Few men alive are part of the living history of America’s Pastime the way Oliver “Son” Ferguson is.
At 94, he is one of the last of a dying breed, men who came up in the industrial baseball leagues of a tough steel town and went on to play professional baseball before the color barrier fell. Ferguson was part of the 1938 Birmingham Black Barons, the stalwart Negro League team that brought fans out by the thousands to Rickwood Field.
So when Ferguson gives advice on the sport he played for decades, it doesn’t hurt to listen. Here’s a bit of the advice he has given to kids who might be undecided about which sport they want to play:
“If you’re going to play baseball, go on and play baseball. If you don’t want to play baseball, don’t try to play baseball.”
Ferguson takes baseball seriously, as befits someone whose place in history is well documented. For instance, in the book Black Barons of Birmingham: The South’s Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players, author and UAB professor Larry Powell says that Ferguson’s “memories of his playing days provide insight into black baseball in the 1930s.”
One thing Ferguson remembers is how important the Black Barons were in segregated Birmingham.
“It was very important,” he said. “You had a turnout to every game we played back in them days. … People just came to ball games back in them days. Come to see different ones play. … Every community that was close around the Black Barons was there at Rickwood Field.”
Soon the Black Barons history will have a new monument, when the city’s Negro Southern Leagues Museum opens — an opening expected sometime this spring, adjacent to the Barons’ home at Regions Field and across from Railroad Park.
The museum is long overdue, Ferguson says. “We should’ve been had that museum a long time ago. All of us players have gotten real old. A lot of my ball players have died out. Ain’t but a very few of us living. … They need to know more about what happened back in them days.”
He, like other surviving members of the Black Barons and other Negro League teams, plans to donate memorabilia to the museum that will make it stand apart from its older counterpart, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
The eventual opening of the Negro Southern League Museum will shine a spotlight on the important role black baseball had in the history of Birmingham, supporters say.
“I think it had a major significance and I think it’s under-appreciated,” Powell says. “I think it was the second most important factor contributing to the Civil Rights Movement in the area. I think the first most important factor was the churches — they provided the organization structure and the whole motivation for getting out there. But even the preachers, the black preachers after their sermons would say that they would meet people at the ballpark. And I think its role there was a unifying factor.”
By Powell’s estimation, the unifying effect of Black Barons baseball during the league’s heyday — the early 1920s until about 1963 — was more than just a matter of interest in sports. “It was truly a black sport,” he says. “It was played by blacks and it was owned by blacks and the audience was heavily black. Not totally — there were a lot of white fans that would show up, but they were still a minority at the games themselves.
“And this was one thing as a community they could share together outside of church, and they didn’t have many of those. They had local community things within various enclaves within Jefferson County, but the thing that the entire black community could share in was going to a Black Barons [game].”
Another reason black baseball is important in Birmingham history: the Black Barons also played a less obvious role in the events that led to the Civil Rights Movement, Powell suggests.
“You had in Birmingham the Bull Connor-induced legislation that blacks and whites were not allowed to play with each other,” Powell says. “And that created problems even in the minor leagues, because the local white Barons team, doing fairly well in the Southern League…couldn’t participate in the Dixie World Series if there was a black player on the other side, and that just didn’t work. There was just too much pressure to say that they could play together.
“And if they can play together, they can work together, they can live together, they can eat together, they can go to school together, everything else together.”
Powell says that pressure arising from segregated baseball played a role in moving the barons with money in Birmingham — the industrial barons — to go to the table to negotiate a change in government and work toward removing segregation. “I think that was a major contributing factor to that. [First], the one thing that this community wanted was the income that would come from such teams playing with each other, and second, it was a bad smear on the Birmingham image to be that out of step with the rest of the nation, particularly by the end of the ‘50s and the early ‘60s.”
Chef Clayton Sherrod, who wrote the forward for Powell’s book, is an unabashed fan of Negro Leagues baseball. He has organized reunions of the surviving players at Rickwood Field for years, and has taken on a role to advocate giving recognition to the players from the Black Barons and promoting the need for the Negro Southern League Museum.
The museum is critically important in Birmingham, Sherrod says, “not only because of the Negro Leagues, but also because of the industrial leagues, which were huge in Birmingham. There would be 5,000 people going to see, like, ACIPCO play Connor Steel or Stockham Valve and Fittings.
“That league led into the Negro Leagues, which made it very, very important, especially in the city of Birmingham,” Sherrod says. “Even today we have more living legends of Negro League ball in Birmingham than anywhere in the country.”
Because of that, he says the museum needs to be here, even though officials of the Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City have gone on record questioning the need for two such museums.
“When we first started, we did get some calls from the Kansas City museum people and it started out, they said they were going to sue Birmingham, because of even using the name ‘museum,’” Sherrod says. “And there was quite a bit going on, to the point that even if we had to just change the name, we were going to build this museum here in Birmingham.
“And the method to our madness was, suppose there was only one type of civil rights museum? … It would not serve this country to only have one. And that’s the same with the Negro League. The Negro League was huge and we want to make sure people find out how large it is.”
Besides all that, the Birmingham museum will be different, with an emphasis on memorabilia and learning, he says.
“Just like anything else, it will be our responsibility to market the Negro Leagues and market this museum to bring those people out, especially the youngsters,” Sherrod says.
“We’re going to have a really, really good school program so that not only will they learn a lot about the Negro Leagues and the ballplayers, but learn all about the part that the players in Birmingham, Alabama played. It is very, very important that they know the history, since Birmingham will be the home base of Negro Leagues baseball and also Negro Leagues research. We’re going to have a research department and it will be available for the schools to come in to find out any and everything about different players that ever played ball in the Negro Leagues…in all of the league,” Sherrod says.
Beyond that, he says, the entire history of black baseball will be covered in the museum’s programming, all the way from the turn of the 20th century, to Satchel Paige and Wilie Mays, to unsung heroes of the game, to the barnstorming teams that played into the 1960s even after the integration of baseball. Sherrod sees the Negro Southern Leagues Museum as a central point for learning about the history of the game.
The kind of study of the game the museum will represent is crucial to the lives of the people who played in the Negro Leagues, Sherrod says. Sherrod and other fans of the game have been collecting information about how long some players actually played pro ball — information which can lead to much needed pensions for lesser known veterans.
Sherrod gave one example from last year: Joe Elliot. “We actually thought he had died. We were just having a conversation with another guy that played in the Negro Leagues that I grew up with. He said, ‘I think he’s alive. He’s living in New York.’ And we gave him the responsibility — see if you can find Joe Elliott. He found Joe Elliott in Brooklyn, NY, still alive. Married. Had grandchildren. What we did was got him in touch and sent his information to Major League Baseball. They signed off on it that he would get his pension.”
But more than that, they discovered he had played quite a bit longer than anyone realized, Sherrod says. “They sent him a check by special courier for $100,000. Can you imagine someone who doesn’t have anything — gets $875 a month and then on top of that get a check, a lump sum, for $100,000.”
Apart from such Cinderella stories, though, the Birmingham museum has the chance to succeed on a level that the Kansas City museum is struggling with, says Powell, who says he is “elated” over the facility getting its turn at bat.
“I have never been to the one in Kansas City,” he says. “I would like to go. But I don’t think it’s going to compare with the one here. As I understand it, the one in Kansas City has been losing interest and is having a tough time maintaining support, and they have a lot of creative exhibits to get the point across.
“This [in Birmingham] is going to have memorabilia — real memorabilia that will give an example of what players were wearing and doing and so forth at the time,” Powell continued. “This one doesn’t have to be a national museum, but it does need to be a regional museum, one that will attract people from the South. I think Kansas City tried to be a national museum, and Kansas City is just not enough of a national destination place, I would think, for that to occur.”
Birmingham, on the other hand, is already a place for tourists who will appreciate what the Negro Southern League Museum has to offer, he says. “Birmingham is already a destination place regarding tourism related to civil rights. This is going to be a natural additional thing to visit while you’re here.”
Being near the popular home of the Barons at Regions Field and across from the now much-praised Railroad Park won’t hurt, Powell said.
“Baseball fans are going to know that it’s here. From an academic perspective, we’ve already been contacted by people who want us to invite them down to be guest lecturers so they can go to it.”