Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Day Montgomery Baseball Changed Forever

 April 7th, 1954

It's a Wednesday afternoon like most others at the start of April, spring is pushing winter into the past as dogwoods bloom and wisteria scents the air. No one knows it, but a new era is beginning in the capitol city, and things will never go back to the way they were ever again.

The Cold War changes who we distrust
Today President Eisenhower holds a press conference. While there he gives his "Domino Theory" speech, effectively scaring the beejeezus out of the western world with the prospect that communism can and will sneak its way across the ocean - one country at a time, right into our own back yard. And maybe even all the way here, if we aren't diligent.

Dr.King on Dexter Ave ca. 1955
Dr.King is the new pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where he and his family will be a force for positive change - perhaps the best thing ever to happen in our town.

Nonviolence doesn't always mean non-confrontation, embracing change for the better was the order of the day as new understandings are poured onto a society that has resisted change for so long.

Also among the changes in Montgomery this April Wednesday, the news surrounding the baseball team.

There is a bustle of activity around Paterson Field as the team prepares for the upcoming sixth season season at the new ballpark with kudzu beyond the right field wall and a graveyard beyond the left. The team lost 90 games last year while playing under the name "Montgomery Grays", named for the Civil War-era militia from central Alabama, but hope springs eternal at tonights home opener.

Paterson Field - built in 1949, home of the Rebels with a view of the dead

Among the many announcements the organization makes going into the new season, the team is going back the name used most often since 1938 - the Montgomery Rebels. Charleston was also named the Rebels, but they arent in the league this season so we get our nickname back.

They are also in the process of changing affiliates from the Detroit Tigers to the Boston RedSox.

Olson with Boston
Also, as a result of that switch in affiliation, popular manager Charlie Metro who arrived in 1950 is gone, replaced by former RedSox second baseman Marv "Sparky" Olson. 

Skipper Sparky Olson
Olson, who was manager for the 1943 Rebels team, has large shoes to fill now nine year later and seems to do an underwhelming job of it - he cant get another job managing until 1960 in the Florida Instructional league. He wont take the field as a player, but Sparky is filling out our lineup card this year.

Its a whole new team, only a handful of returning players from last years Grays - the reliever Prieboy and starter Lawrence are the only two pitchers to come back. Joining Lawrence in the rotation of starters are Stan Johnson, Walter Rush, Meredith Murray, Thad Kapuscinski.

RP Louie Lombardo
The bullpen features a couple of past big leaguers in Lombardo and Ayers.

The players who will turn out to be regulars on the field behind them:
Ray Cabanaw 136 games
Andy Frazier 122 games
Joe Fuller 109 games
George Handy 107 games
Pat Lorenzo 111 games
John Mackley 83 games
Joe Polich 90 games
RP Bill Ayers
Louie Schaeufele 142 games
John Simmons 131 games

Outfielder John Simmons
Catcher John Mackley


A fairly unassuming list, the detail that will cause the stir isn't apparent on the roster, nor will it be visible in the box score. That simple detail is that George Handy and Johnny Davis (40 games played) are black. For the first time in its history, white and black players will appear on the same team professionally while wearing the Montgomery REBELS in large font on their chests.

Hank with Jacksonville
It was just the previous year that Jacksonville won the SALLY League pennant largely on the hitting ability of a skinny outfielder signed from the Negro League Clowns - Henry Aaron, one of three black players to integrate the league in 1953. Aarons 22 homers and .362 average seems to have convinced the other teams in the league of the benefits of social change, the Montgomery Rebels among them.


El Gaucho
Big Chief Davis
By the time Davis reaches the Rebels, he is practically a baseball institution, though not quite recognized as a legend.

Known as Cherokee, Big Chief, Geronimo and El Gaucho the big oufielder has a reputation stretching from the Pacific Coast League to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. He is known for his barnstorming with Satchel Paige's AllStars, his hitting with the Homestead Grays, his pitching with Mayaguez and his long home runs with the Newark Eagles.

Josh Gibson gave him the Geronimo nickname, Davis would also appear in East-West Negro League AllStar Games. He would win pennants with Larry Doby and Monte Irvin's Newark Eagles starting in 1941.

Davis, Irvin, Doby and the other stars of the '46 Eagles

In the Puerto Rican league he tossed a no hitter one season, led the league in strikeouts the next season and was named MVP for 1947-48.

The half black-half Indian orphan was brought up in a Catholic Protectory in New York and played his way into serious greatness. A broken leg in 1952 likely cost him his chance at playing in the big leagues, and at the end of his tour with the Rebels he will hang up his spikes after a long and well traveled career.

From the SABR entry - in one game for the Rebels this year, Davis will come to bat in the ninth inning with the team down more than a few runs. Big Chief leads the inning off with a homer, then when the team bats around he comes back up and rips ANOTHER home run to win the game in walkoff fashion!

SABR also quotes Johnny Davis as saying "Baseball has been very good to me."
Chico Esquela agrees


Middle Infielder with Memphis and Montgomery

George had a Day in Bridgeport!
 Former Negro League slugger George Handy was one of three black players sent to integrate the Montgomery Rebels in 1954. The slick fielding shortstop and second baseman was signed by the Braves even before the flurry of negro league player signings that brought Hank Aaron and others into the Boston organization after Braves GM Perini realized he missed the boat by not signing Jackie Robinson when he had the chance.

 George began his career in 1947 by hitting .326 with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues. In '52 he was with Miami Beach of the Florida International League. Miami Beach optioned him to Keokuk early in the season where he quickly became the second base fixture.

In 53 games that season with Keokuk, George batted .303 with six homers, 25 RBI and 33 walks while scoring 45 runs.

Handy was signed to play in Montgomery after an abandoned attempt to integrate the Southern Association - he supposedly was offered a job on the infield for the Atlanta Crackers where he, along with Nat Peebles, would have been the first black players in that league. Instead, Peebles played for the Crackers in only the first series of the year. After the road trip to Mobile to open the season, Nat was optioned to Jacksonville which was a part of the already-integrated SALLY league.

Either way, George Handy was helping bring change to baseball in the 1954 season, be it in Atlanta or Montgomery.

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