Legacy of the Birmingham Barons, 1964

From Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race, by Larry Colton (Hachette, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4817-4852:

[Paul] Lindblad was not a complicated man, just pure Midwestern stock. But as he thought back on the season and his teammates, he knew it had been something special: the grace and speed of Bert Campaneris, who’d risked his life to flee Fidel Castro’s Cuba… the power and determination of Tommie Reynolds, who two years earlier had filled out his last will and testament prior to hoisting his combat gear onto an army truck in Germany as the world waited on the precipice of ruin… the physical stamina of Hoss Bowlin, who grew up on an Arkansas tenant farm and spent much of the season hunched over in pain from having one of his testicles removed… the raw talent of Johnny Blue Moon Odom, who started the year washing dishes for the minimum wage at Macon’s Dempsey Hotel, where he was expected to use only the rear entrance… and the calm leadership skills of Haywood Sullivan, who grew up down the road in Dothan and knew all about the South’s history of lynchings and the hard-edged racial protocols but treated his players as equals.

Of course Lindblad hadn’t come to Birmingham to study family trees. In a sense, he and the rest of the team were poorly paid mercenaries, bringing to Birmingham their arsenal of skills and talent. They had applied those skills to winning ball games, and now it was time to move on. Other than Stanley Jones, none of them would stay around. They would all retreat, hurrying back to their hometowns, families, friends, and jobs in the warehouse for a buck twenty an hour. A few would return to Florida for Instructional League. From his time in Birmingham, Lindblad would preserve some newspaper clippings and a few Kodak moments taken by the apartment pool, but little else.

He was proud to have been part of Birmingham’s first integrated team. But sports had already provided a blueprint for breaking down barriers. For years black athletes had gotten white fans to suspend their prejudices in the name of team or national pride, as they had for Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Joe Louis. Although these black athletes couldn’t belong to elite country clubs or send their children to the schools of their choice, their exploits on the playing fields and arenas had pulled down a few pickets of the fence guarding the house of bigotry. The Barons had just invited all the neighbors to join them in the backyard.

“See ya next spring,” said Lindblad, shaking Hoss’s hand.

“Now, don’t you be going and drinking out of any strange toilets,” replied Hoss.

“My biggest regret this whole year,” said Lindblad, “is not getting to see you in that grass skirt.”

“You can thank Mr. Finley for that.”

For the second-sacker named Lois, it was back to Paragould, Arkansas. His wife, Madelyn, had a job teaching school, but he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Maybe take a few college classes. Maybe drive a school bus. In a few days, the disappointment of losing out to Lynchburg would subside. He would start thinking about where he would play next year. His slump at the end of the year had dropped his final average to .242, not exactly a punched ticket to move up, but he knew Sullivan liked the way he played the game. He led the team in games, at-bats, walks, and ugly scars. Maybe, if he was lucky, he’d get invited to the big-league training camp. That was the dream anyway.

Neither Lindblad nor Hoss, nor anyone else on the team, had volunteered to come to Birmingham—they’d been assigned by the baseball gods. Before the season started, none of them had said, You know, I think it’s deplorable what has happened in Birmingham this past year and I would like to go there and make a difference.

They were not social activists. They didn’t volunteer at soup kitchens or in school programs. Basically, they lived in their apartments, drove their Malibus, Bonnevilles, and Impalas to the ballpark, played the games, and then went home and watched Johnny Carson and got ready to do it all over again the next day. They did not carry signs to end Jim Crow. They did not march on City Hall. They did not speak out on the issues. Some of them didn’t know Bull Connor from Strom Thurmond… or care about either one of them.

They just showed up and played integrated baseball, which, according to Alf Van Hoose, was the way baseball was supposed to be played, even in Birmingham.

In 1964, the culture of minor-league baseball—or for that matter, the ethos of all sports—didn’t encourage the mixing of social justice and athletic competition.

It was supposed to be about what happened on the field. And Birmingham was better for it.

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