the umpire would not be assigned in El Paso, the only team located in what is generally known as the "deep South." Said Powers, "I think he should be given a chance to prove himself before being sent there."--Baltimore Afro-American
After a lengthy apprenticeship, Ashford made it to the major leagues in 1966, becoming the first African American umpire in big-league history. He served as an American League arbiter for five seasons, until 1970.
In August of 1951, Percy Miller Jr. stepped uncomfortably into the role of racial trailblazer when his hometown Danville Leafs signed him as the Carolina League's first black ballplayer. He did not think of himself as a pioneer. He just wanted to make his father happy by playing ball.
Miller was only nineteen and barely out of high school, but he seemed to be a perfect candidate to break barriers in the Carolina League. He had enjoyed excellent baseball training from his father. Miller had been a sports star at John B. Langston High, Danville's all-black school, serving as captain on its football and basketball teams and as a starter for its baseball squad. He was named All-State in basketball and was one of the heroes of an undefeated football team. He had two scholarship offers waiting for him more than a year before his graduation in the spring of 1951.
Miller also had experience in interracial competition. Prior to signing with the Leafs that summer, Miller batted .375 for the Danville All-Stars, a local black semiprofessional team that featured three white players. As a youngster, he had played baseball and other games with white friends in Danville. Often, they would play in a pasture outside of town that was surrounded with plum trees. After a long game on steamy summer days, they would clamber up those trees, then pick and eat the juicy fruit in the leafy shade. Billy Miles's father was a doctor. Nate Colsby, I think his family was in real estate. After we'd stop playing ball in the fields, I'd go home with Billy, and we'd play Ping-Pong, shoot pool, because he had everything in his basement. Once I was waiting tables at the golf course, and Billy was there for a tuxedo affair. He tried to get me to sit down with him. That's how close we were.
When I was coming up, thirteen, fourteen years old, I could do it all, pitch, catch, play any position. My father used to tease me about not hitting many home runs. I hit one, one day, that hit the top of a brick wall and bounced back. He said, "See, if you'd have put a little ummph under it, it would have went over." He used to say that all the time. He was saying that to keep my drive, keep me interested.
I was the batboy for the local sandlot team when my father was the manager. I was always begging them to let me play. They always said I wasn't good enough. But I finally got to play. When I was fifteen, we were playing a team from Florida, the Jacksonville Eagles, that was barnstorming all over, and I was playing right field. Every time a fly ball was hit to my father in center field, he'd yell, "Come on, Junior!" During the game one time, my father was on second base and the score was 1-1. The older players asked him, "Is Junior going to hit?" He said, "We win with him or we lose with him." Then I doubled off the wall, and we beat them. The manager of the Eagles came up to me and said, "I'm going to take you with me." I said, "My father won't let me go." He said, "When I talk to him, he'll let you go." He told my father, "If you let this kid go with me, I'll make a heck of a ballplayer out of him. You won't have to worry about him. When I eat, he'll eat. When I sleep, he'll sleep. From the first to the fifteenth, I'll give him some money." He talked to my mother about it. She didn't want me to go. She thought I was too young. My father said, "Go pack your clothes. I'll straighten it out with her after you're gone." I was sitting down on the curb on Patton Street, waiting for the team bus to leave at twelve o'clock that night. The rest of the players were inside, playing cards or whatever. I didn't play no cards, so I was just sitting on the curb, waiting until the time to go. The police came by and said, "What are you doing sitting here?" I said, "I'm a ballplayer and I'm going to Florida." He said, "You're a ballplayer? What's your father's name?" I said, "Percy Miller." They knew my father, and they called him. He told them I was waiting on the team bus to go to Florida. That's how I got my start in baseball. I played the whole season with Jacksonville. That was `50.
When I got home, I played with a local black team in Danville. We would travel around to Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Reidsville. They used to pay in those days 60-40, 60 percent of the gate if you win, 40 percent if you lose. Sometimes, you'd do pretty good.
They had a man here named Jim Peters who'd built his own ballpark. My father used to book a lot of games with him. They were very close. There used to be a guy here, Walt Miles, who ran the local paper, the Commercial Appeal. He contacted Mr. Peters and discussed the fact that they wanted to get some colored ballplayers to play for the Leafs. He asked for a recommendation, who he thought would be the best player. Mr. Peters told him I was.
My father told me about it. I told him I couldn't do it. I said, "I'm supposed to be at spring football practice at West Virginia State College on the fifteenth of August." He was upset. He came back again the next day with a contract. I wanted to go to college. I played baseball, basketball, and football in high school. There weren't any specialists neither. You played offense and defense. But my father didn't want me to go.
He was a small guy, only about 150 pounds, but he could hit a ball a ton. He never saw me play football until one Saturday morning when people walking by his job would say, "Did you see in the paper what your son did?" I got knocked out in a game where he saw me play. They were giving me smelling salts, and he came down and told me, "You've got to be the dumbest son of a gun I know." He didn't like football. He wanted me to play baseball. He never got the chance to play pro baseball. He told me what a great opportunity playing for the Leafs was. He just broke down and cried. So I signed.
I wasn't aware I was going to be the first black ballplayer in the Carolina League. After I found out, I felt pretty lucky. I knew I was going to be a ballplayer someday for somebody. Playing in my hometown was an extra-special treat. My father had gotten me prepared for playing with whites. Believe it or not, we used to play mixed football in the afternoon against the white boys over at G. W. High School. We'd play pickup games, with six or seven guys we'd go over there and play them. This wasn't something that wasn't done. It was just something that wasn't publicized.
Not surprisingly, reaction to Miller's signing was not uniformly favorable. In 1950, segregation was firmly entrenched in Virginia's laws and customs. Rumors of boycotts against the team in other cities surfaced before Miller played his first game. But whatever potential problems existed, they were resolved, and Miller joined the Leafs and accompanied his teammates for Danville's remaining away games that August. After Miller's signing, several white fans protested the integration of local minor-league baseball, informing the Leafs that they would not attend any games while Miller was on Danville's roster. Team officials reported more favorable reactions from local residents than negative ones, although the local newspaper recorded a number of adverse "man on the street" comments.
The Danville Bee polled Miller's teammates and pronounced reaction as "mixed--but generally favorable. No player spoke out against the Negro in interviews. Several polished off questions with a `no comment' answer. The observation of Danville's Roy Peterson was typical, `I never played with a Negro before but as far as I feel now I see nothing wrong with it, especially if this boy Miller can help us win ball games.'"
Although he took amateur interracial athletic competitions in stride as having no overwhelming importance, Miller's boyhood and adolescent experiences in this regard did not prepare him for the racial difficulties he encountered in the three weeks he spent on baseball diamonds in Danville, Winston-Salem, and Raleigh, North Carolina.
Miller played his first game in Danville on 10 August before 1,763 fans, of whom 300 to 600 were estimated to be African American, filling half of the segregated bleacher seats near third base. Before 10 August, the Leafs had attracted approximately 50 black patrons per home game. The nineteen-year-old Miller did not disappoint the hometown African American fans, who gave him rousing receptions--often accompanied by white patrons--seemingly each time he appeared from the dugout. He drove in Danville's first two runs with a fourth-inning single.
James Slade, Miller's high school baseball coach and a lifelong Danville resident, recalls his protege's barrier-shattering debut:
I was one of the most enthused and excited of anyone other than his daddy. I was thrilled. He was my product. I had to be selfish. I knew he had the talent. It made me proud.
The first game he played, they gave him an old uniform so big it would have fit Shaquille O'Neal. I saw him get his first hit. From third base to left field, there was a rope. Blacks sat past third base to as far as the stands would go. The rest of the ballpark was white. The bathrooms were segregated. If you had to go, you had to go out of the ballpark. Blacks in the city really responded to him. They also knew he wasn't getting a fair shot. Everyplace that he would go, they'd segregate him from the team. The local whites accepted him on the field. But when the game was over, he went right back to the way it was. Don't forget that Danville was the last capital of the Confederacy.
Some hometown fans booed or made nasty remarks as Miller walked by the grandstand. But Miller never remembered it "getting out of hand," and he kept quiet rather than say something that might lead to a confrontation. He thought that was the best way to fight prejudice.
When I got to the ballpark for the first game, I couldn't change in the clubhouse. I had to change clothes at home or in my car. I'd drive to the ballpark in my uniform. Sometimes, I changed in the hallway outside the clubhouse. The uniform they first gave me was too big. It was like a 48, but I had a 31 waist. It was all they had for me.
The most outstanding thing that summer was when it got so the players would play catch with me. At first, they'd be throwing the ball to each other, and I'd be standing on the side. I started rolling the ball up on the wire behind home plate and catching it when it came off. Then one day, they said, "Get a bat. We'll play some pepper." I grabbed the bat and started to pepper them. I was good at that. I hit it to each individual. After that, they seemed to warm up to me. But I only felt accepted by a few. When you're on a team and you're brushing shoulders with another fella and he doesn't speak to you, it's kind of odd. There were a few guys who said a little, to let me know they were friendly. They would say, "Don't worry, kid. Hang in there. You'll get 'em next time," if I hit a fly ball.
The night that I made my first appearance with the Leafs, they had roped off a section of the ballpark for black people. There must have been two hundred black people on that side. There's a story that I always tell. We had a pitcher named Al Ronay. He was sitting beside me in the dugout. One of our batters fouled a ball off into the black section. The fans went scrambling for the ball. He hit me on the leg and started laughing. He said, "Boy, look at them niggers scramble." He looked right in my face. I got up, stretched. I was going to get some water. I came back and sat down. He wouldn't look at me. But that changed matters, too. Somebody else that had said nothing to me spoke. He was the first player on the team to talk to me. He was used to only playing with whites, but now he treated me like one of the other players. Nobody came up to me and said I wasn't welcome. But ignoring people is sometimes worse than words.
Before the game, my father told me, "They're going to throw you fastballs. Just be ready. If the first pitch gets in there, you hit it." That's what I did. I drove in two runs. The black fans went wild. People were calling my house all night. They said, "Congratulations! We don't want to hold you up because it's getting late, but we're just glad to see it [a black player in the Carolina League] finally happened." That made me feel good.
My father was proud of me. One thing that stands out in my mind was when we went to Raleigh. Everybody was getting off the bus at the Sir Waiter Raleigh Hotel. They were just running right in. I was going to run in, too. My manager grabbed me by the arm and said, "Wait a minute. Go to this address. There's a cab waiting for you right there." He gave me eight dollars and an address. I had no idea where I would be going, and I had no idea it was going to take place. That was a shock to me. If they had told me before we left Danville, I would have been more prepared.
At the ballpark in Raleigh, Joe Medwick [former member of the St. Louis Cardinals and future Baseball Hall of Famer] was coaching, and he was playing the outfield. During the game, he ran by me, smiled, and said, "Keep plugging away. You'll be all right." I thought that was pretty nice. Raleigh was okay to play in. People just went about their business.
It was a funny thing. I never got too many catcalls from the dugout. But there were a lot from the stands. They let you know how they felt. One guy looked like he was about forty years old. He said, "If my daddy were living, he'd run you off the field." I just looked at him. Winston-Salem was the worst place in that league. I came into one game there as a pinch hitter. They really booed me. I tried to think I was in my own backyard in Danville. I thought, "If I could take it there, I could take it here."
By 16 August, Miller found himself in such a deep slump that the Leafs left him in Danville for two days of intensive batting and fielding practice when they left on a road trip. Although his on-field performance improved after returning to the lineup, Miller continued to struggle intermittently with Carolina League baseball.
By 3 September, he completed what would turn out to be his only organized-baseball campaign, batting .184 over nineteen games and thirty-nine at-bats. Five months later, the Leafs released Miller, announcing that he "is not ready for Class B ball."
The Leafs released me after the season, and I went back to the Jacksonville Eagles. The Pittsburgh Pirates wanted to sign me as a bonus player. But the Eagles wanted $25,000 for me, so the Pirates didn't take me. Then I got a phone call that I got drafted into the service. They put me into a group learning how to shoot the M 1 rifle to go to Korea. One of the guys got me and said the CO wanted to see me. He said, "I saw a black fella named Miller playing in the Carolina League in Raleigh. Could that have been you?" I said, "Yes, sir." He gave me a shot to make the team there, and I did. I made the team. That's where I got hurt. I busted my knee in the service. That ended my playing career.
I don't like to be referred to as Jackie Robinson because I consider him the greatest. I'm not in his class. But I feel pretty good about what I did. When a guy said something derogatory toward me, I just looked at him. If I would have said something, it would have been blown out of proportion. As long as you don't say anything, nothing happens, even though you have to take something you don't appreciate taking. I think what I did may have put something in people's heads in Danville about being together.
Percy Miller, the first African American to play interracial organized baseball in Virginia and North Carolina and the first to play in more than a handful of games for a southern minor-league team outside of Texas, was a trailblazer. Although he never returned to the Leafs, his three weeks in the Carolina League nevertheless helped set the stage for other African American ballplayers to follow his lead with teams throughout the South over the next several years.
In 1997, forty-six years after his debut with Danville, Percy Miller's role in integrating southern minor-league baseball was recognized by the Carolina League, which honored him at the Carolina League-California League All-Star game in Durham, North Carolina. To a standing ovation, Percy Miller Jr. took the field in the Carolina League again to throw out the game's ceremonial first pitch.
What People are saying about this
"The integration of the minor leagues is of great historical significance, not just for the history of baseball but for the history of race relations in the American South. Adelson knows these teams and their players, and he places his material, much of it new, in the context of other events taking place in the region, thereby capturing the dynamics and politics of the controversy. This is a valuable addition to the current literature not only for baseball fans but for anyone interested in American history." -- Jules Tygiel, author of Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy
The integration of the minor leagues is of great historical significance, not just for the history of baseball but for the history of race relations in the American South. Adelson knows these teams and their players, and he places his material, much of it new, in the context of other events taking place in the region, thereby capturing the dynamics and politics of the controversy. This is a valuable addition to the current literature not only for baseball fans but for anyone interested in American history.
Meet the Author
Bruce Adelson is author, with Rod Beaton, of The Minor League Baseball Book and of four children's sports books. A past commentator for NPR, he has written about baseball for the Washington Post, USA Today's Baseball Weekly, Sport Magazine, and Baseball America.
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