As early as 1871 Nashville had African American baseball clubs, but it was not until 1886 that the nation’s first professional league of black teams was organized. The Southern League of Colored Base Ballists (SLCBB) fielded teams from Jacksonville, Savannah, Atlanta, Charleston, New Orleans, and Memphis, which had two teams, the Eurekas and the Eclipses. The Eclipses won the only SLCBB championship. Chattanooga possibly placed a team in the league as well. Beset by financial problems, the SLCBB lasted for only one season.
African American teams in Tennessee next played in organized professional leagues in 1920, when the legendary Andrew “Rube” Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants, founded the first Negro National League (NNL), a major league that lasted through the 1931 season. The Negro Southern League (NSL) was minor league also founded in 1920. The second NNL (1933-48), founded by Pittsburgh Crawfords’ owner Gus Greenlee, and the NAL, the Negro American League (1937-60), also featured Tennessee teams. Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Oak Ridge participated in Negro Leagues baseball.
The Memphis Red Sox and the Nashville Elite Giants were Tennessee’s best known Negro League teams. A. P. Martin, a local African American barber, established the Red Sox in 1919, but by 1922 the team had been transferred to Robert Lewis, a local black funeral home owner. Lewis also managed the team and financed the construction of Lewis Park. By 1929 Lewis was in financial straits and sold the Red Sox; in 1929 the club became the property of two prominent Memphis African American doctors, brothers W. S. and J. B. Martin (no relation to A. P.), who had been part of the 1929 group of owners. Shortly thereafter, A. T. and B. B. Martin, also brothers and doctors, bought interest in the club. In 1940 J. B. Martin ran afoul of the Crump political machine and fled Memphis for Chicago, where he became co-owner of the Chicago American Giants of the NNL, and later president of the NAL. The Red Sox and the stadium remained in the hands of the remaining Martins until 1960, when prior to the baseball season, the team disbanded and the stadium was sold. The stadium was razed in 1961.
Apparently the Red Sox team was a NSL charter member and remained in the league until 1923, when it either became independent for that year or joined as an “associate” member of the NNL. In the second half of the 1924 season, the Sox entered the NNL as a full-fledged member. From 1925 to 1930, Memphis was in the NNL, except in 1926, when the team returned to the NSL for one season. In 1932 the club joined the new East-West League, which failed to survive the season.
From 1933 until the 1937 season, when the Red Sox became a founding member of the NAL, the team apparently operated as an independent, barnstorming outfit. The Red Sox remained in the NAL into the 1959 season, when the Raleigh (North Carolina) Tigers replaced it. Noteworthy Red Sox players included pitcher Verdell Mathis, Dan Bankhead, Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe (also a catcher and manager), infielder Marlin Carter, first baseman Bob Boyd, and catcher Larry Brown.
Tom Wilson, an African American nightclub operator, founded the Nashville Elite Giants either in 1918 or 1921. It played as an independent club until 1926, when the team became a member of the NSL. In 1930 Nashville joined the NNL, and Wilson moved the Giants into Wilson Park, a four-thousand-seat stadium located in Trimble Bottom, north of the fairgrounds. The following year, 1931, Wilson purchased the contract of pitcher Satchel Paige (who had signed his first professional contract with the 1926-27 Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the NSL) from the Birmingham Black Barons and, in a bid to capitalize on Paige’s celebrity, moved the team to Cleveland, Ohio, a larger market. After the 1931 season, the first NNL dissolved and for the 1932 season, Wilson moved the Giants back to Nashville as a member of the NSL. The team played in Sulphur Dell, where spectators were segregated by race. In 1935, seeking more profits, Wilson left Nashville for Columbus, Ohio.
Chattanooga fielded the NSL Black Lookouts in 1920 and 1926-27, apparently as the farm team of the Homestead Grays of the NNL. Early Chattanooga baseball promoters included Bo Carter, Bud Haley, and W. C. Hixson. Beck Shepherd owned and operated the Chattanooga Choo Choos from 1940 through 1946, when he went broke. In 1945 Shepherd discovered Willie Mays, a fleet, hard-hitting sixteen-year-old outfielder. Although he was never under contract–Mays’s mother insisted that her son finish high school–Mays played for the Choo Choos in 1945 and briefly in 1946.
Other Negro League teams and independent black teams played in Tennessee. In 1902 the Villains played in Nashville. Knoxville fielded the Black Giants, a NSL team from 1920 to 1924. This team played at Brewer’s Park in East Knoxville and featured a one-armed outfielder named Wing Maddox. In the 1940s Nashville had an NSL team, first named the Black Vols then the Cubs. Oak Ridge had a team first called the Bombers and then the Pioneers. In 1945 Tennessee had four NSL teams: the Nashville Black Vols, the Memphis Grey Sox, the Chattanooga Choo Choos, and the Knoxville Grays or Smokies.
Non-league barnstorming also enjoyed a long history in the South and Midwest. From the early twentieth century into the 1940s, black teams barnstormed Tennessee, often playing ball in the afternoon and providing musical entertainment in the evening. One well-known team, Brown’s Tennessee Rats, was based in Warrensburg, Missouri.
Black Diamonds, Blues City: Stories of the Memphis Red Sox, produced by John R. Haddock and Steven J. Ross with Kurt McBee, University of Memphis, 1995, videocassette; Dick Clark and Larry Lester, eds., The Negro Leagues Book (1994); Kurt McBee, “The Memphis Red Sox Stadium: A Social Institution in Memphis African American Community,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 49 (1995); Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White (1970); James A. Riley, ed., The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994)