Negro Leagues’ legacy in New Orleans is rich but often overlooked
On the evening of Oct. 1, 1939, eventual Baseball Hall-of-Famer Mule Suttles cracked a monster home run over the left-center field fence of Pelican Stadium, helping to cement the North squad’s 10-1 clubbing over the South team in the first annual Negro Leagues North-South All-Star Game. The landmark contest, which would become an annual series for several years, was the brainchild of local hotel owner and baseball entrepreneur Allen Page, and it highlights the vibrant, talent-rich but underappreciated black baseball scene in the Crescent City of the early 20th century.
NOW: Baseball has been integrated for 70 years, leaving the American pastime’s segregated past for study by researchers, journalists and baseball history enthusiasts interested in the men and women who spent their careers playing in the shadows of the national game. That’s especially true in New Orleans, where the region’s hidden black baseball history is still being uncovered and appreciated. Unlike more well-known Negro Leagues legacies in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Newark and Birmingham, the Big Easy’s segregation-era, African-American hardball saga has until the last decade been largely ignored.
- New Orleans’ history of black baseball stretches all the way back to the years after the Civil War. Among the teams that played in the city: the New Orleans Pinchbacks, the New Orleans Black Pelicans, the Crescent Stars, the New Orleans Creoles, the Algiers Giants, the Caulfield Ads and the Jax Red Sox.
- Page envisioned the North-South All-Star Game as a complement to the more well-known East-West Game, held annually in Chicago in mid-summer. The North-South contest was usually held in early autumn, near the end of the regular Negro Leagues season.
- Due to the type of shoddy record-keeping that plagued segregation- era black baseball — and continues to stymie modern Negro Leagues researchers in their quest to uncover the details of the game’s past — it’s unclear how many years the annual North-South game ran, but it appears the last one took place in 1945.
- At its peak, the North-South game drew well more than 10,000 fans and garnered significant attention from the national African-American press.
- For the North squad, that initial 1939 contest was considered a tune-up for an upcoming barnstorming jaunt to the West Coast. The South roster, meanwhile, contained a smattering of top-level players — such as the Memphis Red Sox’s Jelly Taylor, Larry Brown and Roosevelt Davis — mixed with minor-league-level players, mostly from the South. The disparity between the two teams’ quality resulted in the North’s lopsided triumph.
- Arguably the highest-profile member of the South team was pitcher Johnny Wright, a New Orleans kid who would later be signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers just weeks after the team broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson.
- The North-South game enjoyed what was probably its most compelling year in 1943, when the great Satchel Paige took the mound for the South squad, earning it a rare victory in the series by topping the North, 5-3. Roughly 18,000 fans packed Pelican Stadium for the spectacle, including about 3,000 servicemen, who were admitted free.
- Robinson, who for several years brought together black all-star teams for barnstorming tours after the conclusion of the big-league season, once brought his star-studded club to New Orleans to play a local aggregation. Promoting those games? Allen Page.
When people talk about baseball history in New Orleans, the conversation usually goes quickly to the minor-league Pelicans, the team that played for years at their namesake stadium at Tulane and Carrollton. It’s important to remember, however, that only part of the city got to enjoy seeing the Pels play. In an age when a rigid but unspoken color line kept black players, managers, team owners and fans out of organized baseball, the Negro Leagues in New Orleans — much like in the rest of the country — gave the area African-American community an opportunity to witness and savor the national pastime.