Charlotte’s Negro League baseball past fading fast
Charlotte was once home to some of the most famous Negro League Baseball teams in the Eastern United States, with names like the Charlotte Black Hornets, the Red Socks and the Charlotte Pepsi Cola Giants.
But like so many chapters of 20th century African-American history, the facts were ignored for so long that many of the details have been lost.
The Texas-based Center for Negro League Baseball Research says most of the mill towns in the state had their own teams, though it believes few players survive now in the Charlotte region. Still, the center remains in constant search of both players and artifacts for a growing research collection.
What little remains of teams such as the Black Hornets and Red Socks are people like Edna Williams, Kenneth Douglas, Annie Thomas and Gracie Harper. The bat boys (or girls), unofficial score keepers and unpaid team gofers.
Their father, the late Samuel Douglas, a Charlottean who once owned the Charlotte Red Socks, and their uncle, the late Pringle Ferguson, was an owner of the Charlotte Black Hornets. They have no artifacts or photos of the two teams, but their childhood recollections document an era when African-Americans created a world of their own, filled with heroes, role models and, yes, even scoundrels.
It slowly all fell apart by the ’60s when integration absorbed the Negro League’s superstars into once all-white professional teams, says Kenneth Douglas, 57, who was a bat boy for the Charlotte Red Socks in the ’60s.
“But there was a time when baseball was king,” he says. “It was a time when blacks couldn’t go everywhere they wanted like now, or do anything they wanted, but they could play baseball.
“Baseball was the black community.”
‘Event of the week’
Charlotte’s tradition of black baseball has been traced as far back as the 1880s, including teams populated by student athletes from what is now Johnson C. Smith University.
The Center for Negro League Baseball says the Charlotte Black Hornets were among the most famous of the minor league teams, while Charlotte’s Red Socks were a “barnstorming team” that played in a smaller geographic area.
In either case, it was never just a game.
“It was black society’s event of the week,” says Layton Revel, founder of the Center for Negro Baseball. “It was about big picnics and a day spent at the ballfield, and even dances with live bands. It wouldn’t be uncommon to have 1,000 fans there.”
That’s the world Samuel Douglas’ four surviving children recall.
“Imagine going to a carnival, packed with hundreds of people, booing and jeering you. It was grilling pigs and chicken, with beer and every other kind of food you can imagine. And pretty girls came from everywhere,” Kenneth Douglas says.
His older sister, Gracie Harper, rode with the team before he was born, though she declines to give her age. At that time, the Red Socks had its own red-and-black bus. She doesn’t recall instances of prejudice on the road, but says players didn’t leave the bus when it wasn’t necessary. Kenneth Douglas says that’s because blacks of the era weren’t naive when it came to the rules of Jim Crow-era segregation.
“I remember my dad talking about places they couldn’t go, places you couldn’t stop. But you got to remember, at that time you knew where and when not to travel. They knew where the police would be,” he said.
“There was a communication (between teams) before you were playing so everyone knew when you were going to arrive and they were all looking out for you. You had to be careful.”
Part of American history
Layton Revel, 66, says when he started the Center for Negro League Baseball Research in 1995, it was believed there were only 275 Negro League players still alive. He has since found more 500. His goal is to gather their history before it’s gone for good.
The term “Negro League baseball” has come to mean a lot of different things, he says. Some view Negro League as including only teams that played at the highest level or the “Major Leagues” of black baseball. Others include only black teams that played before African-Americans were given a fair shot at all-white major league teams in the late ’40s and ’50s. (Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play in the major leagues, when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base in 1947.)
Revel takes a broader approach, including all the above and more, plus black military teams, barnstorming teams and small-town black teams sponsored by companies.
“The Negro League is not just African-American history. It’s part of the foundation of the game of baseball, and baseball is part of our country’s history,” said Revel, who knows of the Black Hornets as part of his research.
“In the Negro Carolina League, the Black Hornets were a force to be reckoned with. They were real professionals.”
However, local historian Michael Turner Webb says the earliest incarnation of the Red Socks was actually the better team. Webb is working on a book about Negro League ball in the Carolinas, which he believes gave rise to black entrepreneurship and was a precursor to the civil rights movement.
“The Black Hornets had more money and more manpower, so they were able to do more traveling and had more publicity,” Webb says. “The Red Socks started in the late 1910s and they used to beat the socks off the Charlotte Black Hornets.”
Both teams changed hands multiple times, he says. Some also had periods when they disbanded, only to be reborn under new management. Pay for the players was slim to none, often coming from a hat being passed around in the stands, he said.
Webb’s research has so far led him to five Negro League ball players still alive in the region, and he helped gather them the past two years for Negro League Appreciation Day tributes hosted by the Charlotte Knights.
Among them was Carl Edward “Satch” Forney, 78, who played for the Black Hornets in 1956 and for the all-black Charlotte Pepsi Cola Giants in ’57. He went on to play for a series of minor league and semi-pro teams and, at age 22, became the youngest manager in professional baseball for the Indianapolis Clowns, Webb says.
Forney lives in Gastonia and gets around in a wheelchair, having lost a leg. His recollections of Negro League baseball now are a jumble of proud moments, with little emphasis on the finer details of when they occurred.
Yes, he says, the games were often community celebrations, with liquor and gambling and fish cooked in wash pots. And yes, Forney says, there was dancing and guitar playing, along with an unwritten rule that moms should leave the party early because some guy would eventually start a fight.
The pay was lousy, if they got money at all, but Forney says that didn’t matter in those moments when players looked up at stands full of fans and “felt like you were in Yankee Stadium.”
“When we played white teams, it always felt like we were in the big leagues, because you were playing a different color. They always told us how bad they were going to beat us, and we always won,” he says. “When we beat ’em, it always felt good, but we didn’t fall out about it. They took losing well.”
In his later years, when blacks began finding their way onto white teams, he learned rejection would always be prefaced with the phrase “It ain’t the right time.”
But that didn’t stop him and other black players from trying harder, Forney says.
“When I was a boy in Belmont, I remember sitting around the radio with my mom and dad, listening to the play-by-play of games and when Jackie Robinson hit a home run, we all went crazy,” he says. “And it wasn’t just us. If he hit one over the left wall, you could hear everybody in the neighborhood hollering and running around in their yard. ‘Jackie hit a home run. Jackie hit a home run.’
“It was a neighborhood full of cooks and maids, and it just made us proud. He was a black man, and he could play ball. And we all wanted to be like him.”
Center for Negro League Baseball
The Center for Negro League Baseball Research remains on the lookout for former players and artifacts from the teams. If you can help, call 469-951-8156 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org