The 1964 Birmingham Barons went 80-60 and missed winning the Southern League pennant by a single game, but their impact resonated far beyond the confines of their Rickwood Field home. They were the first integrated sports team, not just in the city of Birmingham, but the entire state of Alabama.
Some 49 years later, this fact is hard to comprehend. Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, so how could it have taken the better part of two decades for organized sports in the Deep South to follow suit? This monumental delay was an indication of just how deeply entrenched segregationist Jim Crow laws were in the region, and Birmingham in particular (in his influential essay Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described Birmingham as "the most segregated city in America").
The Southern Association, of which the Barons were a part, had actually disbanded following the 1961 season rather than follow organized baseball's dictate to integrate, and the team's return in 1964 as part of the newly-reconstituted Southern League marked the first time in Rickwood Field history that black and white fans were permitted in the same sections of the ballpark.
This culturally significant backdrop inspired pitcher-turned-author Larry Colton -- himself a Southern League alumnus -- to write a book on the 1964 Barons squad. Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race tells the story of the season via accounts from the era as well as the recollections of the players themselves.
The book's release inspired a team reunion in Birmingham on May 14, with the players (and, in some cases, their wives, widows or children) visiting 103-year-old Rickwood Field as well as the Barons' brand new home of Regions Field.
The most well-known member of the 1964 Barons was pitcher Blue Moon Odom, who made his professional debut that season at the age of 19. Odom went on to make his Major League debut with the Kansas City Athletics that September, the first of 13 Major League seasons that were almost entirely spent in the A's organization. Prior to throwing out a ceremonial pitch before May 14's game between the Barons and visiting Montgomery Biscuits, Odom and Colton took the time to speak with MiLB.com about the new book as well as that memorable season.
MiLB.com: Larry, what inspired you to write Southern League and how did you go about doing it?
Larry Colton: Once I found out that [the 1964 Barons] were the first integrated team, I thought that they would be a perfect way to talk about civil rights and the progress made not just in Birmingham, but the entire country. … There are 10 guys on this team who played in the Major Leagues, and because I'm a member of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association [Colton pitched briefly for the 1968 Phillies], they shared a list with their contact info. Once I had that list, one of the first guys I contacted was Blue Moon.
We met three or four times over the course of a little over a year, got to know each other and played a lot of golf together. As so often happens when you're doing this stuff, you care about their lives and get involved in their stories and become friends.
MiLB.com: Blue Moon, when Larry first contacted you about doing a book on the 1964 team, what went through your mind?
Blue Moon Odom: It brought back my childhood again. I was 19 when I first signed, and being able to play Double-A baseball at Rickwood Field, you know, it was great. I have a lot of memories there, and to come back and see a lot of guys that you played with, you can't beat that. Believe it or not, I didn't think that I would ever see any of these guys anymore. It's been 49 years, and it's great to come back.
MiLB.com: Prior to 1964, you had never had the chance to compete with players of other races. Going in to the season, was this something you were worried about? Did you have any preconceptions about what it might be like?
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Blue Moon Odom: Nothing like that at all. I had always wanted to play with people other than my race and it never happened until I signed a Major League contract and got a chance to do that. It took a little time to get used to, but once I did, it was great. You'd hear a few things in the stands here and there, but you just let that go in one ear and out the other because you're here for one reason: to win ballgames in order to get to the Major Leagues. You never let stuff like that bother you, because if you do, you'll never reach your goal. That was one of the things I didn't let bother me, and I reached my goal.
MiLB.com: Larry, as a result of your research, what figures from that 1964 team did you come to feel were worthy of greater recognition?
Larry Colton: Really, I wanted to highlight the whole team and what they did for the city, and the role that baseball had in that. But, sure, while I want people to know about Blue Moon, I also want them to know about guys like [1964 Barons manager] Haywood Sullivan. The fact that he's not in the Alabama Hall of Fame is a travesty. This guy is the only guy, ever, to play in the big leagues, manage in the big leagues, be a general manager and own a Major League team -- the Boston Red Sox. He's from Alabama and he's not in the Alabama Hall of Fame -- figure that one out.
Blue Moon Odom: Yeah, he should be there. He was like a father figure to most of us, because we were all young. You've got to do things differently a little bit, be easy on certain players, be a father figure, and to us he was. We could trust him and his judgment and played good behind him, because he knew exactly what to do in order to get 100 percent out of us. By doing that I had success, because I made it to the Major Leagues, and I'm giving credit to him for that because he helped me through those times when I needed it.
MiLB.com: Some 49 years later, are there any moments from that season that still really stand out in your mind?
Blue Moon Odom: My first Minor League game in [my hometown] of Macon, Ga., that stuck with me a little bit. That first game I pitched -- what was the score on that, Larry?
Larry Colton: The final score was that the Barons lost, but it was the biggest crowd ever in Macon. They were on the tops of the dugouts and out in front [of the wall] in the outfield. So it wasn't just the blacks in Macon that were rooting for him; the whites did too. And there in Macon, in his first ever pro game, he struck out the side in the first inning and the crowd went nuts. Absolutely nuts.
Blue Moon Odom: The capacity was 5,000 and somehow they got 7,500 in there, and a lot of people were turned away. So I believe that even though it was the home of the Macon Peaches, they were pulling for me more than they were for their own team.