Tugerson made pitch for integration in '53

Shunned by Cotton States, led Smokies to MSL championship

Jim and Leander Tugerson hold an oft-overlooked place in Minor League history. (Courtesy of Polk County History Center collection)

By Duane Cross / MiLB.com | October 29, 2019 10:00 AM

Jim Tugerson is an overlooked name in the baseball annals. Instead of being widely remembered as a leading figure in the integration of America's pastime, he is the mostly forgotten roommate of a Hall of Famer.

Six years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major Leagues' color barrier -- and six years before all MLB teams went on to integrate -- brothers Jim and Leander Tugerson were the first black players in the Cotton States League.

At least on paper.

The CSL consisted of eight teams, six of them unaffiliated. They were scattered across Arkansas (El Dorado, Hot Springs and the St. Louis Browns-affiliated club in Pine Bluff), Louisiana (Monroe) and Mississippi (Greenville, the Tigers-affiliated team in Jackson, Meridian and Natchez).


Tugerson, second from L top row, with the '52 Clowns. (Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.)

In January 1953, the Hot Springs Bathers made it known they intended to have black players on the roster for the upcoming season. On April 1, the Tugerson brothers -- both Florida-born right-handed pitchers and Negro Leagues veterans -- signed with the '52 CSL basement dwellers, who also had the league's lowest attendance (37,796).


The Tugersons signed with Hot Springs. (Courtesy of Polk County History Center collection)

AP/courtesy of Polk County History Center

There was, however, a caveat: The Tugersons played only in home games. Hot Springs management was keenly cognizant of the Deep South's racial tensions. While players of color make up about 40 percent of today's MLB rosters and Robinson debuted with Brooklyn in 1947, the early 1950s were a period of discriminatory hurdles -- often insurmountable -- for non-whites in baseball, as in the rest of American society.

Five days after the Tugersons signed with Hot Springs, CSL owners voted, 6-0, with Pine Bluff abstaining, to expel the Bathers. (Hot Springs was removed from the meeting before the vote.) Mississippi Attorney General J. P. Coleman went so far as to claim racially integrated competition violated public policy. He justified the position with the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, which mandated segregation.

CSL president Al Haraway said expulsion was consistent with league bylaws. He even declared Hot Springs guilty of "treason," because the rest of the teams had not agreed to sign black players.

He told the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, "The people in our league were not yet ready to accept a breakdown in racial barriers. … I advised against signing [the Tugersons] and requested they do not attempt it at this time knowing the hornet's nest it would stir up."

On April 15, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, an umbrella organization for Minor Leagues, ruled against the CSL and reinstated the Bathers. But the Tugerson brothers were shipped to the Class D Knoxville Smokies of the Mountain States League.

During a May 3 doubleheader, Jim won the opener. Leander started the nightcap, and Jim picked up the save to complete the sweep. Soon after, Leander's season was cut short with an arm injury. He finished 3-5 with a 5.55 ERA. Meanwhile in the CSL, injuries had taken a toll on the Hot Springs pitching staff, and Bathers co-owner Lewis Goltz made the call to Knoxville. Jim Tugerson was 6-2 when summoned to Hot Springs for a May 20 start against the Jackson Senators. With 1,500 fans at Jaycee Park to watch the 30-year-old's CSL debut, Haraway declared a forfeit before the first pitch.

Bruce Adelson's "Brushing Back Jim Crow"

"I am the property of the Hot Springs baseball club. The club called me back. I didn't ask to come," Tugerson told The Sporting News. "It's just possible that I may sue [Haraway]. I'm not bitter, but I think he did the wrong thing in making Hot Springs forfeit that game. I hope I land in the [Majors] someday. I want to be in a league where they will let me play ball."

Back in Knoxville, the right-hander was more appreciated. According to SABR, the Smokies put together a Jim Tugerson Night on June 5, granting free admission to all African-American fans. He responded to the positive treatment by going 29-11 with a 3.71 ERA and led the Mountain States League with 286 strikeouts across 330 innings. He won four games in the playoffs and hit a homer in the Smokies' 14-11 come-from-behind win against Maryville-Alcoa in the title game.

But before corks popped for the championship celebration, Tugerson had filed a $50,000 federal lawsuit against the CSL, its teams and Haraway. In "Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South," author Bruce Adelson detailed the pitcher's doomed return to Hot Springs in July 1953:

"In his suit, Tugerson alleged a conspiracy among the defendants to deprive him of the right to fulfill his contract with the Bathers because of his skin color, claiming their actions were unlawful under the United States Constitution, various federal statutes, and Arkansas state law. Tugerson claimed he had been deprived by the defendants 'of opportunities of advancement in his career as a professional baseball player … and … of the right to follow his lawful occupation in the place of his choice and to carry out his contractual obligations.'"

On Sept. 11 -- the day Knoxville won the Mountain States League title -- U.S. District Judge John Miller granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Tugerson did not appeal the decision.

Before joining the Bathers, Tugerson played with the Indianapolis Clowns, a team that featured 18-year-old Henry Aaron. He also played with Roy Campanella, Bill White, Don Newcombe and other well-known future Major Leaguers.

R.S. Allen's "Schoolboy"

"[Aaron] was my roommate when we were with the Clowns," Tugerson told R.S. Allen in "Schoolboy: Jim Tugerson, Ace of the '53 Smokies." "He left the Clowns and went to Indianapolis in the Braves farm system. When he came to camp, all he had was a li'l bitty handbag with his glove and shoes and clothes and everything. Both of us being rookies, and neither of us drink, and both of us spend most of the time in our rooms, so they put us together. We had fun. It was wholesome and clean fun; we just didn't drink. And we didn't believe in staying out late. We rapped the ball, and then we'd go home."

Allen, who was a youngster in Sevierville, Tennessee, when Tugerson led the Smokies to the 1953 Mountain States League championship, told the Knoxville News Sentinel, "He would back guys off the plate from both sides. I was impressionable, but you could easily see the difference [in talent] between him and the others. He made an instant impact on the team.

"He pitched every other day," Allen recalled. "He would win and then win the next day in relief. [Manager Vince] Pankovitz wore him out. He would pitch on one or two days' rest."

The Cotton States League lost two teams -- the Jackson Senators and Natchez Indians -- after the 1953 season. The league integrated the next year when Uvoyd Reynolds suited up for the Bathers. (Even the Meridian Millers signed a black player, Carl Heron, despite the Mississippi Constitution of 1890.) The league folded after the '55 season.

In November 1956, Tugerson became the second black police officer of the Winter Haven (Florida) Police Department. He took a leave of absence to pitch during the 1958-59 seasons. He finished 86-71 across six seasons and reached Triple-A with the Dallas Rangers in '59.

Offseason MiLB include

He worked with the police department until he died April 7, 1983. Three months later, Winter Haven dedicated Tugerson Baseball Field in his honor. In 2008, the Tennessee Smokies paid tribute to his legacy during a pregame ceremony. He was represented by daughter Tina, grandson James and great-grandson James.

After the May 20, 1953 forfeit against Jackson, Tugerson was courted by Indianapolis owner Syd Pollock to rejoin the Clowns instead of returning to Knoxville. He provided sage insight into the decision in "Schoolboy."

"It would have defeated the purpose," Tugerson told Allen. "See, if I had a contract [in the CSL] and broke it [to return to the Negro Leagues], I would have denied the right of Negro players to play in the league at any time. That wouldn't have helped the black people, baseball or nothin'."

Duane Cross is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DuaneCrossMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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