Monday, April 23, 2012

The Old Ball Game

The first baseball game in Memphis played at night, under the lights, occurred on Monday, May 12, 1930, and it involved two teams from the Negro National League, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Memphis Red Sox. The owner of the Monarchs, J. L. Wilkinson, had invented a portable lighting system, and he brought it, along with his team, to Memphis for that Monday night game. At the time, the Red Sox played their home games at Lewis Park, a 3,000-seat wooden stadium on Crump and Lauderdale, and the owners of the team, anticipating a larger crowd than usual, installed an additional 2,000 seats for the game. The game was sure to draw not only more black fans but a number of white fans as well—so much so that a special entrance for whites was created. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wilkinson’s lighting system was less than perfect: the lights sometimes flickered and dimmed, and several players quipped that candles would have provided just as much illumination. Nevertheless, the fans, spellbound by the novelty of lights of any kind at a ballpark, hardly noticed. “NIGHT BASEBALL SUCCESSFUL IN MEMPHIS DEBUT,” the Press-Scimitar proclaimed in its Tuesday edition.

That episode is recounted in “They Also Played the Game: A Historical Examination of the Memphis Red Sox Baseball Organization, 1922–1959,” a 2001 dissertation written by Montgomery Kurt McBee. For readers of this blog who may be unfamiliar with the history of baseball, it bears explaining that, until 1947, professional baseball in America was a segregated affair, and until the late 1950s a succession of black-only leagues, known collectively as the Negro leagues, operated alongside Major League Baseball, the professional league most Americans think of when they think of baseball. The Memphis Red Sox were the team from Memphis that was a member of the Negro leagues.

Dr. McBee’s main point is that black baseball in Memphis had a rich tradition that dated all the way back to the years immediately following the Civil War; the Red Sox were the heirs to that tradition. For black Memphians, the Red Sox, who were owned by black Memphians, were a source of achievement and pride, examples to the white community of black skill, professionalism, and business acumen. By supporting the Red Sox, black Memphians protested indirectly against the racial segregation that was part and parcel of life in the city.

The Red Sox were created in 1922; before that date, most black baseball teams in Memphis were independent organizations that lasted no more than a few years. The first two that Dr. McBee mentions were the Memphis Eclipse and the Memphis Eurekas, charter members of the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists, which was formed in 1886 and lasted only a year. The precise state of black baseball in Memphis over the ensuing twenty or so years is not made clear in the dissertation, but Dr. McBee avers that “black Memphians continued to form teams that played independent ball during the early years of the twentieth century up to the 1920s.” In 1908 the Memphis Unions and Memphis Union Giants were playing; in 1909, the Bluff City Base Ball Club; and in 1911, the Memphis Tigers. By the time the United States entered World War I, “a few clubs” were playing “independent” ball in the city; among them were Curve’s Wonders, the Pelgram Giants, and the Bunker Hill Stars; still others were the Colored Wonders, the Royals, and the Memphis Pelicans.

In 1920, black leaders from several Southern cities formed the Negro Southern League, and the next year the league welcomed a team from Memphis: A. P. Martin’s Barber Boys Baseball Club. The owner of the team was Arthur “A. P.” Martin, a 41-year-old black barber in Memphis who operated barber shops on Exchange Street, Beale Street, Main Street, and Calhoun. The team played its home games at Field’s Park, which was in South Memphis, and at Fay Avenue Park, also in South Memphis. In Memphis, whites as well as blacks attended games played by black baseball teams—a tradition, according to Dr. McBee, dating back to the 1880s; Mr. Martin made sure that seats were reserved for whites at the Barber Boys games.

For reasons that are not made clear, by 1922 the Barber Boys were no longer Memphis’s entrant in the Negro Southern Leagues. In that year, a new team from Memphis took their place: the Memphis Red Sox. The owner of the Sox was Robert Stevenson (R. S.) Lewis, a Memphis undertaker who owned Barnett and Lewis Funeral Home. It was Lewis who, in 1923, built Lewis Park, which the white-owned Commercial Appeal promptly declared “the best negro park that has ever been erected in Memphis, and possibly the entire south.”

It was also in 1923 that the Red Sox left the Negro Southern League for the Negro National League. But the Negro National League had problems of its own, and three years later the Red Sox dropped out to join the reorganized Negro Southern League, which had reversed the first two words of its name and was now called the Southern Negro League. On May 16 of 1926, the Red Sox hosted the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, facing the great Satchel Paige. The home team won, 4-3.

Dr. McBee bases his history mainly on contemporary newspaper accounts and interviews with players, fans, spouses, and family members who were associated with the Red Sox. One local fan who was interviewed was Rufus Thomas, the entertainer perhaps best known for his 1970 hit “Do the Funky Chicken.” Fans who could not afford a ticket to Red Sox games could gain entrance by returning foul balls that were hit out of the park. That was how little Rufus, who was only five years old when the Red Sox started playing, got to see the hometown team play. Twenty years later, children were still waiting outside the park for foul balls so they could see the games for free; among them was Willie Herenton, the future mayor.

In the late 1920s ownership of the Red Sox passed from R. S. Lewis to a trio of African American physicians in Memphis: E. E. Nesbitt, J. B. Martin, and W. S. Martin (the Martins were brothers). In 1948, the Red Sox moved to a new stadium on Crump Boulevard, Martin’s Stadium, which could hold 8,500 spectators. The lounge and concession stand sold Gold Crest 51 and Falstaff beers, Coca Cola, and Nehi grape and strawberry sodas to drink; food included hot dogs, hamburgers, pretzels, barbecue from pigs roasted over a pit at the stadium, and, in a twist from the usual ballpark fare, chitterlings. Also unusual were the apartments along the left field side of the stadium that housed visiting players and unmarried team members.

With the integration of the formerly all-white Major League Baseball in 1947, the days of the Memphis Red Sox and the assorted Negro leagues were numbered. As the best black players in increasing numbers joined Major League teams, the relevance and appeal of the Negro leagues diminished. The Memphis Red Sox played their last game in 1959. The team disbanded in 1960.

As the Red Sox were becoming less and less relevant, the principal owner of the team, now the 70-year-old B. B. Martin, was becoming more and more out of touch with the new generation of black leaders. In 1959, the last year the Red Sox played a game, local blacks wanted to use Martin’s Stadium for a large political rally; among the participants would be the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and a young minister from Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr. B. B. Martin refused to make his stadium available, apparently for the simple reason that it was his and didn’t want to share it.

In 1955, Martin’s Stadium hosted an all-star game in which the best players in the various Negro leagues competed against some of the top black players in Major League Baseball, among them Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. The game drew a capacity crowd—unusual by then for such an event, and making it the last great moment for Negro league baseball in Memphis. “In Dixieland,” the Memphis World, one of the city’s black newspapers, reported, there was a time when “the sight of a Negro in a big league uniform was occasion for a national holiday”; but in 1955, the “Willie Mays–Don Newcombe troupe [was] playing to empty seats.”

The dissertation was completed at the University of Memphis under the direction of Charles W. Crawford.

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