Many consider the Birmingham Black Barons to be the most successful of the Southern Negro League baseball teams. Based out of Rickwood Field in Birmingham, the team organized in 1920, the same year Rube Foster organized the Negro National League, and entered the Negro Southern League. In 1923, the team became an associate member of the Negro National League. During this year, they lost twenty-three games and only won fifteen. The Black Barons became an official Negro National League team for the 1945 season. The team, led by players such as Harry Salmon, Sam Streeter, and Mules Suttles managed a mediocre 34-44 record. Due to finances, the 1926 season found the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Southern League once again. By 1927, the Barons were back in the Negro National League, and playing better than they had in the past. With the help of rookie pitcher, Satchel Paige, the team won the second half pennant. Unfortunately, they lost to the Chicago American Giants in four straight games for the Negro National League title. For the next three years, the Birmingham Black Barons put forth mediocre teams and had only losing seasons.
This is one of the earliest photos of the Birmingham Black Barons and features the rookie Satchel Paige.
The Birmingham Black Barons after the recent win over the Kansas City Monarchs.
With the Great Depression affecting the economy, the Black Barons had to return to the Southern League in 1931. While Northern teams were thriving, poor game attendance and a lack of funding hurt the Southern teams. The Black Barons did not return to the National League for a time. When they did return in 1937, the team only lasted a year. Playing poorly, they had to return once again to the Southern leagues.
The team reconstructed themselves and recruited many of the better industrial league players. They returned to the Negro National League once again in 1940 and remained strong throughout the remainder of their history.
Between the years of 1943 and 1948, the Birmingham Black Barons would meet the Homestead Grays in three World Series. This set the stage for a rivalry that lasted until the folding of the Homestead Grays in 1950.
In 1943, the Black Barons won the National American League pennant and championship. They boasted of players such as Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, Lyman Bostock, Lester Lockett, Ed Steele, and Jesse Walker. Unfortunately, they could not win the Negro League World Series. They lost to the Homestead Grays in seven games. The next year, the Birmingham Black Barons were able to have a rematch with the Homestead Grays, but this time they lost in only five games. The Barons and Grays would not meet again until 1948, the year, which many claim to be the last real Negro League World Series. The Barons boasted of players such as Joe Bankhead, Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, Bill Powell, Ed Steele, Lyman Bostock, and the rookie Willie Mays. Once again, the Barons were no match for the Grays and lost in seven games.
Then in 1949, the Negro National League and the Negro American League merged and formed one league.
The year 1947 marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. When Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, many teams folded. Contrary to popular belief, the teams that had comprised the Negro American League continued to thrive throughout the fifties. Located in the South, integration for these teams occurred at a slower pace. A few Northern teams also experienced difficulty with integration, i.e., the Boston Red Sox did not sign an African-American player until 1959.
The 1956 season opened with four teams in the Negro American League. The Birmingham Black Barons had a new owner and a bright future. Unfortunately, the new league did not last long. Many of the players left to join the minor league baseball teams, and other players had their contracts sold. With revenue and attendance falling, the Negro Leagues began to fade away. The Birmingham Black Barons played their last season together in 1960.
Jesse Mitchell who played on the 1954 and 1955 Black Barons teams reminisces about the old days.