LITTLE ROCK “Baseball was within the reach of all men, satisfying to both spectator and player. It was a game of the people, played by and for them.”
—Historian Richard Crepeau
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The late 1970s were a significant turning point in Arkansas’s athletic history. Sidney Moncrief, a basketball star, became the first African-American college athlete embraced by the entire state. African Americans Leotis Harris, Ben Cowins and Jimmy Walker helped Arkansas football achieve a national standing unequaled until recent years. Meanwhile, Arvis Harper and Hank Thompson became the first blacks to play for the Razorbacks baseball team.
Throughout the next decade, blacks’ role in all three major sports grew. By 1985, Arkansas baseball became the first College World Series team with five African-American starters, a high mark that still stands. On the surface, it appeared as if African Americans’ contributions to these sports would continue to increase. That happened—but only in basketball and football.
Razorback baseball has surged in popularity in recent years, reaching record numbers in attendance and revenue, but black players have not been part of the equation. No blacks are on this year’s team, which on Saturday began a best-of-three series against Baylor in the NCAA Tournament Super Regionals. Rick Fires, who covers Hogs baseball for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, estimated there had been four black baseball Razorbacks in the last 14 years.
This trend has not escaped the notice of D’Vone McClure, a highly touted African-American Hogs signee who played baseball at Jacksonville High School. McClure says his black friends often joke with him: “They’re like ‘Why are you playing baseball?’ Not many of them even like baseball. They just don’t see what I see.”
McClure, a 6-feet-3, 190-pound outfielder, is good enough that he may bypass college altogether for an early start in professional baseball after the Cleveland Indians picked him in the fourth round of last week’s draft. He, along with his parents and agents, have a few weeks to negotiate the signing bonus that would supplement his contract. “Is it gonna be worth not going to college? If it’s gonna be a better opportunity for me to go to college, I still have a full scholarship to an awesome university that turns out awesome players.” No matter which path Mc-Clure chooses, it will be one increasingly less traveled.
In 1975, African Americans made up 27 percent of major league baseball rosters. That’s dropped to 8 percent. Arkansas is part of the Southeastern Conference’s western division, which in 2010 had 186 student-athletes in baseball. Six (3.2 percent) were black. Meanwhile, in this division, blacks made up 72 percent of the football rosters and 80 percent of the basketball rosters.
Each state has its own story of the decline of the African-American baseball player. Taken together, the overarching narrative is one of significant cultural loss for all races. How did this happen?
Overall interest in baseball in the black community has fallen for decades. This trend started with the integration of professional baseball in the late 1940s and 1950s, which caused the disintegration of black-owned baseball leagues. For more than half a century before then, such leagues and affiliated teams had flourished across the nation, cultivating strong interest in the sport from the communities supporting them.
Arkansas was no exception.
Baseball here, as in the rest of the South, was a mostly segregated affair. The first known mention of the sport played among black Arkansans comes in 1873. By 1885, at least two all-black teams had emerged—the Little Rock Reds and the Cadet Baseball Club.
The game also took root in northwest Arkansas. In 1912, Fort Smith and Bentonville had teams in a regional all-black league. By the 1920s, northeast Arkansas was also fielding its own teams, and their opponents included Cubans as well as blacks. While blacks couldn’t play alongside whites, some Native Americans did. A Newport team, for instance, included on its 1925 roster Moses Yellowhorse, a one-time pitcher for the major league Pittsburgh Pirates.
For all races, Hot Springs became a hotbed of professional players and their teams in the early 1900s. Major league greats such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Logan County native Dizzy Dean descended upon Hot Springs for annual spring training, and so did some of the best black players starting in the late 1910s—speedy center fielder “Cool Papa” Bell and power hitter Josh Gibson likely among them.
The state’s most successful allblack team emerged in the 1930s after businessman John C. Claybrook established an eponymous town based on his farming and logging operations in southern Crittenden County. He built a stadium, too, and paid elite Negro League players from Memphis and St. Louis to fill it. The culmination of his efforts came in 1935 and 1936, when the Claybrook Tigers became champions of the Negro Southern League. They beat well-known teams such as the Cuban All-Stars, Birmingham Black Sox, Kansas City Monarchs, and Memphis Red Sox.
To drum up cash to start their seasons, Negro League teams often barnstormed through Arkansas, playing each other in towns such as Pine Bluff, Little Rock, and Fort Smith. Civil Rights activist Sonny Walker recalls watching Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige at Hard Scramble field in modern-day southwestern Little Rock. To see more homegrown talent, fans often flocked to Ray Winder Field, home of the Little Rock Black Travelers when the (white) Travelers were on the road.
This was a golden era for black baseball. Solly and Sammy Drake, both alumni of Little Rock’s Dunbar High School, would become the first set of African-American brothers to play in the major leagues. In the 1951 offseason, Hot Springs’s spas and hotels attracted African-American stars like Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, who along with Jackie Robinson helped lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to their only world title in 1955. These players inspired a young teenager named Lou Brock, an El Dorado native who grew up in northern Louisiana. In the 1960s and 1970s, Brock would become one of the best St. Louis Cardinals ever.
Nearly every Arkansas town had its own traveling semipro baseball team, and more than one if there was a big enough black population. A team could be self-organized and funded. Or a company, such as Dubisson Funeral Home in Little Rock, sponsored the team. Occasionally, whites sponsored all-black teams for their employees. This was the case with a timber mill in Huttig, near the Louisiana border. The mill company’s owners lavished money on their team, buying them fine uniforms and equipment, and annually threw a Juneteenth barbecue and game open to everyone. It was all-youcan-eat-and-drink, and the good times lasted through the night, recalls Pete Sims, who played on the El Dorado Red Sox, one of Huttig’s opponents.
Sims adds that typically 35 to 40 of the mill’s owners and relatives attended games in Huttig. Of all the towns across
northern Louisiana and south Arkansas in which he played, Sims says Huttig was the only one where whites showed this much interest in black baseball.
The integration of major league baseball, which began in 1947, expanded opportunities for players such as Jackie Robinson and, later, the Drake brothers. It also, however, triggered the decade-long death of Negro League baseball. Hundreds of thousands of black fans chose to spend their money to support major-league teams involving their favorite black players rather than the Negro League teams those players had left.
Strong support of youth baseball also knit communities together, albeit along racial lines. By the 1950s, Little League teams represented various central Arkansas black communities such as Wrightsville, Panky’s Edition, Sweet Home, Granite Mountain, East End, South End and West End. “Just about every business sponsored a team because this was their way of giving back to the community and giving something for the kids to do,” says Kenneth Brown, who coached an East End 10- to 12-year-old team named after educator Nathaniel Hill.
Blacks and whites played together more and more throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Before Arvis Harper pioneered for the Razorback baseball program, he blazed a trail in his hometown of North Little Rock. Harper grew up watching his father play baseball for the semipro Colts at Sherman Park, and also watched his mother play softball. Still, as a child, Harper didn’t join any organized baseball until around 1966, when he befriended two white brothers at the local Boys Club. His baseball hitting ability impressed them, and they invited him to a tryout for their all-white Little League, he recalls. Their father, Paul Holderfield, coached a team.
“I went to the tryout, and I was the only black kid, and it was interesting.” The other players and adults “really didn’t want me there. They didn’t really want to have anything to do with integrating Vestal Park at that time. I went though, and, pretty much like Mr. Holderfield anticipated, nobody wanted to pick me.
So when everybody turned
me down, he picked me.
From there, I started tearing up the league, and that got everybody’s attention, so they started looking for more black kids.”
This kind of revelation occurred in most sports throughout the South as the 1970s progressed. Black Arkansans joined previously all-white American Legion teams for recreational baseball. Jefferson County, home of Los Angeles Angels star Torii Hunter, further established itself as a baseball hotbed. “Pine Bluff used to have the best Little League program bar none in the nation,” says Norm DeBriyn, the Razorbacks head baseball coach from 1970 to 2002. “You could go to Florida, California, Texas—wherever you wanted to go—and you would not find better fields, better facilities, better players, better development of players.” At the same time, though, more collegebound black athletes came to prefer football and especially basketball to baseball. For football and basketball, interest in the sport remained and likely rose as the black community could follow a hometown player on television, no matter which major college he attended. Not so with college baseball, which in the 1980s wasn’t popular enough to turn a profit—or net major television contracts.
Integration gave the best black athletes a permanent spot in the national limelight, fueling unprecedented interest in basketball and football in their home communities. Baseball, however, would be left behind.
For decades, African-American Arkansans had nearly complete ownership—from the players on up to the managers—of their teams. When blacks began joining white teams, the teams’ infrastructure (coaches, managers, treasurers) typically remained white. This cut off black ownership. At the same time, many black businesses closed as their customers began to patronize white businesses offering lower prices. Sponsorship dollars for all-black teams dried up, one of the more benign consequences of a trend that had far more destructive, wide-ranging reach. “When integration happened, the baseball within our community seemed to dissolve,” says Fitz Hill, president of the historically black Arkansas Baptist College, who grew up in Arkadelphia. “It was so much part of the community at that time and brought people together and was an economic engine.”
A decrease in black role models in baseball has compounded the decline. A growing percentage of black football and basketball coaches in their twenties and thirties never played baseball, which means they are less likely to encourage their middle and high school players to give the sport a try.
Income disparity between races is another reason football and basketball tend to make more economic sense for black kids who hope to earn an athletic scholarship to college. The costs involved in playing basketball are much less. For starters, only a ball, basket and driveway are needed. At the higher levels of grassroots basketball, shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas pay for teams’ uniforms, travel costs and equipment. In the last fifty years, these multinational corporations have filled a role in central Arkansas formerly played by local black-owned businesses such as Tyler Barber College, West 9th Cab Co., Gem Theatre, and Torrence Flower Shoppe.
Razorback signee D’Vone Mc-Clure credits a white friend, Cole Bredenberg, for exposing him to baseball when he was around seven years old. Bredenbreg’s father, Don, had a Jacksonville-area youth team, which McClure eventually joined. “Where I was from, the white people took the black kids in and tried to get them to play,” McClure says. McClure played baseball and football in high school, and his decision to choose a path involving college baseball—but not football—is also an exception for black athletes.
The reason boils down to economics. In major Division I basketball and football, most players get a full scholarship. Not so in baseball, where since 1991 each team has received the equivalent of 11.7 full scholarships to distribute among rosters that typically range between 25 and 45 players. Even with the possibility of additional financial aid, college baseball coaches must often juggle financial priorities during recruiting trips in ways unknown in football and basketball. “You’d be in a home, and you’d be nickel and diming a kid and you’d feel like, you know, it’s not right,” DeBriyn says. “You know the family situation, you know they deserve more money, but you can’t give it to them.”
In the last few decades, major league clubs have also found it cheaper to develop young players in areas like the Dominican Republic. Moreover, these Dominicans’ frequent poverty makes them more vulnerable and hungrier to sign, even when offered much less than drafted players. And so the Hispanic presence has grown in the major leagues. The darker-skinned Latino players may camouflage the lack of African Americans around them.
Whether McClure emerges as the next great black Razorback baseball player or not, his long-range goal won’t change. He wants to promote the game, to blacks and whites alike: “I play because I love the game, but I also play to inspire kids to play the game.” He admits, however, that his example will likely mean a lot more to Arkansas’s young African Americans. Despite all the numbers, despite all the dire predictions, McClure believes he can help kick-start a trend of young black players falling in love with baseball all over again. This particular renaissance starts in Jacksonville—who knows how far it can go?
McClure picked up the nickname “Plucky” in childhood. It still fits him well.
Evin Demirel is freelance writer. He lives in North Little Rock. Reprinted with permission from Arkansas Life magazine.