The Negro Southern League has long been overshadowed by the Negro American and National Leagues when historians discuss Negro League baseball. This is partly true because the NAL and NNL included more northern franchises, which were located in larger cities. This meant they had more reliable newspaper coverage than their southern counterparts. Additionally, for most of its history, the NSL was considered a minor league by sportswriters who often derided NSL members’ failure to provide timely game summaries and attendance figures needed for accurate reporting.
However, there was nothing minor about the players who made their living playing for NSL clubs. Five future Hall of Famers got their first taste of professional baseball in the NSL, including Leroy “Satchel” Paige (Chattanooga Black Lookouts, 1926-27), Willie Mays (Chattanooga Choo Choos, 1948), George “Mule” Suttles (Birmingham Black Barons, 1922-23), Norman “Turkey” Stearnes (Nashville Giants, 1920-21), and Hilton Smith (Monroe Monarchs, 1932). Other future Hall of Famers, such as Willie Wells and Willie Foster, made appearances in the NSL during their playing days.
In The Negro Southern League: A Baseball History, 1920-1951, Bill Plott tells the colorful and often complicated history of the NSL from its origins until its quiet demise three decades later. He gives three dimensions to players such as Forrest “One-Wing” Maddox, who lost his left arm just below the shoulder in a childhood accident, but became a star pitcher, speedy outfielder, and great hitter for several teams during a decade in the NSL. Another, William H. “Cat” Mays, played for the Black Barons in 1935. Upon seeing the natural talent of his teenage son Willie, Cat regularly drove him to Chattanooga on weekends, where he played outfield and shortstop for the Choo Choos, possibly as early as 1947.
Thanks to his painstaking research, Plott uses available game reports, box scores, and line scores, to piece together the story of each season, including the standings and statistical leaders, as he documents the league’s history in a well-organized, chronological fashion.
Plott also confirmed that the NSL had major league status in 1932 as it was the only Negro League that was able to successfully operate the entire year. That season, in particular, had more confusion than any other given the number of members and associate members of the NSL, as well as several independent teams who barnstormed with NSL clubs. Plott cuts through the confusion by cross-referencing a wide variety of newspaper reports to provide an accurate account of the entire campaign.
Throughout most of its existence, the NSL followed a familiar path. The owners would meet in the winter to determine the clubs in the league and prepare a first-half schedule. Each season would begin with much fanfare in the spring, and a first-half champion would typically be crowned by early summer. In the second half, however, the league’s stability would often devolve, as some clubs would disband, while others would be added, and most began to favor barnstorming contests rather than scheduling league games. Deciding a champion would often take a back seat to the scheduling of an all-star game after the season. However, the top NSL teams would sometimes meet in a playoff series to settle the title. More often, the champions would be announced in the pages of newspapers, which inevitably caused some disputes, but Plott was able to determine the league champion for most NSL seasons. His appendices are particularly useful in providing information such as rosters, no-hit games, playoff results, and a list of title winners.
The NSL came to an end largely because organized baseball integrated in 1947. African American newspapers understandably shifted their focus to black players in the big leagues. Sportswriters and fans seemed to forget about leagues like the Negro Southern League. Fortunately, Bill Plott has immortalized the league for all of us. Negro Southern League is a great read.