"Your uniform was about the best thing you had," recalled former Birmingham Baron Nat Pollard. "And you thought you were something when you had it on. You looked good and the people were out there to see you, and that's what made you want to play."
For over 40 years, the Black Barons were "the jewel of Southern black baseball" and an integral part of the African-American community that developed in Birmingham in the wake of segregation. Barred from organized baseball by an unwritten, but universal, policy of racial discrimination, the Black Barons and the other teams of the Negro Leagues gave an opportunity to play to those who were otherwise excluded from the game. Not only heroes on the diamond, these men were also an important part of the community that supported them, as they served as role models of success and professionalism. Today, the legacy of the Black Barons can be seen in every ballpark in America, where the game they devoted so much of their lives to is open to all and can truly be considered our "National Pastime."
The first Black Barons team emerged in the years following World War I, and may have been an ACIPCO team that defected to create the professional franchise. In 1920, the Black Barons became charter members of the Negro Southern League, an eight-member circuit that loosely mirrored the all-white Southern Association, sharing both their ballparks and minor-league status. Three years later, Birmingham was given its first opportunity for a major-league franchise by the Negro National League, the highest level of black baseball in American and the home of the Barons for the remainder of the decade.
It was during these years, the team saw some of its greatest players pass through on their way to stardom, the most notable being a tall, lanky pitcher from Mobile who called himself "Satchel". Winning over 2,000 of the estimated 2,500 games he pitched in, Leroy "Satchel" Paige is arguably the greatest pitcher of all-time. Joining the Black Barons in 1928, Paige quickly became a Birmingham favorite, although his now-legendary control was still far from perfect. Yet his speed, combined with his natural sense of showmanship, made Satchel the club's top drawing card. He played for the Black Barons through the end of the 1930 season and then, like so many other promising players in the South, he left for the wealthier, more profitable franchises of the North.
Like most Negro League teams, the Black Barons did not have a ballpark of their own, but instead rented Rickwood Field from the white Barons, using the park on Sundays or during the Barons' road trips. Game days were an important event in the city's black community, and according to both players and fans, the Black Barons regularly outdrew their white counterparts. In addition to the thrill of the game, jitterbug contests, beauty pageants, and visiting celebrities like Lena Horne and Lionel Hampton added a degree of excitement to the program and brought hundreds more to the park. Built-in 1910, Rickwood Field stands today as the nation's oldest baseball park.
Home games, however, only represented half of the Black Barons' busy schedule. Frequent road trips took the team throughout the South, Midwest, and North, playing from town to town all the way to their final destination. In the small towns of the South, the Black Barons were greeted with enthusiasm by the locals, many having never before seen a professional team.
In 1939, the Black Barons were purchased by a Memphis undertaker named Tom Hayes, and over the next decade the greatest teams in the franchise's history emerged. Winning three pennants in 1940, 1945, and 1948, and producing another future star, Willie Mays, the Black Barons enjoyed success in a time when other Negro League franchises were folding. At Chicago's Comiskey Park, the annual Negro League East-West All-Star game saw 12 different Black Barons between 1940 and 1950. Lorenzo "Piper" Davis played in the game four years straight while shortstop Artie Wilson played in four contests. Four of the Birmingham players from those years, Mays, Wilson, Jehosia Heard, and Bill Greason played in the majors following integration.
When Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 breaking baseball's color barrier, the hard-fought goal of the Negro Leagues was finally realized. In 1948, the Black Barons and the Homestead Grays met in the last Negro League World Series, playing in Rickwood and other Southern parks in hopes of drawing large crowds. Birmingham lost the series, 4-1, but more importantly, the diminished number of fans and small profits clearly spelled out the end of the league was near and simply a matter of time. The Black Barons played their last season in 1963, quickly fading away into obscurity against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. Only in the past several years have the careers of these athletes been salvaged from anonymity, their feats on the base paths finally being put down on paper for future generations. The Black Barons were heroes both to their fans and to their profession, and if they represent some of the worst aspects of baseball, they also represent some of the best.