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Legends On Deck

Negro League Baseball’s Team Biographies

As a part of the ongoing series to find the greatest team of all-time it will be a good idea to discuss here some of the little known teams of the Negro Leagues as they have some of the best players and played some of the greatest games in baseball history. We cannot right a wrong but one can only wonder how the history of major league baseball and what some of the records would be had these heroes of the game been allowed to play on the same playing field as some of their white counter parts. Some of the teams will have played in the greatest series being written and some have not but all of the teams and their players are an important part in the history of America’s pastime.

Atlanta Black Crackers played as an independent as well as members of the Negro Southern League and the Negro American League during 1938 which was their only year in existence. Before the team was known as the Atlanta Black Crackers they were known as the Atlanta Cubs, a group of Atlanta players and college athletes brought together by Atlanta businessmen.

When the 1938 season started there were two separate teams which were in competition to represent Atlanta. Soon after the season began the two teams merged and carried the name of the Atlanta Black Crackers. The team got better and better and ended up winning the title during the second half of the Negro American League. There was a playoff between the Crackers and the first half champion Memphis Red Sox, but a conflict arose over the cancellations of games so the series was ruled a no contest and there was no champion crowned. For the 1939 season the team relocated to Indianapolis based on financial considerations, playing in the Negro American League as the Indianapolis ABCs. More financial concerns arose and the team dropped from league play and disbanded. Later, the team reorganized and played in the Negro Southern League. Their home games were played at Ponce DeLeon Park (also known as Spiller Park or Spiller Field) from 1924 until 1932.

After the Crackers GM Frank Reynolds found out he could lease the ballpark on the road, the Crackers profits increased. In 1920 the team was taken over by an insurance man named W J “Bill” Shaw and the team moved from Atlanta to Brunswick Georgia. While at Ponce De Leon Park the team attracted a good number of fans, both black and white. The Negro Southern League was formed in 1920 and the Black Crackers became members, paying the $200 franchise fee. The club struggled although they did prove a team could make it in Atlanta.

They did not return to the league until 1925, but the team could not find enough good players and could not afford ballpark rental fees. H J Peek and George Strickland provided money for the team in 1925. Because of the Sunday Blue Laws in Atlanta the team spent a lot of time on the road over the weekends in order to make money. The Atlanta papers did not start coverage of the team until 1928 and that was a weekly paper called the Atlanta Daily World that covered the team but that paper did not become a daily until 1932. The Atlanta Constitution, the largest paper in the area gave coverage but only once in awhile.

The club pulled a disappearing act just as the 1925 season ended and in 1926 H J Peek brought the club back with a change, there was no more travel by train. The players drove themselves to help save money but unfortunately the Black Crackers went bankrupt towards the end of the 1926 season. The team returned in 1927 to play in the Negro Southern League but went back to traveling and playing local teams, still without much attention given to them in the paper.

There was no team for the Negro Leagues from 1928 until 1931 but the sport was kept alive in the city by local sandlot and semipro teams. The Atlanta Grey Sox played for a short time in 1928 but were plagued by financial troubles and closed down before seasons end. H J Peek tried baseball again in 1930 with a team called the Black Panthers but could not find players. The team stayed around before the Depression that was gripping the nation forced the team to shut down just into the beginning of the 1931 season.

The city of Atlanta was granted another franchise in the Negro Southern League in 1932 despite all of the struggles and due to a rough start the team was abandoned by the league in the summer of 1932. In 1935 the Negro Southern League met to organize for the upcoming season and Atlanta was represented by W B Baker. Baker brought new idea to the city with regards to baseball such as signing players from out of the area. Attendance and revenue declined however and the Cracker teams made a threat to remove baseball at Ponce De Leon Park. Local black businesses helped advertise and the lease at the park was continued. However the success did not last long and by early August the team’s season was over.

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Percy Williams did not want to have baseball leave Atlanta and provided financial support for the club with the help of several local businesses. Unfortunately Williams passed away in April of 1936. Williams widow with verbal support as well as the other owners tried to keep Williams dream alive but the club floundered in early June. A local gas station owner by the name of John Harden took over team ownership in 1937 and the team improved. There was a feud with local businessmen over the Black Crackers name but Harden prevailed and the team began to win. The roster jumped to 17 players with the team playing as many games as possible at Ponce De Leon Park playing around their Atlanta White Cracker counterparts. The team made the most money when teams like the Kansas City Monarchs would come to town.

During the 1938 season the Black Crackers joined the Negro American League enjoying immediate success and eventually winning the second half title in the NAL. That 1938 team was said to be a team that was small but speedy. They also were described as having great batting eyes and although they did not hit for power they were dangerous at the plate. The club because of financial reasons relocated to Indianapolis in 1939, playing as the ABCs. They also returned to barnstorming, and then the league wanted the club to move to Cleveland but the owner of the club John Harden refused. It was also suggested that the team relocate to Louisville but the team that was there already, the Louisville Black Caps did not want to share the playing field.

In 1945 the Crackers team was invited to join a couple of leagues and the owner chose the Negro Southern League. Fine play by the team continue into 1948 but the team returned to barnstorming roots as it proved to be more lucrative for them. The team played in 1949 for their last season due to the integration of the major leagues and the success of televised baseball. Some of the players to play for the Black Crackers include Willie Dunn, Chunky Jackson, Judge Owens, Ormond Sampson, Ping Burke, Pee Wee Butts, Nish Williams and Sylvester Owens.

Some of the team overviews will be longer and some shorter depending on the information available. One of the more interesting things learned in researching was that a lot of teams while having the name of a city were in fact playing in another city if that city had a large population of blacks. It has been said before by myself and many other people that it is a shame these players were not afforded the opportunity to play in the major leagues. History may have in fact had to be rewritten with regards to the sport of baseball.

 

Kevin Larkin

Kevin Larkin has been going to minor league and major league baseball games since 1967. He has been to numerous major league and minor league parks and describes himself as a "baseball fan" who likes the Yankees. He enjoys researching, writing and reading about about baseball and will talk for hours on end about his favorite sport.
He is in love with the history of the game, having written three books about his beloved sport. They are "Baseball in the Bay State" a history of baseball in the state of Massachusetts. Then he wrote Gehrig:Game by Game, a history of all of the major league ballgames including All Star games and World Series games as well as regular season that the "Iron Horse" Lou Gehrig played in. The third book "Baseball in the Berkshires" a history of baseball in Berkshire County co written with three others, Tom Daley, Jim Overmyer and Larry Moore. As a result of this book Larkin and the other three gentlemen have put together a museum exhibit that is now permanently housed at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro Massachusetts.
Larkin also does fact checking and writing for the Society for American Baseball Research or SABR and has had numerous articles published there as well.
He lives in Great Barrington Massachusetts, in the heart of Red Sox country and is involved in a number of projects. He also is a security guard at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington after having been a police officer for 24 years in his home town