How the first African-American baseball league was launched in Jacksonville

cuban giants// by Ryan Whirty

Jacksonville might have seemed like the unlikeliest of locales to launch one of the most ambitious enterprises in baseball’s early history, especially one that arose in the face of rapidly spreading segregation in the Jim Crow South.

But that’s what happened 130 years ago. In spring 1886, Jacksonville’s T.T. Harden announced the launch of the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists (SLCBB), which today is known as the first-ever attempt at a multi-state, all-professional African-American baseball league.

The late 19th century was a heady time for the emerging national pastime. Base ball—the term was spelled with two words back then—was still only a few decades old. The sport was gestating quickly from a leisurely, “gentleman’s game” played by Civil War soldiers and upper-crust socialites for simple exercise and recreation into a rough-and-tumble, cutthroat, money-making enterprise and professional industry. Ten years earlier, for example, the first pro circuit, the grand old National League, was formed in New York.

But the 1880s also saw the encroachment of another key historical trait, one that plagued the game for 60 years—segregation. Although the first couple decades of post-Civil War base ball had seen a sprinkling of racial integration, the last 20 years of the 19th century saw teams and leagues drawing the color line and booting out any non-white player.

Hence the emergence of the SLCBB. But again, why Jacksonville?

According to author Northern Illinois University Professor James Brunson, one of the country’s leading authorities on 19th-century black base ball, the Jacksonville region was a natural fit for an enterprise like the SLCBB.

“Jacksonville,” he says, “was a blackball town.” Brunson noted that the region served as a resort town for wealthy Northern snowbirds who wintered at hotels here, where African-American employees would serve as waiters, then don spikes to play base ball for those same patrons.

Jacksonville also served as home base for several of its own African-American touring teams in the 1870s and 1880s, further cementing the city’s reputation as a black base ball Mecca. Arguably the most prominent such aggregation was the Jacksonville Athletics, who barnstormed across the Southeast, traveling through Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

One tour, for example, included jaunts through Savannah, Charleston and Port Royal, S.C. Unfortunately, the Athletics also faced first-hand the bigotry that hampered the growth of black baseball; at one point, the Brennans, a white team from New Orleans, cancelled a scheduled contest with the Athletics after the former realized the Jax squad was a black team—despite the offering of a $200 prize to the winner of the match.

But the Athletics persevered and, in 1886, became one of the cornerstone franchises of the SLCBB. They were joined by two other Jacksonville clubs, the Clippers and the Macedonias, and the aforementioned Harden signed himself up as circuit president.

As the linchpin of the SLCBB, Harden disseminated a sort of press release to newspapers throughout the South, urging all interested African-American teams to join what he portrayed as the swelling ranks of the nascent league.

Blackball bigwigs gathered in Jacksonville in late April and again in mid-May to hash out a schedule and structure for the 1886 season. Media reports pegged the attendance at the second gathering as more than two dozen. A couple hundred dollars was reportedly collected from each team as an entry fee.

Most impressive, though, was Harden’s and the league’s boast that it had a whopping $100,000 in capital backing the enterprise, which would equal an astonishing (and somewhat unbelievable) $26.6 million today.

The heavy PR blitz paid off, at least at first, with news of the fledging league reaching as far as Cleveland and Rochester, N.Y., and papers in New Orleans and Charleston gave a good deal of ink to the project. News of the new league even reached the national mainstream press.

However, despite such braggadocio, there were troubling signs about the SLCBB from the very beginning. While historians today generally assert the circuit had 10 franchises from a total of six cities—Jacksonville, Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Memphis and New Orleans —contemporary press coverage shows that the planned lineup fluctuated wildly, almost by the week. Several reports along the way also claimed that teams in other cities—such as Montgomery, Augusta, Macon, Palatka and Chattanooga—had signed up as well.

It was in that atmosphere that the SLCBB’s hotshots drew up a playing schedule for the circuit in mid-May and pegged opening day as Monday, May 24.

That’s when things fizzled, and quickly. Only a handful of those slated contests actually came off. A series of clashes between the New Orleans Unions and the Memphis Eclipse were played in June, for example, and the Charleston and Atlanta entries managed to square off, but it appears that little else of the enterprising schedule actually came to fruition.

The SLCBB disappeared into the haze of history and became a footnote in the saga of segregated black base ball.

While Harden’s fate remains cloudy, Jax itself remained a vibrant hub of “colored” and “Negro” baseball in the Sunshine State well into the 20th century. The blackball scene in Jacksonville arguably peaked in the late 1930s and early ’40s, when the famed Jacksonville Red Caps joined the prestigious Negro American League while playing at Durkee Field.

Sadly, it wasn’t until later generations of historians from the Society for American Baseball Research tripped across the SLCBB’s existence; one of the first in-depth examinations of the circuit came in 1974 with SABR member Bill Plott’s study of the venture. Perhaps falling victim to early historians’ bias in favor of African-American baseball based in the Northeast and Midwest, the SLCBB slipped through the cracks for decades. u