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Fire Up the Wayback Machine

Publication Date: February 5, 2002

Once upon a Time

I've been hitting the stats part of my world pretty hard around here lately, and I haven't been to the microfilm stash in a while, so I thought I'd take this week to welcome a new member to Division I. Morris Brown College is a small, traditionally-black private college in Atlanta who has moved their athletic program up to the Division I level for the 2001-2002 year. They'll be competing as an independent for the forseeable future, and they're not off to a great start this year so far -- they're 0-5-1, as far as I can tell -- so they'll have some growing pains. All in all, your basic newcomer to Division I, whose other sports are driving the move and whose baseball team may take some time to adjust. It's easy under those conditions to assume that the team is new, then, but that's not the case here.

Birmingham Reporter News Clipping The clip to the left is taken from the Birmingham Reporter of May 11, 1929. I'm including it here without permission because, frankly, I can't figure out who to ask permission of -- the Reporter has long since gone out of business, and the author is unidentified and unlikely to be still living at this point. Technically, the copyright has another couple of years to live, but I'm hoping my use won't bother anyone.

The game description speaks for itself pretty well, and I hope you'll take the time to read through it. The games sound fairly typical for the time, all in all; by the late '20's the lessons of Babe Ruth had seeped into all corners of the game, and the 2-1 scores of the dead ball days were gone. The language of the piece is also typical of the day and makes me worry a bit. Sports, like any other field, has an ever-shifting dialect, and the way that action sequences from this time sound today make me wonder just how goofy my current work will sound to my great-grandkids if any of it survives for them to read. Certainly daily newspaper accounts from any time sound dated within twenty years.

The opponent for this series, referred to as "State Normal" or "Alabama" was actually what was then Alabama State Normal School and is now Alabama State University in Montgomery, currently a member of Division I who competes with limited success in the SWAC, generally the weakest D1 conference. In those days, though, they were something of a regional powerhouse within their context.

Both Morris Brown and Alabama State Normal competed at the time in the Southeastern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, a league which actually still exists in Division II, although it no longer sponsors baseball competition in conference. Matching trends in the game overall, the SIAC had announced earlier in 1929 that it would be tightening down on amateur status and enrollment requirements for players as the winking relationship with semipro ball ended. They also announced that year that conference dues would increase from $5 to $10 a year, which should be a nice contrast for any athletic directors out there working on next year's budget. Membership for the 2002 season included Atlanta, Clark, Fisk, Morehouse, Morris Brown, Florida A&M, Tennessee State A&M, Alabama State Normal, Talladega, Tuskegee, Miles, and Knoxville. Alabama State won the conference title again, something they had done with regularity through the late '20's.

So, how good were these teams overall? Well, that's almost impossible to say. The question of how the best teams from years gone by would stack up to those of today is an open one -- I fall on the side of believing that the 2001 Devil Rays were better than the 1927 Yankees straight up, but that the only really fair comparison is to compare teams to their contextual peers. The problem with trying to use that basis is that there is only a very small context for Southern black colleges from the '20's. The problems faced by those trying to place Negro League players in the context of their same-day white counterparts, where at least there were occasional exhibitions played and eventually the best players went on to play in the big leagues, pale in comparison to those faced by trying to place the strength of teams in college, where there was no such interplay as far as I've been able to tell, and all I can really say is that Alabama State was the best team in their league that year, that college teams almost always lost when they played exhibitions against Negro League teams, and that we don't really know how they stacked up against their white counterparts.

As hard at it is for us to understand the greater part that baseball played in society as a whole in those days where every mid-size town had a minor league team and the smaller towns would have semipro teams and large industrial leagues, it's even more nearly impossible to understand the importance of baseball in black life in those days. The central facets of life for citizens in Birmingham of the time were the church, the job, and the Black Barons, and there's very little exaggeration in that statement -- preachers all over town would encourage their flocks to leave church after Sunday services and head straight to Rickwood Field for the game, and players were expected to be ambassadors for the city in ways that Charles Barkley can only imagine. 1929 was one of the years that Satchel Paige pitched for the Black Barons, and his every start was treated with the same enthusiasm that followed the McGwire/Sosa home run race. College ball didn't hold quite the same high profile as the Black Barons did, but they still got a fair amount of newspaper space. In much the same way that some folks use it today, college ball of the time seemed to serve as the hors d'oeuvre for the season -- teams got lots of column space until the pros kicked in, and then dropped lower on the sports page.

The Rest of the World

Living in Birmingham, perhaps the most active site of the long struggle for civil rights in this country, I'm never far from reminders that our society has come a long way, even though we have a long way to go. If I walk to the other side of the building I work in, I can see the park where Bull Conner, once a baseball announcer himself, turned the hoses loose on a crowd of marchers. Reading the Birmingham Reporter certainly reinforces those thoughts.

There was, for the first half of this century, a thriving black press in America, which the Reporter was part of. Because black Americans were essentially invisible to the mainstream press and because the newspaper as a whole played a much larger role in daily life in those days, areas with sizable black population would always have at least one black daily. There was a Negro Associated Press which covered both general news and stories of particular interest within the black community.

Reading any paper from long ago gives you the feeling of visiting a foreign place, but the effect from reading the black press seems to double the effect. For the most part, the paper reads like mainstream papers of the day, much like a small-town paper today in some ways with different columns reporting in on the news of each small community. The headlines, though, remind me that it wasn't always a great thing to be here: "Home Is Bombed in Little Rock", "White Women Urge Justice between the Races", "Preacher Is Jailed Again." That these stories were intermingled with, and frequently reported with less prominence than, other world stories like the collapse of the Mexican Revolution just tends to emphasize their commonplace standing.

Morris Brown's first game this year was against Mercer. Last weekend, traditionally black Southern schools Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman won series over Mercer and Florida Atlantic, respectively. We still have a ways to go -- one day the whole notion of a "traditionally black" school will seem quaint, I suspect -- but we have come a long way.

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