You’re one of the best baseball players in your city, your state, and maybe even in the country. You’re fast. Your pitching arm is strong. Your batting average is stunning. But you can’t play professional baseball.
Because you’re black.
What began as an unwritten but understood rule, racial segregation in baseball was in full force by the early 1900s. As a result, a number of Negro Leagues formed to create more opportunities for talented black baseball players.
The Negro Southern League was created in 1920 by a group of African-American businessmen and baseball enthusiasts. Until its demise in 1951, it would serve as a feeder route for many great black baseball players to go on to the Negro American League and Negro National League.
In 2005 the Negro Southern League Museum opened in Birmingham, Alabama, the birthplace of the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the longest-running Negro League teams.
If you’re lucky, when you visit the Negro Southern League Museum, you’ll get Ernest Fann as your tour guide. In 1962 Fann played for the Raleigh Tigers, a Negro American League team, before getting signed by the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Eventually, though, Fann would make Birmingham his home.
“When I saw the type of baseball they were playing here, I couldn’t leave,” Fann says of Birmingham, where he would play for community teams of the Industrial League after the end of his professional career. Now Fann spends most of his free time giving talks and tours at the Negro Southern League Museum.
“We need to get that history out there to let people know how important black baseball players were at the time,” he says.
Fann considers black baseball players, especially those seeking to integrate the sport, as civil rights activists in their own right. “It didn’t start with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he says. “It started with us, and Martin Luther King just continued the journey for all black people.”
The Negro Southern League Museum, which is operated by the City of Birmingham, boasts about 8,000 square feet of exhibit space, a full-time research center, and the largest collection of Negro League baseball artifacts in the country.
Alicia Johnson Williams, director of the museum, says the thing she loves most about her job is working with former Negro League baseball players who live in Birmingham.
“While the exhibit is impressive, their involvement is my favorite part of working at the museum,” she says. “It’s such an honor being entrusted with the task of propelling their legacy forward and instilling it in young people who may not be aware.”
James “Jake” Sanders tries to visit the museum weekly to share stories of his days of playing for teams such as the Birmingham Black Barons, the Raleigh Tigers, the Detroit Stars, and the Kansas City Monarchs. “The Negro League was no joke,” says Sanders, who was an outfielder known for his strong arm and accuracy. “They could hit, they could run, they could throw.”
Yet, racism continued to stunt the careers of many black players, even after baseball was officially integrated in 1947 with Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sanders says he was briefly signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system but was soon cut for a white ballplayer.
Willie Walker, who played for the Birmingham Black Barons, the Philadelphia Stars, and the Champaign Eagles, was promised a contract with the Chicago White Sox—that never happened. Nonetheless, Walker says he’d do it all again if he could. “My time in the Negro League was great,” he says. “I got a chance to travel and there was a lot of love between the players.”
Sanders never let discrimination quell his passion for baseball either. “Just to say you played in the Negro League with some of the greatest ballplayers in life, that was an honor,” Sanders says. “We had the greatest pitcher in the world in (Leroy) Satchel Paige, the greatest home run hitter in Josh Gibson, and the fastest man to ever play this game in (James Thomas) Cool Papa Bell.”
Fann, Sanders, and Walker believe one of the best ways for younger generations to honor the legacy of Negro League ballplayers is to learn about their accomplishments by visiting places such as the Negro Southern League Museum, which tells the story of African-American baseball through the eyes of Birmingham.
The exhibits pay tribute to legends of Negro League baseball, highlight the Birmingham Industrial League, salute players from Birmingham who made it to the major leagues, and showcase modern players with a connection to Birmingham, such as Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, who both played for the Birmingham Barons.
Must-see artifacts at the museum include a collection of more than 1,600 baseballs signed by Negro League players; the uniform of Satchel Paige, one of the fastest pitchers in the Negro League; and the bat of Louis “Big Bertha” Santop, who has been called the first of the great Negro League sluggers and who went down in history as the batter who outhit Babe Ruth in a 1920 postseason game.
Most of the museum’s artifacts are on loan from Dr. Layton Revel, founder and executive director of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research in Texas. “If I had to pick one city in the whole world to build a Negro League museum, Birmingham would always be my first choice,” Dr. Revel says. In addition to being the birthplace of the Birmingham Black Barons, Birmingham claims the largest number of Negro League players in the country and is home to the country’s oldest baseball field, Rickwood Field. Also, the first president of the Negro Southern League, Frank Perdue, was from Birmingham.
Fann, Sanders, and Walker all hope more unsung heroes of African-American baseball are soon recognized in the Negro Southern League Museum and beyond.
Although Fann’s baseball career was cut short by racial discrimination, he believes his time in baseball had a bigger purpose. “Our number one goal was to open the doors for black baseball players,” Fann says.
Though he said there’s still much work to be done, he says great strides were made by the Negro League players, and the Negro Southern League Museum shows just how far they’ve come.