Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race

Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race

by Larry Colton


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"Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings in Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail


Anybody who is familiar with the Civil Rights movement knows that 1964 was a pivotal year. And in Birmingham, Alabama - perhaps the epicenter of racial conflict - the Barons amazingly started their season with an integrated team.

Johnny "Blue Moon" Odom, a talented pitcher and Tommie Reynolds, an outfielder - both young black ballplayers with dreams of playing someday in the big leagues, along with Bert Campaneris, a dark-skinned shortstop from Cuba, all found themselves in this simmering cauldron of a minor league town, all playing for Heywood Sullivan, a white former major leaguer who grew up just down the road in Dothan, Alabama.

Colton traces the entire season, writing about the extraordinary relationships among these players with Sullivan, and Colton tells their story by capturing the essence of Birmingham and its citizens during this tumultuous year. (The infamous Bull Connor, for example, when not ordering blacks to be blasted by powerful water hoses, is a fervent follower of the Barons and served as a long-time broadcaster of their games.)

By all accounts, the racial jeers and taunts that rained down upon these Birmingham players were much worse than anything that Jackie Robinson ever endured.

More than a story about baseball, this is a true accounting of life in a different time and clearly a different place. Seventeen years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in the major leagues, Birmingham was exploding in race riots....and now, they were going to have their very first integrated sports team. This is a story that has never been told.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781455511884
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 05/14/2013
Pages: 321
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Larry Colton is the author of several notable works, including COUNTING COUP, GOAT BROTHERS, and NO ORDINARY JOES.. He has written for Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times Magazine. A former pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, Colton himself played in the Southern League in 1966 for a farm team in Macon, GA.

Read an Excerpt

Southern League

A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race

By Larry Colton

Grand Central Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Larry Colton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4555-1188-4


Tommie Reynolds

Asleep at the Wheel

Tommie Reynolds, twenty-two, felt his eyes getting heavy. It was February 1964, and as he drove east along the Gulf Coast on his way to spring training, he yawned, trying to keep alert.

This was the start of Reynolds's second year in pro ball, and he was on the fast track to the big leagues. In his first year at Burlington in the Class A Midwest League, he led the league in batting average (.332) and home runs (27), and was so impressive that he'd gotten called up to Kansas City for the last month of the season, a rare feat for a player from A ball. And now he was heading to the big-league training camp in Bradenton, Florida. Pretty heady stuff, especially for a guy the scouts had ignored when he played outfield at Lincoln High in baseball-rich San Diego.

Spotting a Holiday Inn sign, he didn't even think about stopping. This was 1964, and motels across America weren't an option for blacks, certainly not in the Deep South. Having slept in his car for three nights, he was a bit discombobulated.

Ahead, he eyed a highway sign announcing a rest stop in five miles.

Even though he'd grown up in the relative racial calm of San Diego, Reynolds understood the reality of America's racial divide. His parents were from Louisiana and had shared stories of the Jim Crow way of life where they'd grown up. In his early years, he'd lived in the projects of San Diego, and although he didn't have to drink out of separate drinking fountains, the city's rigid redlining had kept neighborhoods segregated. And during his two years in the army, either at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri or at the base in Augsburg, Germany, he knew that certain places were off-limits to blacks, and that many of his white comrades dismissed him simply because of the color of his skin.

Nearing the rest stop, he felt his head nod forward, and then jerk back, snapping him back to the task at hand. Ending up in a ditch would be a lousy outcome for many reasons, including the damage it would surely do to his new '64 Chevy Malibu Super Sport, with its wire rims, aqua-green custom paint job, and front-seat console. It was his first car.

To his dismay, the rest area was closed for construction. But it was late at night and he was dead tired. To keep going would be foolish, so after surveying the scene and figuring it was safe, he steered his Super Sport off to the side of the construction site, turned off the engine, and leaned back his seat. He checked to make sure his .45-caliber service revolver was within easy reach beneath his seat, and then fell fast asleep.

The Early Years

Born in Louisiana in 1941, Tommie Reynolds migrated to San Diego with his family when he was one. The third of seven siblings, he first lived with his family in Frontier Housing, a government project for defense workers in the low-income Midway area of San Diego, on the north end of Point Loma. His dad, J. D. Reynolds, had moved west in the hope of finding a good wartime job, joining thousands of other families lured from around the country by San Diego's military support industry (78 percent of income in the area was derived from defense spending). Mr. Reynolds landed a job working on the assembly line with Convair, helping build the B-36 strategic bombers. But with seven kids to feed, he also worked a second job, busing dishes at Oscar's, a popular drive-in restaurant. He had little time to play catch with his sons.

Beulah Reynolds was a housewife, staying home to take care of their seven kids, doing laundry and fixing meals. The family always ate dinner together, and she arose early every day to make them breakfast and pack lunches. A tough disciplinarian, she demanded that her kids buckle down in school. Tommie didn't dare sass a teacher or blow off his homework, and Mom wasn't shy about coming to school to check up on him. She was the one to take out the belt, with Dad stepping in only as a last resort. Her response to misbehavior was always the same: "God don't like ugly," she'd say.

Eventually, Mr. Reynolds quit his job at Convair to take a higher-paying job with the San Diego Sanitation Department as a garbage man. His goal was to move the family out of Frontier Housing.

When the Reynolds family moved west and away from Jim Crow in Louisiana, a friend had told them black people could live anyplace they wanted in California, as long as they had the money. But they quickly learned that wasn't true. Jim Crow was subtler in San Diego—there were no separate drinking fountains, no overt discrimination at lunch counters—but the explicit restrictions on real estate sales to blacks, practiced by banks and local Realtors and known as redlining, kept the city segregated. The fear was that the arrival of minorities would drive down property values. Once, north of San Diego, the Reynoldses passed a sign posted alongside Highway 395 just outside Escondido that read: STAY OUT NIGGERS. NO NEED TO STOP IN ESCONDIDO.

But slowly, as white families began a flight to the suburbs, black families started moving to southeast San Diego and into neighborhoods historically populated by white families. When Tommie was in junior high, his family purchased a home in Logan Heights. Built in the postwar boom of the late 1940s, the house was a modest, three-bedroom, one-bath California wood-frame with a patio, fenced backyard, and two-car garage, although the family had only one car, a big black Chrysler Imperial with the new push-button drive and fins almost as big as Escondido. The Reynoldses were one of the first black families to move onto their block. Tommie earned his fifty-cents-a-week allowance mowing the lawn. He never shirked his duty. Disobeying was not part of his character.

The Sound of Shattering Glass

The sound of breaking glass jarred Tommie from his sleep. Groggily, he looked around, and quickly saw that the passenger window of his Super Sport was shattered, shards of glass spread across the passenger seat as if somebody had taken a hammer and smashed it.

Tommie reached under his seat for his gun, and then straightened in his seat, looking around. He didn't see anyone. Without bothering to get out and investigate or clean the glass off the seat, he started the car and quickly drove away.

But thirty miles down the road, he was sleepy again. Maybe he was in Alabama now, maybe the Florida panhandle. He rolled down his window, trying to let the cool February air keep him alert. It was past midnight. If he could find another rest stop, he reckoned, he'd sleep until daylight and then drive all the way to Bradenton ... and big-league training camp. No more having to sleep in his car and worry about getting attacked.

He didn't hear the sound of gravel under his wheels as he started to drift off the highway.


Hoss Bowlin

Every Slide but One

It was the fourth day of the Kansas City A's minor-league spring training camp in Daytona Beach. Gathered around the sawdust pit, thirty players, all wearing baggy wool uniforms, waited restlessly for sliding instruction to begin. A few shielded their eyes from the relentless Florida sun; others dabbed at the zinc oxide they'd smeared on their noses and necks.

"Hoss, step up here," ordered Haywood Sullivan, the first-year manager of the Birmingham Barons. "You can help show how it's done."

Second baseman Weldon "Hoss" Bowlin stepped forward and smiled. At five foot seven, he was one of the shortest of the two hundred players in camp. This was the start of his sixth year in pro ball, none above A ball ... not exactly the express lane for making it to the big leagues. Standing next to the towering six-foot-four Sullivan, he felt dwarfed.

He liked it that Sullivan had called his name—a good sign. But more than that, he was thrilled just to be in spring training and to have a shot at making the Double A Barons. It had been only two months since that dreadful December day in Memphis when his oncologist told him he wasn't sure if the surgery had gotten all the cancer, and even if it had, baseball would be out of the question.

"Let's start with the hook slide to the right," said Sullivan, motioning Hoss toward the end of the runway leading to the pit.

Hoss took off running toward the pit, and when he got to a few feet in front of it he launched himself airborne, horizontal to the ground, his right leg extended, his left leg bent at the knee ... a textbook hook slide.

"Perfect," said Sullivan, patting him on the rump as Hoss hustled back to the head of the runway. "Now show 'em how to do it from the left side."

And Hoss did that one, too. And then he demonstrated the fadeaway, the pop-up, and the break-up-the-double-play slides.

"Okay, one more," said Sullivan, glancing at Hoss. "Let's show 'em the headfirst."

Hoss returned the glance, and shrugged his shoulders. "I think I better not try that one yet," he said.

"I understand," replied Sullivan. "No need to take any unnecessary chances."

A Bad Hop to the Testicles

Hoss had spent the previous season at Lewiston, Idaho, in the Northwest League, enjoying his best year. With a week to go, he was hitting .285, on his way to being named to the All-Star team, leading the league in doubles. But then he suffered every infielder's worst nightmare—a bad hop to the balls.

He limped off the field, but in the dugout he started turning green and throwing up. As a precaution, he sat out the final few games with ice bags on his groin, and then returned home to Paragould, Arkansas, with his wife, Madelyn, and their three-year-old son, Parrish. The pain subsided—the only time it bothered him was during orgasm—and when the A's invited him to the Florida Instructional League in Bradenton (two months of extended work for promising players), he jumped at the chance. It was decent money—$500 a month—and with Madelyn attending classes full-time at Arkansas State in Jonesboro to become a teacher, it was better pay than he'd made the previous off-season driving a milk truck for predawn deliveries to schools all over Green County. Instructional League was where he'd first met Sullivan, and when they first shook hands Hoss thought Sullivan had the biggest hands he'd ever seen. Sullivan appreciated Hoss's gritty approach to the game, always hustling and always fundamentally sound.

After returning to Arkansas after Instructional League, Hoss was lying on the couch one evening when Parrish accidentally hit him in the left testicle with a plastic golf club. He doubled over in pain, and a day later when his left testicle was swollen to twice its normal size and the pain persisted, he went to a doctor, who found a suspicious lump. The diagnosis was bad—he had testicular cancer. On December 10, 1963, he traveled to a hospital in Memphis, where doctors removed his testicle and a malignant tumor. Worried that the cancer could spread, the doctor removed all the lymph nodes from his waistline to his sternum, leaving him with a twenty-inch scar up his chest. The doctor couldn't guarantee that the cancer wouldn't return.

For two weeks, Hoss was confined to his bed in the Memphis hospital, the incision in his chest stitched together with surgical wire, twisted at the ends and protruding from his skin so that he could only lie on his back. Desperately wanting to get home to be with Madelyn and Parrish for Christmas, he persuaded the doctor to release him. But first the nurse had to take a pair of clippers and cut off the twisted ends of the wire. That pain was nothing compared with when the doctor took a pair of needle-nose pliers to pull out the wire—with no medication. It hurt so bad that Hoss wet himself.

On Christmas Eve, a blizzard swept through the region and the police weren't letting cars cross the bridges in and out of Memphis. But Hoss's older brother Jimmy pleaded with a state trooper, telling him that he needed to get to the hospital to pick up his brother, who had cancer. so that he could come home and spend what might possibly be his last Christmas with his wife and son. The trooper consented, and when Jimmy finally walked into the hospital room, Hoss teared up, overcome by not only his brother's determination to drive through a blizzard but by the words his doctor had just told him: "Your baseball career is over."

It took Hoss and his brother five hours to slip and slide the seventy miles back home through the blizzard, but he got his wish to spend the holiday with his family. In the weeks ahead, he began to feel better. There was still a tightness in his chest from the surgery, but as the days passed he started to have thoughts of proving the doctor wrong and resuming his career.

"You need to just rest and relax," insisted Madelyn.

But that had never been his style. In mid-January, he started working out, nothing too strenuous, just some simple stretching and walking. His biggest problem was that he'd lost thirty pounds, and it had zapped him of his strength.

At first, Madelyn was dubious about Hoss going to spring training, especially after he tripped on the front porch and was in such pain that he couldn't get up without her help. But as he slowly recuperated, and the stretching and walking turned into running and jumping jacks, she could see his determination and knew it was hopeless to try to talk him out of it.

"What the hell else am I going to do with my life?" he argued.

She also gave him support when he got pissed off at the Kansas City organization shortly before leaving for spring training. He had forwarded an unpaid hospital bill for $1,500 to them, and they refused to pay it, maintaining it wasn't baseball-related. With little bargaining power, he had no choice but to accept their counteroffer of a $50-a-month raise, which they maintained he could use to pay off the bill.

Screw Charlie Finley, he thought.


John Blue Moon Odom

Tell Mama the News

Blue Moon Odom, eighteen, sat on the front stoop of his duplex in Macon, Georgia, waiting for his mother to come home. He couldn't wait to tell her the news. He'd just pitched another no-hitter, the sixth of his already legendary high school career at Ballard-Hudson High ... and he still had six weeks left in the season. Two more scouts had given him their cards, so fourteen out of Major League Baseball's sixteen teams had now contacted him.

His future looked as bright as sunshine on the sea.

It was March 1964. In Florida, spring training for the Birmingham Barons had just begun, but Blue Moon still had the prom and graduation to think about. Not to mention what he and his girlfriend, Perrie Washington, were going to do that weekend. In the very segregated city of Macon, their options were limited, especially since he didn't have a car. His mother didn't, either. But maybe Perrie could talk her father into letting her use his car, and they could drive down and park along the bank of the Ocmulgee River.

He walked to the end of the block to see if he could spot his mother, Florine Odom, getting off the bus. She was late. Six days a week she worked as a domestic for a wealthy white family, cleaning floors, washing clothes, fixing meals, and wiping the runny nose of the couple's five-year-old daughter. Usually, Florine rode the bus home, always sitting in the back, even if the law—thanks to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King—said she could now ride up front. ("It's safer in back," she explained.)

The youngest of four children—he had two sisters and a brother—Blue Moon was the man of the household. His father had died of lung cancer when he was only five, his two sisters were now married and out of the house, and his brother was in the army. He and his mom lived in a two-bedroom, one-story red- brick duplex in the projects on the west side of town in a black neighborhood that some called "The Alphabet." (Its streets were A, B, C, D, and so on.) It was home to Blue Moon, a lot better than the previous shack where he and his mom had lived, which didn't have indoor plumbing. Macon, located seventy-five miles south of Atlanta, was the only place he'd ever lived.

Although Macon had not been hit by the violence that had made national news in other cities in the South, it certainly knew the cruel bite of Jim Crow and the activism of the civil rights movement. Recently, fifteen hundred marchers had blocked the entrance to City Hall, demanding justice in the shooting death of an unarmed black man by Macon police.


Excerpted from Southern League by Larry Colton. Copyright © 2013 Larry Colton. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

"Are You Trying to Be a Smart-Ass?" 1

Introduction: Southern League and Me 5

Part I Spring Training 9

Part II Welcome to Bombingham 65

Part III The Season: April 91

Part IV The Season: May 123

Part V The Season: June 157

Part VI The Season: July 201

Part VII The Season: August 245

Part VIII The Season: September 273

Part IX Extra Innings 291

Acknowledgments 307

Appendix 309

Authors Note 311

Index 313

About the Author 321

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"When I read "Counting Coup," I was staggered by Larry Colton's ability to persuade a group of high school girls to share their heart's secrets, so I am not surprised that for "Southern League" he could get a bunch of aging baseball players to remember the hopes and fears of their minor league days. The breadth of Colton's reporting here, placing the Birmingham Barons' 1964 season squarely into the context of the civil rights era, is a narrative tour de force.
— Richard Ben Cramer

Those who say that sports do not, or should not, make us think about anything beyond the field itself have always been wrong . The summer of '64 and the stories found in Southern League demonstrate that once again.

— Bob Costas

Larry Colton has an extraordinary gift for capturing those times when everyday, glitz and glamor-free American sports, is not merely a metaphor for our culture but becomes a mechanism for cultural change. His highest expression of that gift comes now in SOUTHERN LEAGUE in which he introduces you to players nobody has yet built statues of, but who forced sea-changes in the America in which you live.

—Keith Olbermann

Larry Colton's interweaving of the 1964 Southern League baseball season with the Civil Rights movement revisits a period in American history that many of us will not - and should not - forget. With Colton's retelling of players enduring racial insults on the field and threats and other indignities off the field, SOUTHERN LEAGUE makes for riveting, and revealing, reading.

— Bill White

"I can't say this loud enough...this is a great book! I'd throw in an f-bomb for emphasis but that sort of thing is frowned upon in high literary circles. The explosive racial cauldron of Birmingham in the sixties, unforgettable characters, and baseball all come together in Larry Colton's memorable narrative, SOUTHERN LEAGUE. Baseball is the tie that binds, barely, but that's enough."

— Ron Shelton

Richard Ben Cramer

When I read “Counting Coup,” I was staggered by Larry Colton's ability to persuade a group of high school girls to share their heart's secrets, so I am not surprised that for “Southern League” he could get a bunch of aging baseball players to remember the hopes and fears of their minor league days. The breadth of Colton's reporting here, placing the Birmingham Barons' 1964 season squarely into the context of the civil rights era, is a narrative tour de force. —Richard Ben Cramer, Pulitzer prize-winning author of “What It Takes,” “Joe DiMaggio,” and “How Israel Lost.”

Bob Costas

Those who say that sports do not, or should not, make us think about anything beyond the field itself have always been wrong . The summer of '64 and the stories found in Southern League demonstrate that once again.—Bob Costas, NBC Sports

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Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
troutrivers More than 1 year ago
A very interesting history of the first integrated baseball in Birmingham AL in 1964. The summer after 4 little black girls where killed one Sunday morning as they prepared for services when their church was bombed by the Klan. The owner of the team - a well to do white business man - was not a Klansman but knew some - and one knocked on his door the night before the first game and warned him not to let the game be played. But played it was, and the fans were better for the baseball, and America was a better nation too.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*Walks in quickly and looks over at Diana. I jerk my head back towards the command center.* We got a problem. You should come check it out... *Walks back to the command center.*