By the end of World War I black baseball had become the number one entertainment attraction for urban black populations throughout the country. Many South Florida cities boasted Negro League teams with seasons lasting up to eight months.
“We played teams from Key West to Jacksonville,” former Negro League player Johnny Alexander, said. “There was baseball all over Florida, and we played every week.”
Alexander, 70, a Fort Lauderdale resident, served as a utility player for the Fort Lauderdale Giants (1955) and the Deerfield Cardinals (1960s).
Buses would take about 35 players 300 to 400 miles every day for night games, John L. Gray remembers.
“Sometimes we would be on the road anywhere from six weeks to three months before we saw a hotel,” Gray, 76, said. “We moved fast. You may play a game here and the next night you had to be in Tampa or even Atlanta. After a while, it got old. There was no time to practice and less time to rest.”
Gray, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, was a utility player for the Fort Lauderdale Braves (1953) and, later, the Florida State League in Daytona Beach (1956).
Alexander and Gray were among the almost 60 people, including youth from Joseph C. Carter Park’s little league teams, who turned out on Friday for the Jackie Robinson Day Celebration at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale.
Grammy Award winner Don Mizell, a Fort Lauderdale native and a passionate fan of baseball as a youth, was the guest speaker.
The center previously hosted Negro League tributes before the National Baseball League proclaimed April 15 Jackie Robinson Day, said Larry Holland, exhibits coordinator. Robinson played his first major league game on April 15, breaking baseball’s color barrier. “So we invited former players and owners to participate and share the history and Robinson’s story with the kids,” Holland said.
More Than a Game, a Broward-based nonprofit group of African-American baseball enthusiasts organized the celebration. The organization arranges exhibitions, field trips, roundtable discussions and little league teams to promote youth involvement in baseball.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson, born in Cairo, Ga. in 1919, played one season with the Kansas City
Monarchs in 1945. Two years later, then Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey recruited Robinson for his team, ending racial segregation in professional baseball; the majors had not had an African-American player since Oberlin College star Moses “Fleetwood” Walker played with Toledo in the Northwestern League in 1889 and baseball became segregated.
Negro League players earned $3 per day for meals and about $500 per month for games, Gray said. “I lived off of the three dollars and sent the rest home to my wife and three kids,” he said.
Cities where games were played were not receptive to the visiting teams until the late ’60s, Alexander said. “We often stayed in the homes of other ball players, but in Key West we slept in hotels. They were probably the most receptive because it was mixed with blacks, Cubans, Puerto Ricans – everybody.”
Florida Negro League teams competed with baseball schools, mixed teams and prisons, Alexander said. “We played Glades Correction teams in Polk County and they were tough.”
Gray said Robinson was his role model. “I wrote him a letter in 1947. He replied and let me know that scouts would be combing the states and black athletes would have a chance to show their skills. And he was right.”
Gray went on to play with the farm systems of the Chicago White Sox and then the Chicago Cubs. “I got as high as AAA,” he said.
The Negro National League disbanded after the 1949 season. The Negro American League continued through the 1950s but lost the bulk of its talent and shut down in 1962.
After retiring from baseball, Robinson, father of three, became a businessman and civil rights activist. He died of a heart attack in 1972 at age 53. His jersey, No. 42, was retired in 1997.
“If the Negro League would have succeeded, it would have surpassed the majors,” Alexander said. “The players were superior and would have taken over major league baseball.”
The inner city teams started to disperse because younger players started to see that there were better opportunities, Alexander said. “Baseball still was America’s sport and not readily receptive to blacks. Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans were coming in but the door was not open as wide for [African Americans] in baseball.
“Had we been given the level playing field, I’m sure you would have seen players like LeBron James come along years ago — but the opportunities were not there,” he said.
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net