Negro Leagues

The history of the Negro Leagues in Arkansas are rather sketchy, but what is known is that African-Americans in Arkansas have been playing baseball since the game was first introduced to Arkansas in the Civil War.

One of the earliest Negro Leagues in Arkansas was the Arkansas Negro League, which operated early in the century, around 1915. The league included teams from Hot Springs, Hope, Arkadelphia, McGee and El Dorado. The Hot Springs team was known as the Vapor City Tigers.

One player who played in the Arkansas Negro was Saul Davis, who pitched for the Vapor City Tigers in 1917. Davis later went on to play in much higher ranks of negro baseball.

Throughout the 20th century, there was several negro teams in Arkansas that joined the Negro Southern League, which was considered the “minor” league to the Negro National League.

Probably the biggest and most well known Negro team in Arkansas were the Claybrook Tigers, who played during the 1930’s. Sometime in their existence, they played in the Negro Southern League, winning the championship in 1935 and 1936. They were called the “Black Champions of the south”. They played many of their games in Memphis, TN, but their home field was in Claybrook, AR, a city that is no longer in existence.

Another Negro team in Arkansas were the Little Rock Black Travelers, who operated in 1945 in the Negro Southern League. They probably played in Travelers Field, later Ray Winder Field, which was the home field of the Arkansas Travelers.

The Little Rock Grays, another Negro Southern League team in 1932 and possibly other years, also played at Travelers Field.

Some lesser known about teams includes the Dubbison Tigers, who played in Little Rock, the Little Rock Stars, and the Hot Springs Arlingtons.

Even though their were not many big names Negro teams that permanently called Arkansas it’s home, there were many big name teams that often played in Arkansas on barnstorming tours. Jackie Robinson even once played in a game at Hot Springs, AR.

Some of those teams that would play in Arkansas quite frequently included the Kansas City Monarchs and the Birmingham Black Barons, who both play in Little Rock at Ray Winder Field during the 1950’s.

During the spring, when the Negro teams weren’t playing, they would hold spring training in Hot Springs, AR, which was a well-known, spring training site for white teams.

During the 1920’s an 1930’s, several well known Negro teams, including the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawford, came to Hot Springs for spring training. On those teams were players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

One time in 1901, when the Baltimore Orioles were in Hot Springs for spring training, the manager of the Orioles, John McGraw, saw a light skinned African-American named Charlie Grant play a game of baseball and was very impressed by his skills. McGraw then tried to sign Grant, who had been working as a bellboy in Hot Springs at the Eastman Hotel, on with the Orioles. When he did, rumors started going around that Grant was black. To avoid these rumors, McGraw claimed that Grant was a Native American, renaming him Chief Tokahoma.

McGraw’s scheme worked for a while, but before Grant could ever play with the Oirioles and be the first modern era African-American to play in Major League baseball, Charles Comiskey, president of the Chicago White Sox, recognized Grant as a player for a local Chicago negro team called the Columbian Giants. Grant never payed in the major leagues.

There is some confusion in why Grant was in Hot Springs in the first place. It’s possible that Grant spent the winter in Hot Springs, as many players did, and got a job at the Eastman Hotel. It is also possible that Grant could have been playing with the Eastman Hotel baseball team.

This type of segregation continued until the 1950′s when baseball in Arkansas slowly integrated. But even when professional teams in Arkansas would try to integrate, the leagues that the teams played in would often overthrow the team’s attempts.

One such attempt occurred in 1953 when the Hot Springs Bathers, a white team in the Cotton States League, tried to put two African-Americans brothers on their team named Jim and Leander Tuggerson, both pitchers. When the Bathers did this, it caused much controversy in the league. The Bathers were asked to take the Tugersons off their roster, but when they did not, the league voted to evict the Bathers. when this happened they decided take the Tugersons off the team.

Jim (left) and Leander Tugerson
  • Jim (left) and Leander Tugerson

The Tugersons never did play for the Bathers, but the Bathers did break the color barrier in the Cotton States League in 1954 when Uvoyd Reynolds, a Hot Springs Native, played for the Bathers.

The African-American to play with the Arkansas Travelers, Arkansas’ most well known professional team, was the great Richie Allen, better known as ‘Dick’ Allen, who played for the Travelers in 1963.

The following are some of the better known African-American players from Arkansas that played in some form of a negro league:

Ollie Brantly (Lexon, AR)

John W. Brown (Crossett, AR)

Floyd Gardner, (Russellville, AR)

Napoleon Gulley (Huttig, AR)

Neale Henderson (Fort Smith, AR)

Byron Johnson (Little Rock, AR)

Robert Jones (Forrest City, AR)

Charlie Henderson (Pine Bluff, AR)

Frank McAllister (Forrest City, AR)

Clyde Spearman (Arkadelphia, AR)

Henry Spearman (Arkadelphia, AR)

Photo Credits: The Sporting News