By Glynn Wilson –
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It was 1947 when Jack “Jackie” Roosevelt Robinson, son of a sharecropper from Cairo, Georgia, broke the color line in baseball. It was the beginning of the end for segregation in all aspects of American life, a trend that began during the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and culminated when schools were finally integrated in the early 1970s when I was in my early teens growing up in the suburbs east of town.
Birmingham, my home town, was a hotbed of violence in 1964 due to the Civil Rights movement that led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in July. In September, the Ku Klux Klan set a bomb off in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church downtown, and Bull Connor’s police force were becoming famous for trying to break up protests with dogs and fire hoses.
But over on the west side of town at Rickwood Field, the first integrated team of black and white players of any kind in Alabama enjoyed success on the ball field and helped set an example for the city, the state and the country.
A number of those players came back to Birmingham for a visit this week to reminisce about old times, reflect on what they accomplished, and to welcome the Barons back to Birmingham after a two decade hiatus in the suburbs.
Author Larry Colton, who wrote a book on the 1964 Barons called Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race, played on that team and helped bring his teammates together for the reunion. He spoke about the experience at a press conference on Tuesday at the new Birmingham Barons Regions Field.
“When these players were here in 1964, there were no black policemen, no black tellers in the banks,” he said. Now, with a high number of minorities on the police force, he said, “That is an incredible improvement. Birmingham, racially, has just come miles.”
While he said this team didn’t really understand the role they were playing at the time, they played an important part in changing attitudes on race.
“They were not only the first integrated team. They were the first integrated basically anything,” he said. “Because of the success they had with each other and the success they had on the field, in the stands and with integrating the fans, it was a model for what Birmingham could do. Not only Birmingham, but for the whole South and the rest of the country. That was really the impact of this team.”
Johnny “Blue Moon” Odom, who went onto success in the major leagues, was signed by the Kansas City Athletics in 1964 and sent to the club’s Double-A farm club team in Birmingham right out of an all African-American high school.
“I was very nervous because I had never played against any race but my own,” he said. “I signed this contract and now I was playing against Mexican guys, white guys and Cubans.”
He gave a lot of credit to manager Haywood Sullivan.
“He knew how to handle us,” he said. “You heard a lot in the ballpark, name calling and stuff like that. But you let that go, because you knew you were here to do a job — to play baseball. We had 22 guys and once we were on the field, I don’t think the ball club saw any color at all. We played together, won together and fortunately, we went on to the major leagues and played good together.
“It’s a lesson everyone here experienced at one time and I’m glad I got that chance to have that experience,” he said. “Right now, these kids out there playing now need to go through what we went through and they’ll know the game a lot better.”
Another member of the team, Rich Allen, reflected on what it was like to play in a segregated place where the African-American fans were relegated to a section in the stadium out in right field. He said Albert Belcher, the team owner, took down the barrier during the 1964 season.
“That allowed the fans to sit wherever they wanted,” Allen said. “I remember going down and telling the fans, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys come on up and sit behind our dugout?'”
Along with manager Haywood Sullivan, he said, “Mr. Belcher played a strong, strong role. He was under a tremendous amount of pressure. We never knew how much pressure he was really under until reading this book when we found out about the bomb scare on opening day. He deserves a lot of credit.”
The new Barons welcomed the surviving members of the ’64 Barons to the new Regions Field in downtown Birmingham on Tuesday, May 14 by allowing them all to pitch out the first ball.
You can see key portions of this event by watching this video produced to go with this significant story in Birmingham and civil rights history.
I was glad to be able to be there and be a part of it, since I attended the final two games the Barons played at Rickwood Field in 1987 and suggested getting the Barons back to Birmingham to William Bell when he was first running for mayor in 2009. I can’t believe the leaders in my home town actually raised the estimated $60 million to build the stadium. They deserve a lot of credit. It’s an absolutely beautiful stadium and everyone for miles around should visit Birmingham and take in a game.
Then, right across the street from the front entrance, also visit the Good People brewery. The IPA and the Brown Ale are now two of my favorite beers. Inside the stadium, Good People beers are a tad steep at $6.50 a 12-ounce pop, but watch for 50-cent hotdog night on Tuesdays. I had three, along three beers. But shhh. Don’t tell the BPD. Krispy Kreme donuts on the drive home : )
© 2013 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.