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Negro League Roots Found Deep In North Carolina History

Courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville
In this undated photo, the Asheville Royal Giants pose at the former Oates Park on Southside Avenue.

This year marks the one 100th anniversary of the founding of baseball's Negro National League. Teams formed to fill a void for Black players who were banned from Major League Baseball because of the color of their skin. Some of these teams competed well against MLB teams in attendance and talent with legends such as Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige.

Although North Carolina did not have any official Negro League teams, writer Bijan C. Bayne says many of its players came from semi-pro teams in Rocky Mount, Raleigh, Asheville, Durham and Charlotte.

Bijan C. Bayne

Bijan Bayne: The first Black American to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, Tom Alston, is from North Carolina. So he had played for teams down there first. And some of the elite Black players in what we do call the Negro Leagues started playing in North Carolina. Like the pitcher Bun Hayes and several others.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Now, you mentioned Burnalle (Bun) Hayes. He played for Johnson C. Smith, correct?

Bayne: That's right. And also Buck Leonard, who's from Rocky Mount, comes from the area. There's a gentleman named Bud Barbee, a pitcher who's from North Carolina. Dave Barnhill, the pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns, is from Greenhill. Bert Simmons, who was living and was with us very recently in the 2010s, is from Tarboro. But he also went on to teams like the Baltimore Elite Giants. Laymon Yokley, who pitched for Livingstone University and was Bun Hayes's college rival, is a North Carolinian. But these men went on to play for larger teams like the Baltimore Black Sox and the Homestead Grays.

Glenn: Did any of them make it to the Hall of Fame?

Bayne: Yes. Buck Leonard's in the Hall of Fame. Charlie Neal was on the World Championship Mets in the late '60s, played for the Raleigh Tigers before he was a Dodger. What would happen is in the mid- to late-30s and sometimes a little earlier, the Newark Eagles and teams like that would train in North Carolina before they would move north for the regular season. And sometimes if they played against a team that was local and they liked a player who was on one of the semi-pro teams, they would bring him back up north with them.

Like if Effa Manley liked one of the local boys, they would sign them because her husband, Abe Manley, was from Winston-Salem. So North Carolina was the equivalent of Florida and Arizona in the Major Leagues for them.

Glenn: And you mentioned the Newark Eagles and the Schenectady Mohawk Giants, those were Negro Baseball League teams.

Bayne: Right. And the Newark Eagles for a little while had a farm team called the Winston-Salem Giants, and it may have had more than one name. It wasn't a farm team in the sense of official affiliation, unlike the major leagues where you have a contract and those are your players in your chain or your system.

But it was sort of a handshake agreement that Effa Manley would bring gentlemen up from that team, if she thought they were capable of playing for the Eagles.

Glenn: And getting back to Tom Alston, who went on to become the first African American to play with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was from Greensboro. This was in 1954 when he signed on with the Cardinals. What was it like for him, you know, during those days?

Bayne: If you look at the mid-1950s when he signed, in 1956, Bill Russell was drafted from the University of San Francisco by the St. Louis Hawks, and he refused to play in that market. So that gives you a feel for what professional Black athletes thought of the housing and fan and media environment in St. Louis. The fact that Bill Russell became a (Boston) Celtic because he refused to play for the team he was drafted for. So it had to be rough for Mr. Alston because that was the Major League's Southern-most market and Southern-most team. So their fan base extended into Mississippi and Texas and Arkansas and all over Missouri.

Glenn: Tell me about who these owners were, who owned the semi-pro teams in North Carolina.

Bayne: Well, in Winston-Salem, one of the most successful teams was owned by the owner of the bus company, which is really a taxicab company. In Asheville, some of the men worked at the Biltmore estate. Some of the other owners were in insurance and also in the business such as a funeral parlors. There was a gentleman who owned a textile company. His name was E.W. Pearson. Mr. Pearson was unique in that he really developed a section of Asheville called Black (indistinguishable) Street.

Glenn: And "giants" was kind of like a code name that if you saw something about a team, tell us about that.

Bayne: In the 1910s and 1920s, if you saw a sideboard or a poster or any advertising about a baseball team that was coming to your town, "giant" was a euphemism for the fact that it was a Black team. So if you heard Nashville Giants, Asheville Royal Giants, the white fans and Black fans understood that that was a Black touring team.

Glenn: And then just just briefly, tell us about how long did these teams last? And was integration the death knell for them?

Bayne: Integration was the death knell in a sense. Probably not in the same way that it would have been in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Brooklyn because they have competing Major League teams. They didn't have that option in Raleigh and Durham, in Charlotte. So those teams survived in some cases until the early 1960s. But on a very fledgling level. So integration was somewhat the death knell, but mostly because the talent pool was usurped slowly and gradually by the Major Leagues.

Glenn: Bijan Bayne as a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., he's written extensively about the Negro National League and Black baseball teams in North Carolina.