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'Southern League': Birmingham Barons Break Racial Divide


Pro baseball hasn't done much to inspire lately, think doping. But here is a story that might restore your faith in the good of the game.


GREENE: In Alabama earlier this season, the Minor League Birmingham Barons welcomed back some veteran players from a seminal year in the team's and the city's history.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And now, ladies and gentlemen, doing our first pitch tonight, our 1964 Barons.

JOHNNY BLUE MOON ODOM: Well, it's great to be here and see these guys again. It's been like 49 years and...

GREENE: That's Johnny Blue Moon Odom. He was a star pitcher for the '64 team. He received what was the biggest signing bonus ever given to an African-American athlete. One of his former teammates, white infielder Hoss Bowlin, recalls another reason why having Blue Moon's on the roster was such a big deal.

HOSS BOWLIN: In 1964, we came in here. And it was the first year I believe that the blacks had been able to play.

GREENE: That's right. The '64 Barons introduced integrated baseball to Alabama a full 17 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues.

Not so surprising, when you consider that at the time, Birmingham was known as Bombingham the violent epicenter of the Jim Crow South, ruled over by the city's infamous Police Commissioner Bull Connor.

BULL CONNOR: You can never whip these birds if you don't keep you and them separate. I found that out in Birmingham. You've got to keep the white and the black separate.

GREENE: In Bull Connor's Birmingham, integration in sports was actually a crime. This is the voice of author Larry Colton.

LARRY COLTON: In Birmingham, there was a law. It was called the Checkers Ordinance, which said that blacks and whites could not be involved in any recreational activities - basketball, football, baseball, and including checkers.

GREENE: Colton was a player for one of the Barons' rival teams. But he's spent much of his life as a writer. He joined us to discuss his new book about the integration of the Barons called "Southern League: A true story of Baseball, Civil Rights and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race."

As Colton recalls, for decades, there were two Barons teams.

COLTON: Basically the white Barons, the white people went to see them. And the black Barons, the black people went to see them. And they had a chicken wire fence that separated. If somebody from the opposite race went, they had to sit on the far side of the chicken wire fence.

GREENE: Totally divided.

COLTON: Both on the field and in the stands.

GREENE: But Major League Baseball took a stand, mandating in 1961, that all Minor League teams integrate. In Birmingham, the Checkers Rule made that illegal. Bull Connor pressured Barons' owner Albert Belcher to disband both teams, white and black. But as the Barons crumbled, so did the city's reputation. Images of Birmingham cops turning fire hoses and dogs on African-Americans flashed across television screens around the country.

COLTON: John F. Kennedy was still alive and he had said that Bull Connor had done more for the Civil Rights Movement than Abraham Lincoln.

GREENE: Birmingham residents soured on their firebrand police commissioner. In 1963, he was voted out and soon the Checkers Rule was history. That cleared the way for team owner Albert Belcher to bring back the Barons, as one team.

COLTON: He thought baseball had always been part of the fabric of Birmingham, be it white baseball or black baseball. So he decided he was going to bring the team back despite a lot of opposition, including the Ku Klux Klan.

GREENE: Which brings us to the night before opening day, Colton picks up the story at the home of team owner, Albert Belcher.

COLTON: About 10 o'clock at night, he gets a knock on the door and there is one of the main players of the Ku Klux Klan. And this man said there was not going to be any violence, that they would pick their causes. But Belcher didn't know if it was just a ploy to get him to relax or what - there was no guarantee. I mean you certainly weren't going to take the word of the Ku Klux Klan.

GREENE: But Belcher also didn't want this moment to slip away. And the next day, baseball fans - black and white - poured into Rickwood Field. Black fans, as they always did during white Barons' games, sat out along the right field line, on the other side of where that chicken wire fence used to be.

COLTON: It was Albert Belcher who personally took down the chicken wire fence. In fact, he even told a few of the black patrons, Well, you can go sit anywhere - you don't have to sit way down there.

GREENE: Belcher was practically willing this day to go smoothly, not just as a promoter of racial harmony, but as the owner of a baseball team that was getting back in business. When Belcher was called to his office and received a bomb threat during the game, he decided go quietly back to his seat and hope for the best.

The day did go smoothly, although the Barons lost. And as the season went on, the crowd at Rickwood Field got behind the home team.

COLTON: The black players and Latino players were subjected to a lot of verbal abuse, but not in Birmingham because they were their players. But yet when they would go on the road, they were yelled at, spit on, and everything else.

GREENE: And road trips throughout the South brought other indignities. Black players had to stay in separate hotels, which were decidedly unequal. They also often couldn't eat as a team. At their recent reunion, right-handed pitcher Tommie Reynolds, one of the team's black players, explained why they overcame such divisions.

TOMMIE REYNOLDS: I was in the military three years, and we were getting prepared to fight for our country if something happened, and somebody has your back all the time. That's the same way with baseball. It's like a war out there, your one team against the other team.

GREENE: And they went out on the battlefield for 140 games. The team finished with a record of 80 wins and 60 losses - one game out of first place. This is relief pitcher Ken Sanders looking back.

KEN SANDERS: We were just, whatever, 20 guys, 20 young men. We wanted to play baseball. We didn't care if it was Rickwood Field or a sandlot. And I think we were, of course, aware of it, but, you know, our interests - whether black, white, yellow or green - we wanted to play ball. We wanted to win. And we almost did it here

GREENE: For a number of the Barons, that season was just a step towards the Big Leagues. And for the racially-divided city of Birmingham, it was just one step in a long, difficult journey. But Colton says the players weren't thinking much about symbolism.

COLTON: They weren't activists. They weren't volunteering or marching or doing anything. They had this season. It was a very successful season. They had a lot of great players - Johnny Blue Moon Odom, Bert Campaneris, Paul Lindblad - guys who went to play in the Big Leagues, and they showed how this could happen.

GREENE: How a bunch of athletes racially diverse, from different backgrounds, could take the field together and just play ball.


GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene


And I'm Renee Montagne

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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