1964 marked a crossroads for the City of Birmingham. Its citizens witnessed unthinkable violence the previous fall, which had shocked the entire nation. Under the clouds of enduring sadness, the struggle for Civil Rights, and forces who stubbornly resisted change, Birmingham businessman Albert Belcher made a surprising decision. Partnering with Charlie O. Finley and the Kansas City Athletics, Belcher returned professional baseball to Rickwood Field, which had been dark since 1961 after the collapse of the old Southern Association. What was truly remarkable was that Belcher invested in the hope of an integrated team in a decidedly segregated city.
In Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race, author Larry Colton tells the story of the 1964 Birmingham Barons. Colton is careful not to overstate the importance of baseball in the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. However, he recognizes that —just as baseball’s color barrier fell on April 15, 1947 with Jackie Robinson’s first appearance with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field — the integration of Birmingham officially started at Rickwood Field on April 17, 1964. On that evening, white and black players became teammates for the Barons in a Southern League game against the Asheville Tourists.
Not only were the Barons finally desegregated, but so was Rickwood Field. Before the season, Belcher personally supervised the removal of chicken wire, which had long separated black and white fans in accordance with Jim Crow laws. Belcher undoubtedly held his breath on opening night, but the game was played without incident. Integrated baseball worked in Birmingham, as Colton observed:
It was too soon, and perhaps too much of a reach, to proclaim that the Barons’ experiment was a turning point in the march toward equal rights, but if it could happen at Rickwood, then maybe the same thing could happen at other venues around Birmingham — restaurants, hotels, departments stores, schools, businesses.
The only tension at the ballpark that summer came from the incredible pennant race that unfolded between Birmingham and the Lynchburg White Sox, and whether Finley would keep his promise to Belcher to keep the Barons intact, so the club could compete for a title. The drama of the Barons’ fight to win the ‘64 Southern League flag captivates the reader. Colton provides three dimensions to Southern League by exploring the backgrounds of the players and manager Haywood Sullivan, who had quarterbacked the Florida Gators in the early 1950s. He also tells the reader what happened to each of them after their baseball careers ended.
Southern League is action packed thanks to the big bats of Tommie Reynolds, Santiago Rosario, and Wayne Norton, who provided the power, while Bert Campaneris and Hoss Bowlin contributed the speed and formed the best double play combination in the league. Colton also recalls the ups and downs of the pitching staff, which included Paul Lindblad, Ron Tompkins, and Birmingham-favorites Joe Grzenda, Stan Jones, and Paul Seitz. Phenom Blue Moon Odom started that spring pitching high school ball in Macon, Georgia only to sign with the A’s and join the Barons in the summer.
Southern League is entertaining, well written, and expertly researched. Any baseball fan would enjoy it, but so would anyone who likes great storytelling. The book occupies a top shelf in the Rickwood Library.