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Negro League Baseball

This page is for documenting the history of Negro League Baseball that relates to Arkansas.

Note that some Negro League baseball in Arkansas was professional, and some was amateur. However, the line between the two is often blurry. For this reason, Negro League Baseball has been given it's own category on the Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia.

Table of Contents

Negro League Baseball People
Negro League Baseball Teams
Negro League Baseball Leagues
Negro League Baseball Places
Negro League Baseball Spring Training
Negro League Baseball Miscellany

History

Because the subject was rarely covered by the Arkansas white press, it's difficult to trace the history of Negro baseball in Arkansas. On rare occasions, local newspapers did mention the African-American side of the game, giving a small glimpse into this realm of baseball. In the early years, only the most extreme Negro baseball events were noted. One such example comes from 1873 when a young boy on an African-American baseball team was killed after he was struck with a bat during a game. Another comes from 1884 when a game between two Little Rock Negro teams, the Reds and the Browns, ended in a fight.

But there were exceptions, of course. The first known Negro baseball game in Arkansas to be reported by the white press was published on August 14th, 1885 in the Arkansas Gazette. The game was played between the Reds and the Cadets and resulted in a 25-18 Reds victory. But this media coverage was not typical, and the story of Arkansas' Negro baseball teams during the 19th century remains mostly unknown.

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David Wyatt, 1902.
By the turn of the century, however, at least one Negro team in Arkansas began making a name for itself. The Hot Springs Arlingtons began playing in the late 1890s and and continued through about 1904, playing teams from Memphis and around Texas. The team incorporated several professionals, including future Hall of Famer Rube Foster. Another was David Wyatt who later became a well-know African-American sportswriter. Wyatt, in his writings, provided much information on the Arlingtons, as well as his involvement in a conspiracy with details that remain a mystery today.

In the spring, of 1901, Wyatt was living and working in Hot Springs. There also was John McGraw, manager of the Baltimore Orioles, and Negro league player Charlie Grant. McGraw, noticing Grant's fine ballplaying skills, attempted to sign him to a contract with the Orioles. However, Mcgraw, knowing Grant would not be allowed into the all-white major leagues, created a scheme with Wyatt's help to give Grant the alias of a Native-American named Tokohama. The plan fell through, and Grant was never allowed to play in the major leagues on account of his African-American heritage.

Elsewhere in Arkansas, other players were feeling the burden of Jim Crow in baseball too. Near College Hill, AR, a Negro team from Texarkana was unfairly punished after playing baseball on a Sunday in 1906. Arrested and jailed, the team was forced to work on the county roads for $1 a day, having no money to pay their fines.

But Negro baseball in Arkansas was by no means in total despair. The Freeman, an African-American newspaper based in Indianapolis, IN, began covering the baseball events coming out of Arkansas around 1910. In this way, the paper revealed something of a Negro baseball renaissance in the state. Games were reported from cities across Arkansas, including Little Rock, Hot Springs, Malvern, Arkadelphia, Marianna, and Helena.

These teams proved to have some real talent too. Among Arkansas' Negro players included many who were able to play professionally in the newly developing Negro Leagues. Arkadelphia, AR in particular produced many professionals, including Harry Kenyon, Darltie Cooper, Anthony Cooper, Connie Rector, and all four of the Spearman brothers. But perhaps Arkansas' most successful Negro leaguer from this period was Floyd "Jelly" Gardner?, who spent more than 16 years in the Negro Leagues from 1917-1933 and was named to the 2006 Special Negro League Committee Hall of Fame ballot.

But as information from this era is wonderfully abundant, information on Negro baseball in Arkansas during the 1920s is equally scarce or non-existent. Hot Springs fielded a team in 1923, but otherwise, reports of African-Americans playing baseball in Arkansas were eerily quiet. Nonetheless, by the early 1930s, Negro baseball was being played in Arkansas like never before. In 1931, the Little Rock Greys joined the Negro Southern League, and returned for the 1932 season. That year, the NSL was perhaps the top league in the country, enough so to be credited by some as a "major league". Little Rock had to drop out in the early goings of the season, but had reached the peak in Negro baseball nonetheless.

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Claybrook Tigers, circa 1935.
In the northeast section of the state near the Mississippi River, a team from the small logging town of Claybrook, AR was becoming the most successful Negro League club ever from Arkansas. By 1933, the Claybrook Tigers were considered the Semi-Pro Champions of the South (1). Their success helped them compete in the Negro Southern League from 1935-1936. During those years, Claybrook fielded what is likely the best collection of negro players in Arkansas history.

African-American baseball fans from Hot Springs also had something to be excited about during the '30s. A city famous as a spring training site for professional baseball clubs, Hot Springs offered spring training camps to Negro League teams too. The Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, two of Negro baseball's most successful teams, each trained in Hot Springs during the 1930s, bringing the likes of Oscar Charlton, Josh Gibson, Jud Wilson and Judy Johnson to Arkansas.

As the decade turned to the 1940s, Negro baseball everywhere was hindered by the World War at hand. Towards the end of the war, however, baseball figures in Little Rock regrouped, and the Little Rock Black Travelers were formed. True to their name, the Black Travelers played at Travelers Field, home of the team's white minor league counterparts. The club joined the Negro Southern League, but as was seemingly Little Rock's luck, moved to Richmond, VA in late July with a losing record.

Following World War II, Negro teams sprang up around the state. The Fort Smith Eagles, Pine Bluff Bear Cats, and Helena Eagles were playing respectable schedules, but the success of Negro Baseball hit a welcomed snag in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the big leagues. African-American baseball fans turned their attention towards the white Major Leagues, and the Negro Leagues suffered.

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Jim (Left) and Leander (right) Tugerson (The Sporting News 4/22/1953).
Unfortunately, while Negro League baseball teams in Arkansas quickly faded away, black prejudice and Jim Crow did not. In 1953, the white Hot Springs Bathers minor league team signed two African-American brothers, Jim and Leander Tugerson. The signing turned into a controversy, and in fear of being dropped from the league, Hot Springs sent the two pitchers to play with Knoxville instead. By May, however, Hot Springs recalled the Tugerson brothers, and on the 20th, scheduled Jim to start. Just as the game was starting, Tugerson was ruled ineligible to play on account of his race, and Hot Springs was forced to forfeit.

The Tugerson brothers were never allowed to play for the Bathers. However, the color barrier in Arkansas baseball was finally broken in 1954 when Uvoyd Reynolds appeared with Hot Springs on July 20th, becoming the first African-American to play minor league baseball in Arkansas. Some Arkansas teams followed Hot Springs' example, other did not. The Arkansas Travelers did not integrate until 1963 when future big league MVP Dick Allen starred with the club, ending perhaps the last chapter of Negro baseball in Arkansas.

Sources

1) Afro American, 9/23/1933