THE GOLDEN ERA of BLACK BASE­BALL in Rap­pa­han­nock County

Lit­tle Wash­ing­ton, Sper­ryville and Reva all fielded teams and play­ers who ‘worked hard and played harder’

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - By JoHn Mc­caslin Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

For five decades, young black men across Vir­ginia de­nied ac­cess to lo­cal ball fields, in­clud­ing here in Rap­pa­han­nock County, would gather in ru­ral pas­tures and empty lots to play their own cher­ished form of “Ne­gro League” base­ball.

“For those able to re­call the en­dur­ing tra­di­tion, it is one of the most talked about and trea­sured top­ics,” Char­lottesville au­thor Dar­rell J. Howard writes in his book, “Sun­day Com­ing: Black Base­ball in Vir­ginia.”

“Black Base­ball,” says the au­thor, the guest speaker Satur­day evening at the African

Amer­i­can Her­itage Cen­ter at his­toric Scrabble School, “was fam­ily and com­mu­nity base­ball through Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion, the Civil Rights Move­ment, and the early stages of in­te­gra­tion.”

All of which hap­pened to co­in­cide with the golden era of base­ball in Amer­ica.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery Vir­ginia com­mu­nity from Tide­wa­ter to the Blue Ridge had at least one black base­ball team be­tween 1930 and 1970, each car­ry­ing the ban­ner of their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties. Lit­tle Wash­ing­ton, Sper­ryville and Reva all fielded teams and play­ers who “worked hard and played harder.”

“They came to evening prac­tices dressed out in their work clothes and boots bear­ing the bur­den of a day’s la­bor, but when they put on their ball caps and their gloves . . . all thoughts were on the big week­end game, who they were playing and where it was to be played. They played base­ball and they loved it,” Howard writes. “There were no clin­ics, no coaches, just a re­solve and will to per­fect their skills.”

The Sper­ryville Yel­low Jack­ets (later the Tigers) lost very few games dur­ing the mid-1930’s, the au­thor ob­servees, “an­chored by the Wil­liams and Ay­lor fam­i­lies; they are re­mem­bered as the best ever to take the di­a­mond. Tom Wil­liams, Charles Wil­liams, Sr., Reg Say­lor, Henry and Ge­orge Jor­dan, were touted as be­ing as good as any pro­fes­sional ballplay­ers.”

Re­gional all-stars from Rap­pa­han­nock, dur­ing just one pe­riod, in­cluded pitcher Robert T. “R.T.” Walker, who played for both Sper­ryville and the Lit­tle Wash­ing­ton Monar­chs and was known for his “blaz­ing fast­ball and curve.”

“He left Lit­tle Wash­ing­ton in the for­ties to play semi-pro base­ball in Ohio and then af­ter a short stint in the Army re­turned East, find­ing a spot in the pitch­ing ro­ta­tion of the Ne­gro League Home­stead Braves,” writes Howard, a mem­ber of the So­ci­ety for Amer­i­can Base­ball Re­search.

Even ru­ral Reva mus­tered a team: farm­ers, la­bor­ers and mill work­ers “playing cow pas­ture ball” on Satur­days and Sun­days, the au­thor de­scribes.

Like the adults, young chil­dren in Rap­pa­han­nock (teams such as Sper­ryville even had cheer­lead­ers) were in awe of the tal­ented play­ers. Sam Ay­lor of Sper­ryville, who would later be a base­ball stand­out him­self, re­called grow­ing up dur­ing the 1940s and ’50s:

“Around this area we had noth­ing to do, nowhere to go. I’d come to your house, let’s say you lived on some­body’s farm, there’s a big open field out there, that’s where we played ball ev­ery day. That’s all we had to do af­ter we got our chores done at home. We weren’t old enough to work. You get all your bud­dies to­gether . . . you wear me out to­day, to­mor­row I’ll wear you out. We’d laugh, go on home and start again to­mor­row. That’s how we learned to play.”

(To­day, noted the au­thor in his talk, there’s not nearly the in­ter­est in base­ball among Amer­i­can chil­dren, black or white. “Kids aren’t out­side and ac­tive. Even if you were just throw­ing the ball around, guys playing catch. Kids don’t even play catch out­doors any­more. That was one of the fa­vorite things for us to do.”)

The later Lit­tle Wash­ing­ton Monar­chs were more for­mi­da­ble than their pre­de­ces­sors of the 1920s and ’30s. Man­aged by Ge­orge Evans, the team was led by pitcher Bobby Clana­gan, nephew of R.T. Walker.

“Where his un­cle was a stack of brawn, Clana­gan was short and less im­pos­ing,” Howard writes. “But he had a sling­shot arm, hit well and was one of the fastest play­ers on the team. He was still in his teens when he came home from ser­vice in the mil­i­tary, and helped re­build the Monar­chs ball team with friends from the Lit­tle Wash­ing­ton com­mu­nity. Short­stop Arthur Bridges, pitch­ers Hamp­ton Fletcher and Fred­er­ick Law­son, and first base­man Ge­orge

Tay­lor be­came lo­cal and re­gional legends. Arthur Bridges was like a vac­uum cleaner at short . . .

“Black base­ball fans still rave about en­coun­ters be­tween Ge­orge Love and Big Bill Ay­lor of the Wash­ing­ton Monar­chs and Sper­ryville Tigers. The two of­ten held each other’s team score­less through seven in­nings. Dur­ing one mem­o­rable clash both teams were score­less af­ter nine in­nings and both pitch­ers were court­ing no­hit­ters.”

Other stand­outs were Charles Wil­liams, Jr., Wil­liam Carter, Jr., Arthur “Sey­more” Free­man, Arthur “Dolly” Glas­gow, and Sper­ryville’s Ay­lor once he grew up. These five play­ers “came to be some of the best in Vir­ginia’s black base­ball in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Charles Wil­liams, Jr., could hit, run and throw with range sel­dom seen in sand­lot base­ball,” his rocket arm land­ing him on the mound as a pitcher for his home­town Sper­ryville Tigers.

Said Ju­nior Carter about warm­ing up as pitcher for the Monar­chs: “I used to throw all dur­ing the week. I’d get three five gal­lon buck­ets and set them up against the barn and I would throw un­til I hit nine of out ten and then I knew I was ready.”

An amaz­ing thing about the Reva Aces, which played 30 or more games a sum­mer, was there were never more than ten play­ers on the ros­ter.

“We had a one-armed man that played for Reva,” player Billy Shanks re­called in Sun­day Com­ing. “He was sup­posed to have made the pros but he fell out of a tree pick­ing cher­ries and broke his arm and they had to am­pu­tate.”

Seated in the Scrabble au­di­ence was 78-year-old Richard Slaugh­ter, who played first base over the years for sev­eral lo­cal squads, in­clud­ing Reva, a ru­ral team that the more up­scale Culpeper Dragons wouldn’t play be­cause they didn’t have uni­forms.

“When I first started I played for the Reva Aces, and that was in 1959,” Slaugh­ter told the Rap­pa­han­nock News, re­call­ing the ball field as be­ing next to the lo­cal dance hall. “We only had nine ballplay­ers. We had three young men who got killed up at Woodville, the car hit a tree, big maple tree. That put us down to six and that was the end of the team.”

“They had ris­ing stars like Richard Slaugh­ter and Roy Jack­son playing with the team and then tragedy struck,” the au­thor writes. “In Septem­ber 1959 the team’s third base­man, short­stop and sec­ond base­man, Gen­eral Jack­son, per­ished in an au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent in Woodville . . . The ac­ci­dent sent shock­waves through the com­mu­nity and dec­i­mated an al­ready sparse lineup.”

In­ter­est­ingly enough, though, the “pas­toral set­ting of Rap­pa­han­nock . . . be­came a prov­ing ground in the nine­teen fifties and early six­ties for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., area teams. Black ballplay­ers to the east knew that when the coun­try boys were not in the fields they were ei­ther prac­tic­ing base­ball or playing a game.”

Dur­ing the au­di­ence dis­cus­sion, Howard noted that when play­ers vis­ited an­other county they al­ways car­ried their own food and drink, as chances were they might not be served at restau­rants “be­cause you were col­ored.”

“I had a game in Sper­ryville and I’m go­ing back to Char­lottesville and maybe there was a place I could stop and get a ham­burger at a back win­dow or maybe not, be­cause they didn’t have to serve you,” the au­thor said for ex­am­ple.

“We al­ways car­ried food,” agreed au­di­ence mem­ber Justin Kilby, 72, a res­i­dent of Flint Hill who played catcher for the Sper­ryville Tigers.

“I joined the Tigers in ’65. I was 18,” Kilby told the News. “Then I went into the ser­vice, the Marine Corps, and came back in ’67 and I played. We played off 211 go­ing up the moun­tain to Lu­ray.”

Slaugh­ter and Kilby played dur­ing the same time for the Tigers, which folded around 1971. By then, the pair ob­served, a few white men from Rap­pa­han­nock joined them on the ball fields. Which cer­tainly wasn’t the case decades be­fore.

“In ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties if you were up and close and per­sonal at a black base­ball game, and you were white, it looked bad and you might be scorned in your com­mu­nity,” the au­thor noted dur­ing his talk.

Which isn’t to say the lo­cal ball play­ers weren’t rec­og­nized by blacks and whites alike in their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties, among them Ge­orge Love, who had a suc­cess­ful try­out with the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates.

“Un­der the strains of early ma­jor league in­te­gra­tion and home­sick­ness, Ge­orge Love was over­whelmed,” Howard re­veals. “The pres­sures of hav­ing to per­form, the alien­ation and change of en­vi­ron­ment did not add up to the worth of be­com­ing a big-lea­guer and Love re­turned home to the sand­lots of Culpeper.”

Re­gard­less, Love’s base­ball skills were deemed na­tional cal­iber, and he’d made in­roads where few blacks had gone be­fore.

“Back at home he was the talk of the black base­ball cir­cuit,” writes Howard, “known as the boy who’d tried out in the ‘League.’”

LEFT | 72-year-old Justin Kilby and Richard Slaugh­ter, 78, played base­ball for the Sper­ryville Tigers. Slaugh­ter had ear­lier played for the Reva Aces un­til a 1959 car crash in Woodville took the lives of three team­mates and sent shock­waves through the Rap­pa­han­nock com­mu­nity.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN MC­CASLIN

BY JOHN MC­CASLIN

Char­lottesville au­thor Dar­rell J. Howard was guest speaker Satur­day evening at the his­toric Scrabble School, dis­cussing his book “Sun­day Com­ing: Black Base­ball in Vir­ginia.”

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