Snappy Aggregations: African-American Baseball in Hot Springs, Arkansas

June 25th, 2013

As Jim Crow laws were enacted in the late 19th century, major league teams began to bar African-American participation, a sad fact that would not change until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Racial segregation was part of the minor league order, too, and in some areas this injustice persisted for years after Robinson’s promotion from the Dodger farm club in Montreal.

As a result, African-American baseball developed on its own terms.

The history of African-American baseball in Hot Springs goes back over 120 years, to when local hotels sponsored teams consisting of their African-American employees. The first recorded mention of this comes from the March 12, 1891 New York Age:  “The Eastman Base Ball Club crossed bats with the Park nine, resulting in a score of 3 to 2, in favor of the latter.” The Hot Springs Arlingtons competed regionally, going up against numerous Texas teams. Rube Foster, now enshrined at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, pitched for Waco and Fort Worth. Of a 1901 series here, the Ft. Worth Morning Register reported: “Foster was more than invincible. He allowed only one hit in the first game, and none in the third.”

An oft-told story from the same decade concerns Charlie Grant, slick-fielding second baseman for several African-American teams. In the spring of 1901 he was a bellhop at the Eastman, where future New York Giants manager John McGraw took notice. “Muggsy” tried signing him for his Baltimore Orioles. He introduced the light-skinned Grant as “Chief Tokahoma” (American Indians were allowed in “organized ball”), but the ploy failed.

By 1904 the Hot Springs Blues played games as far away as St. Louis.

In 1910 the Chicago Giants scheduled a jaunt to the Spa City. In 1911 the Kloethe Reds, a local team, hosted opponents like the Brooklyn Royal Giants and Kansas City Giants. There were also the Majestic White Socks, the Hot Springs Reds, and the Arlington Reds. In 1915 the Vapor City Tigers came into existence, formed by Hot Springs native Junie Cobb, a soon-to-be-famous jazz musician.

By the 1920s, the Chicago American Giants, Memphis Red Sox, and Kansas City Monarchs were traveling here for games and/or spring training. Players and coaches would stay at the Pythian and the Woodmen of Union hotels. By the 1930s, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords entered the local diamond scene. These five teams included Hall of Famers Cristobal Torriente, Bullet Rogan, Smoky Joe Williams, Oscar Charleston, Cumberland Posey, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Jud Wilson, and Satchel Paige. Coming here alone in 1935, another Cooperstown honoree, Biz Mackey, attended to “a round of training chores,” probably including thermal baths, as many players did.

In the early years of Hot Springs baseball history, African-American teams often held games and practices at established locations, like Whittington Park, when these fields were not otherwise in use. By the 1930s, however, two other ballyards were frequented.

The first was Highland Park, on Grove Street. A talented local club, the Highland Giants, played there, and one of their players was Art “Superman” Pennington, who later played with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro leagues and with teams in the minors and in Latin America. According to Pennington, this diamond was definitely “in the rough,” with the grounds not even level. Other teams who used this field were the Baker Tigers and the Hot Springs Red Sox, the latter described in the Chicago Defender as “a snappy aggregation of baseball tossers.”

The second venue was Sam Guinn Stadium, built in 1935 on Crescent Street. The field, used for sporting events by the African-American high school in Hot Springs (Langston High School), was named for a player on the LHS football team. Guinn was fatally injured during a football practice session at Highland Park, in November 1933.

Negro league teams visiting Hot Springs during the 1940s were the Baltimore Elites (featuring Hall of Famer Roy Campanella), New York Black Yankees, Memphis Red Sox, Cleveland Buckeyes, and Houston Eagles. Hall of Fame twirler Hilton Smith took “treatment for an arm condition” here in 1949.

The 1950s saw Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron, and former Negro leaguers Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Monte Irvin spend time in Hot Springs. Teams playing or training in the city included the New York Cubans, Birmingham Black Barons, Indianapolis Clowns, New Orleans Eagles, and Detroit Stars.

The 1950s also witnessed a controversy that splashed across newspapers nationwide. In 1953 the Hot Springs Bathers of the Class C Cotton States League attempted to integrate. A pair of African-American hurlers who had played for the Indianapolis Clowns, Jim and Leander Tugerson, were signed by the Bathers (who badly needed good pitching). The league office promptly kicked the Bathers out of the circuit. Four of the league’s teams that year were from Mississippi, with three from Arkansas and one from Louisiana. The other Hot Springs players favored the two pitchers being on the team, and most public sentiment in the U.S. matched the Bathers’ opinion. Shortly before opening day, the league reinstated Hot Springs, apparently expecting Bather management to toe the line. On May 20th, though, a Bathers lineup card revealed that Jim Tugerson was slated to start against the Jackson (Mississippi) Senators at Jaycee Park. The game was immediately ruled a forfeit to Jackson.

In his book Bathers Baseball: A History of Minor League Baseball at the Arkansas Spa, Don Duren wrote, “The Tugersons were tired of being in the middle of a squabble because they wanted to play baseball. Jim and Leander requested an option to play in another league.” The Tugerson brothers finished their season with the Knoxville (Tennessee) Smokies, in the Class D Mountain States League, where Jim won 29 games in 1953.

Jim Tugerson finally got to pitch in Hot Springs in the fall of 1953, when the All-Stars of the Negro American League played two exhibitions here in September and October. The All-Stars won both games, Tugerson toiling five innings in the September tilt.

Ironically, the CSL allowed integration the very next year, and the Bathers employed several African-American players in 1954: Uvoyd Reynolds, Joe Scott (a veteran performer with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro leagues), John Parker, and Bill “Double Thumbs” Mitchell.

The Negro leagues would fade as the majors and minors made room for African-Americans, but their legendary players added immeasurably to a rich baseball legacy in Hot Springs.

Mark Blaeuer (2013)