Integration of Professional Baseball in Savannah, Georgia

 

By Greg O’Hara

Entering into Grayson Stadium today is like a walk into Baseball’s past with all the sights, sounds, and smells one imagine in the ballparks of yesterday.  From the close proximity of the playing field-to-fan-seating, or the easy access to refreshments and other facilities, Grayson Stadium has everything ALL fans of the game could ever want in baseball entertainment. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always that way for during the days of segregation people of color most often traveled to a went different stadium in Savannah if they wanted to watch ballplayers of color play baseball and enjoy the game without experiencing racial issues of the day.  On the rare times they would go to Grayson Stadium, they sat in specific seating along the third base sideline where there was no overhead cover to protect them from elements. They were forced to use separate restrooms and water foundations, and had virtually no access to vehicle parking close by.

Grayson Stadium “Municipal Stadium” as known as prior 1941 and was originally built in 1926. After a hurricane destroyed most of the property in 1940, the Stadium was renovated 1941 with federal funding and money raised by a local war veteran named General William Grayson. The stadium was renamed in his honor in April 1941. From 1927 to 1959 Savannah High School and the Cadets of Benedictine College Preparatory would entertain folks with the playing of their annual rivalry game on Thanksgiving Day. Over the years several professional ball clubs have called Grayson Stadium home, and it is also used by Savannah State University during baseball season.

Prior to April 15, 1953, if you wanted to watch Blacks play Baseball in Savannah you needed to travel down to “Sportsman Park” located at the end of Tremont Road very near the CSX main office building. The Stadium was home to the “Savannah Bears” which opened in April 1945. In those days, most every African American community had a baseball team or a softball team, even a football team conveniently located in their neighborhoods. Chatham Park neighborhood, Crawford Square neighborhood, Fellwood neighborhood, Pinpoint neighborhood and Sportsman Park were the places to go to watch Local and out-of-town black teams play their favorite sports. In 1967, “the famous Indianapolis Clowns,” a barnstorming team left over from the old Negro leagues days played the Savannah Bears at Sportsman Park. Pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns was perhaps the greatest pitcher (white or black) of all-time, Satchel Paige.  Although way past his prime, the 61 year old Paige threw the entire game while entertaining the crowd with jokes and funny pitches. The famous Indianapolis Clowns easily defeated the home team 5-1.

While only a shell of the well-constructed grandstand now remains of the original complex; with a little bit of imagination one can still visualize the base runners circling the bases and fans cheering. In 1976, scenes from the comedy movie “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings” starting Billy D. Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor was filmed at Sportsman Park. The feature depicted the Negro baseball barnstorming days of the 1930’s and 40’s just before Jackie Robinson and others made history by integrating major league baseball.

After signing a professional baseball contract with the New York Dodgers in April 15, 1945, Jackie Robinson immediately joined the ball club’s farm team in Montreal, Canada.  In April 1946, the opportunity for the color barrier to be broken in Grayson Stadium Savannah presented itself when Robinson’s team was scheduled to play the Savannah Indians in an exhibition game at Grayson Stadium. Unfortunately, the event was cancelled “for reasons beyond anyone control” as one Indian spokesman put it.  Later it was said that both teams agreed to the cancellation, even though neither organization commented why.  Five years would come and go before the opportunity came again but this time things would be different.

By 1951, Jackie Robinson’s national celebrity status would not be deny and local fans (both black and white) flooded the grand stands according to segregated seating at the time to watch the Dodgers beat the Phillies 5-4 in 11 innings on April 4, 1951.  In anticipation of a sellout crowd a newly constructed steel-on-concrete 1000 seat bleacher was completed and opened just in time for the game along with 500 grand stand seats set aside just for black patrons.  The game attracted the highest attendance to that time. Unfortunately, Robinson was harassed and baited during the entire game by whites, but it had no effect on his batting or fielding. A newspaper editorial would call it lacking good sportsmanship and showing prejudice of which is not in the best interest the nation and her pastime. While the record crowd came to see the famous black man play in Grayson Stadium, he was not the only famous ballplayer they saw play. On the contrary, this was the Dodgers for goodness sake and future hall of famer like Duke Snider and Gil Hodges were also in uniform that day.  But Jackie Robinson along with Roy Campanella laid the foundation (if only in an exhibition game) that destroyed the notion that blacks would never play professional baseball in the South and it was only the beginning.

The 1953 baseball season marked a pinnacle time in Savannah and the Southern Atlantic League or Sally League as was also called.  Up to this point only whites played in the Sally League, but that was about to change with the introduction of Junior Reedy and Albert Isreal as the newest members of the Savannah Indians ball club. As a Savannah native, Junior Reedy had very little trouble that night with the home crowd and was well known as a power hitter. Having played in the Western League the year before, he also established himself as great hitter by winning that League’s batting title. Albert Isreal had only played five seasons in minor league baseball, but he was an excellent hitting infielder, who could play in the outfield if necessary. He was from Rockville, Maryland and unaware of significance of his playing in the Sally League.  Although Isreal had experienced racism in baseball, such as segregated rest rooms, showers and even hotels, but nothing prepared him for what awaited in towns across the Sally League. The other seven ball clubs in the South Atlantic League were watching the experiment going on in Savannah too, and with the exception of the Montgomery Grays in Alabama, all were looking at black ball players as possibilities for their organizations in the future. So, with a little over 5,500 fans also watching, the color barrier was finally and officially broken in the South Atlantic League during opening day on April 15, 1953. On May 7, 1953, during “Merchant Appreciation Night” history (and money) would be made yet again and all related to the integration of the Sally League. The Savannah Indians along with Isreal and Reedy played before a record setting crowd at Grayson Stadium of over 15,000 fans.

The Savannah Indians would struggle early on in the season but finish strong at the end, finishing in fourth place with a record of 63-73 and qualifying for post-season play. Yearly attendance would also be up over the previous 1952 season with major contributor said to be due the integration of blacks by most officials. The attendance boom justified in economic terms, the League’s move to integrate the other seven teams.  One of those resulted in a young 19 year old African American named Henry Aaron (yes, that Aaron) signing a contract to play baseball for the Braves’ minor league organization in Jacksonville, Florida. Along with integration the Sally League attempted to increase revenue by (along with other leagues across the country) adding television coverage to the schedule, but it did not produce the profits promised during 1953 season.

Even the great play of Reedy, Isreal and Aaron did not make life easy for them in the Jim Crow south.  Facing constant taunts, threats, and segregation from their white teammates in public places, the Sally League’s first African American ballplayers faced constant struggles. Future Pro Baseball Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson, who played for the Savannah Indians in 1954 did not know racism until he came south.

In 1957, Chico Cardenas, a 17 year old with a solid bat for the Savannah Redlegs played against the New York Yankees in an exhibition game and lost 8-4. After being called up to the Cincinnati Reds, Cardenas would face the Yankees again in the 1961 World Series and fall short once again. Cardenas went on to become a five-time All-star during his 16 years in the majors.

Also in 1957, Curtis Flood appeared in Savannah during his second season as professional ballplayer. He was called up a year later to the St. Louis Cardinals where he played years of great baseball. In 1969, Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, but refused to report to the ball team claiming that reserve clause in players’ contracts kept them unfairly tied to the teams that signed them for life, even after players had completed the terms of those contracts. Flood’s case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him. As a result of the decision, the Major League Baseball Players Union and team owners agreed on a compromise. Called the “Curt Flood Rule,” which states that players with 10 years of service with the last five being with the same team, could veto any trade. Curtis Flood is often credited with the creation of the Free Agency policy in sports.

In 1958, John Ivory Smith played for the Savannah Redlegs as first African American to pitch in Grayson Stadium. He appeared in 13 games leading the team to sixth place with 61 wins total. Also playing that year for the Redlegs was second basemen Victor “Cookie” Rojas. Prior to being called up the following year, Rojas hit 24 doubles over the course of the season. He spent the 16 seasons in the majors and made 5 All-star teams before retiring.

In 1960, Savannah team affiliation was with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won the Sally League championship during the playoffs. One of the stars of the team that year was 24 year old first baseman, Don Clendenon. He led the team in homeruns with 28 before being called up the follow year in 1961.  Clendenon played 12 seasons in the major leagues, winning the 1969 World Series MVP while playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. He retired in the 1972 at age 36.

In 1962, Deacon Jones was a ballplayer for White Sox, the professional baseball organization in Savannah at the time.  Even with his success, however, Jones experienced difficulties in the South Atlantic League. He confronted racism in the Deep South. Jones had a pistol pulled on him at a rest stop counter as he waited for lunch while traveling with the team. His wife, motivated by the Civil Rights movement, was involved with protests at Grayson Stadium. She and another player’s wife decided to sit behind home plate during a game instead of in the segregated section. Jones received retaliation as a result of his wife’s civil protesting.  During the 1962 season, there were several instances of the local NAACP chapter staging civil protests against the segregated seating at Grayson Stadium.

In 1973, Henry Aaron’s brother Tommy started at first base for the Braves’ minor league organization now in Savannah. He took over the team’s manager position halfway through the season and stayed in charge of the team until the end of the 1976 season.

Baseball in Savannah and especially at Grayson Stadium played a significant role in helping to open up society in our town. It is America’s pastime and people identified with it. It was this game of baseball that pulled people together, and it didn’t matter whether you were black or white, young or old, rich or poor. If you believed in a particular player or team, you got up and yelled for them. Baseball had conditioned people on the idea of an integrated society long before we might have realized it, and it helped to open and liberate people from attitudes that somehow people could not be together.

 

For this endeavor I gathered a wealth of information from several resources including but not limited to newspaper (Savannah Morning News, Atlanta Journal) articles; an interview with Brian Lee; research from his book “Baseball in Savannah” and Bruce Adelson’s book “Brushing back Jim Crow.”

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