A League   of Their Own


The Negro Southern League Museum celebrates Birmingham’s rich history of African-American baseball.

Written by Rosalind Fournier // Photography by Chuck St. John

Alicia Johnson-Williams, director of the Negro Southern League Museum, loves the days when former players like Jake Sanders, Willie Walker, Samuel Bruner, and Ernest Fann come by. Surrounded by the best collection of memorabilia from the days of Negro League and Industrial League baseball on display anywhere—including uniforms worn by greats like Satchel Paige and Willie Wells; the “Big Bertha” bat used by Louis Santop, who was the first great power hitter in Negro League baseball; and a breathtaking display of hundreds of signed baseballs—the players, many still living in Birmingham, come to bask in the history. “I love all of them,” Johnson-Williams says. “Along with telling the story of this rich period in our baseball history for the public, we also want to create a home space for these players.  They tell stories, they hang out with one another, they argue…they are just wonderful. You just can’t help but be moved by the experience of watching and engaging with them.”

These men are living testament to a golden era of Birmingham baseball, complex in its obvious association with segregation but celebrated then and now for the extraordinary players who came out of the African-American leagues and how they rallied the community on game days, spawning fierce rivalries and offering up the chance to watch some of the best baseball being played in the country.

At home, the Negro Southern League was represented by the Birmingham Black Barons—one of the league’s greatest teams, winning three Negro National League Pennants in the 40s and counting among its rosters over the years five eventual Hall of Fame members: Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Norman Stearnes, George “Mule” Suttles, and Hilton Smith.

Along with the Black Barons, Birmingham also enjoyed another African-American baseball phenomenon in the form of the Industrial League—so named because the teams were fielded by companies like ACIPCO and Connor Steel, known to hire many an employee for his prowess on the field as much as anything else. Clayton Sherrod recalls some of the best days of his childhood as the Sunday afternoons he spent out at Slossfield Center, where Birmingham Industrial League teams played with ferocious intensity, and the community came out in droves. This was the 1950s, and “of all the things to do, that was the tops,” says Sherrod, now a renowned chef and owner of Chef Clayton Food Systems, “It was almost like a huge family reunion, because Slossfield would be just packed out with families barbecuing and watching the game—four or five hours of baseball—and we thoroughly enjoyed it.”

For those who remember it, and a handful of highly motivated historians who have made a mission of keeping the stories alive, this is sacred history, and the Negro Southern League Museum is its temple.

Clarence Watkins, executive director of the Friends of Rickwood—a group which serves to support Rickwood Field, the oldest professional baseball park in the United States, and home at one time to both the Birmingham Barons and the Black Barons—has been a champion of the Southern Negro League Museum from the beginning. “The history of Southern Negro baseball has been lost to the present,” Watkins says. “The museum brings to light a forgotten history that needs to be remembered. It is my hope that the museum will spark an interest for more scholarship and research. …The Negro Southern League and the Industrial League make Birmingham the capital of Southern Negro Baseball. No other Southern city can claim the quantity and quality of players that Birmingham offers.

“As Rube Foster said in 1909, ‘Birmingham is a hot bed of baseball.’ We need to learn what Rube was talking about.”

No one agrees more than Dr. Layton Revel, a man to whom the city owes a great debt for helping to make the museum possible. Revel, who lives in Dallas, first became intrigued by the Negro League in the 1990s when he met Bill Beverly, a onetime Negro League pitcher; the two became friends, and Beverly invited him to a players’ reunion at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “I went through their museum and thought, it’s a nice exhibit, but where are the uniforms, the bats, the gloves, the posters?” Revel remembers. “Where are all the original artifacts that you expect to find in a museum? And the answer I got was, ‘Well, none of that stuff survived.’”

Revel was unsatisfied with that answer, as well as the lack of documented history about the league, the teams, and the surviving players he seemed now to meet everywhere he went.

“I made some phone calls to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, officials with Major League Baseball, and the museum in Kansas City, and my primary question was, ‘What is being done to find the old ballplayers who played in the Negro League and collect these artifacts?’ And to be quite honest with you, nobody was doing anything.”

Revel decided to take the job on himself, forming the nonprofit Center for Negro League Baseball Research (CNLBR) with a focus on locating former Negro League baseball players, interviewing hundreds of them, and collecting all the artifacts they could find related to black baseball in America. “I was originally told there were only 258 players still alive,” Revel remembers. “Over 20 years, my team and I have found over 500 more.” That team now consists of some 75 volunteers who have helped interview hundreds of players, document statistics, collect artifacts, publish books, and maintain a website dedicated to black baseball history.

Revel says the City of Birmingham originally contacted him when Larry Langford was mayor and eager to partner with Revel’s organization to create a museum for black baseball here in town. Though it took time—and ultimately three different mayors—to bring the dream to fruition, Revel says he can’t think of a more appropriate place. “If you asked me, ‘Layton, if you could build a museum anywhere in the country to represent the history of Negro League baseball, where would you put it?—well, quite honestly, Birmingham has always been my first choice,” Revel explains. “Even back in the 1800s, Birmingham had a black professional team—the Birmingham Unions. In the early 1900s they had the Birmingham Giants, another professional baseball team, and they were the colored champions of the South for a couple of years. Then in 1920 when the Negro National League was formed, the Birmingham Black Barons were among the initial members. They played more seasons of Negro League baseball than any other team that ever played.

“You also have more ballplayers who were from Birmingham than any other city in the United States, and more living Negro League ballplayers in Birmingham today than anywhere else. In addition to that, there was the Birmingham Industrial League, which sent more players to Negro League baseball than any other developmental league or industrial league in the country. So there’s a fabulous, rich history. The city has been wonderful to work with, and we’re just very blessed to be able to have the museum there.”

Sherrod—who not only enjoyed many a Sunday as a kid watching the Industrial League teams play, but played Little League for ACIPCO himself and was a batboy for the Black Barons at Rickwood—says that for him, one of the greatest accomplishments of the museum is to bring more attention to Birmingham’s history of black baseball to people here at home. “Back in the day we had more ballplayers in Birmingham than anywhere in the country,” he says, “and it seemed like everybody knew it but the people here in Birmingham. Sherrod has since become close friends with Revel and is listed among the six primary researchers for the museum.

Johnson-Williams is proud to do her part to make sure the museum lives up to its purpose as a place to celebrate the history of black baseball and continue to recruit new fans. The museum just received its first grant for a youth initiative to educate younger generations about the Negro Leagues.

Johnson-Williams says most people have no idea what to expect when they first come in, but almost all leave with a new appreciation for the game and its history. Her hope is the museum ultimately will serve as a cultural hub for the city. In the coming months, Michael’s Steak House is planning to build out the upstairs and turn it into a restaurant and bar, complete with a balcony overlooking Regions Field.

This year, the museum will also host its inaugural Jackie Robinson Street Festival on April 13—the Saturday before national Jackie Robinson Day, which commemorates the day Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues.

“We have a lot in store on that day, Johnson-Williams says. “We’re going to have food trucks, performances, activities and a kid’s village. The ballplayers too will be present, so we’re very excited,” She adds the event will be a great example of the ways the museum is helping to rally the community around celebrating a part of Birmingham history that was once almost lost to posterity.

“I love to see the diverse patronage that walks through this door,” she adds. “People from all walks of life, ages, and racial backgrounds come to see the exhibit and learn about the story. So this is a world-class museum, and it is my hope for it to be on the national stage.”

Sidebar:

AN OVERDUE PENSION PLAN FOR NEGRO-LEAGUE PLAYERS

Because of his work founding and directing the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, Major League Baseball contacted Revel 15 years ago to ask if he could help them put in place a backdated pension plan for players from the Negro League. To date, the center has identified more than 40 players for whom they could provide official documentation of their careers, and those players have now, after all these years, received a new and much-deserved measure of financial security. “When we find the players and the documentation, they get a check retroactive to when the plan began,” he says. “We just certified four more ballplayers within the last six months; they got one big check to start with that was in excess of $125,000 for backpay. And they’ll continue to get checks for the rest of their lives.”

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