Birmingham Black Barons reflect on their time in the Negro League
" The Negro League was the professional league. The whites had one and we had one. We were better,”
BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Long before Major League Baseball broke its color barrier, there was another professional league for black ball players, the Negro League. Many of the baseball greats got their start in Birmingham with the Birmingham Black Barons.
Willie Walker played on the Birmingham Black Barons last team and so did Samuel Bruner. Walker got his start as a bat boy, then a contract at the age of 15 . "Back then I had $150 a month contract and that was great, you know back in the day In the late 50’s ,” said Walker.
It was Walker who got Bruner to join the team. “Willie Walker told me the Birmingham Black Barons was signing ball players and I always wanted to play with Birmingham because my granddaddy and my uncle played. My granddaddy was a pitcher,” remembered Bruner.
Walker and Bruner joined a long list of Negro League players. At least 18 are still here in Birmingham, which points to the league’s and the city’s storied past.
“Birmingham drew more fans than any other team in the Negro league,” reflected James “Jake" Sanders.
He played for teams in Raleigh, Detroit, New Orleans, Kansas City. “I got started playing baseball at Rickwood Field when my dad took me out to see the game. The Indianapolis Clowns and Birmingham were playing, and who’s out there Toni Stone the first female in baseball. And I’m watching her, and I said Daddy I want to play baseball too if that lady is playing,” continued Sanders.
That was the spark Sanders needed to launch his career that spanned several years. “I’m really proud of the Negro League. That’s how I got my chance. Today I am listed in the Baseball Hall of Fame,” said Sanders.
He spends a lot of time sharing his story and the story of the league. A league where the players, coaches, managers and even the bat boy was black. A league where dozens of teams were owned and run almost exclusively by African-Americans,
“The Negro League was the professional league. The whites had one and we had one. We were better,” said Ernest “Big Dog” Fann.
Fann played for several negro league teams before playing with the Kansas City A’s, later the Oakland A's . "It's a shame we black people especially baseball players were treated the way we were being treated They were trying to make me quit, but I wouldn't."
And at that time, they had to persevere.
"My brother, before he was killed in Vietnam, he wrote me a letter and said, brother I can’t understand we over here fighting and dying for this country and you guys can’t play baseball. I wrote back and told him they just don’t want blacks in baseball,” said Fann.
"We were coming back through this little town might've been Tupelo, but the sheriff pulled the bus over. He put the whole bus in jail,” remembered Walker. " The day we were supposed to play Detroit, they had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church down here and we went to the park and we played like an inning and a half,” said Bruner.
Despite segregation and discrimination these players still found solace in a game they loved. " I enjoyed my career in the Negro league because it was a learning experience,” said Walker.
The Negro League survived for 15 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
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