By Larry Colton
Read by Fleet Cooper
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Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Anybody who is familiar with the Civil Rights movement knows that 1964 was a pivotal year. And in Birmingham, Alabama – perhaps the epicenter of racial conflict – the Barons amazingly started their season with an integrated team.
Johnny “Blue Moon” Odom, a talented pitcher and Tommie Reynolds, an outfielder – both young black ballplayers with dreams of playing someday in the big leagues, along with Bert Campaneris, a dark-skinned shortstop from Cuba, all found themselves in this simmering cauldron of a minor league town, all playing for Heywood Sullivan, a white former major leaguer who grew up just down the road in Dothan, Alabama.
Colton traces the entire season, writing about the extraordinary relationships among these players with Sullivan, and Colton tells their story by capturing the essence of Birmingham and its citizens during this tumultuous year. (The infamous Bull Connor, for example, when not ordering blacks to be blasted by powerful water hoses, is a fervent follower of the Barons and served as a long-time broadcaster of their games.)
By all accounts, the racial jeers and taunts that rained down upon these Birmingham players were much worse than anything that Jackie Robinson ever endured.
More than a story about baseball, this is a true accounting of life in a different time and clearly a different place. Seventeen years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in the major leagues, Birmingham was exploding in race riots….and now, they were going to have their very first integrated sports team. This is a story that has never been told.
Table of Contents
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"Are You Trying to Be a Smart-Ass?"
When nineteen-year-old Johnny "Blue Moon" Odom saw the flashing lights of a Birmingham police car reflected in his rearview mirror, he eased off the accelerator in his brand-new candy-apple-red Ford Galaxy, hoping the cop would speed around him.
It was midnight on June 18, 1964. Odom—nicknamed Blue Moon by a school chum for his dark oval face and his sometimes forlorn demeanor—was savoring the sweet taste of success. Two weeks earlier, he'd signed for the largest bonus—$75,000—ever offered to a black athlete. Charlie Finley, the wealthy and controversial owner of the Kansas City A's, had personally come to his small duplex in the projects of Macon, Georgia, to sign Odom while Florine Odom, a domestic worker and the widowed mother of John and his three siblings, proudly looked on. To seal the deal, Finley helped cook dinner—fried chicken, okra, corn bread, and black-eyed peas. He also arranged for the purchase of Blue Moon's new four-on-the-floor Galaxy. Blue Moon had installed a one-of-a-kind, custom-built 45-record player on the dash.
Baseball experts were proclaiming Blue Moon and his extraordinary talent as the beacon to the future of the lowly A's. In high school, he had pitched eight no-hitters and lettered in four sports. Scouts from every major-league team had pursued him. To start his pro career, the A's had assigned him to the Class AA Birmingham Barons of the Southern League, but everybody assumed it was just a brief stopover and he'd be called up to The Show faster than a Birmingham fire hose could knock the bark off a tree.
Checking his mirror again, Blue Moon watched the police car pull closer, its lights still whirling. He'd only been in Birmingham a few days, but he knew enough to understand that a young black man shouldn't be running from the infamous Birmingham police. He'd seen the televised images from the previous spring, when young black demonstrators were knocked to the ground by the blasts of fire hoses and attacked by snarling police dogs. He knew that four little black girls had been murdered a few months earlier, when thugs with the Ku Klux Klan had ignited 122 sticks of dynamite at the nearby 16th Street Baptist Church.
Blue Moon eased to the curb.
Growing up in the heart of Dixie, Blue Moon was no stranger to the ways of Jim Crow. In school, he'd never had a white kid in any of his classes; at his summer job scraping food off dishes at the Dempsey Hotel in Macon, he wasn't allowed to walk through the lobby; on city sidewalks, he had to step off the curb so as not to stand taller than a white. When he signed his big contract, Mr. Finley warned him that Birmingham could be even worse. Martin Luther King Jr. had declared it "the most segregated city in America," and the New York Times described it as "a place where fear stalks the streets."
But Blue Moon wasn't a civil rights activist. On occasion, he could be a bit of a hothead, but he had never been in big trouble. He didn't drink alcohol or chase after white women. He was a ballplayer, just one week into his pro career—he didn't even know the names of all his teammates yet, or that he was playing on the first-ever integrated team of any sport in Alabama. For the first time in his life, he was away from home, on his own, with a wad of money in his pocket, a hot new car, and not only white teammates, but three Latin players, too, dark-skinned like himself yet cultural strangers. Back in Macon, he had a pretty girlfriend—they'd even talked about getting married—but she still had a year left of high school. For his temporary accommodations in Birmingham, a city with rigidly enforced legally segregated neighborhoods, the ball club had found him a room to rent a few blocks from the ballpark in the upstairs of a house owned by an elderly black woman. She sometimes fixed him meals, but so far he usually just grabbed a milk shake and a few ten-cent Krystal burgers after games.
For him, national racial issues were just background chatter. He was focused on what was in front of him, such as whether his new manager, Haywood Sullivan, who'd grown up in Dothan, Alabama, and had kinfolks who'd witnessed lynchings in the town square, was a racist redneck… or rather someone who could teach him how to throw a good changeup.
Shutting off his engine, Blue Moon watched a big, burly cop get out of his patrol car. In Birmingham, there were no black police officers.
"Let me see your driver's license," demanded the cop, shining his flashlight on Blue Moon's face.
"Sir, what did I do wrong?" asked Blue Moon.
"I said, let me see your driver's license."
Blue Moon fumbled for his license.
"Do you even have a license?"
"Yes, sir," replied Blue Moon, pulling out his wallet.
"Well, let me see it."
"Yes, sir, but can you please tell me what I did wrong?"
"Yes, sir," said Blue Moon, handing him his license.
Like most blacks in the South, Blue Moon had been raised to address whites with yes-sir, no-sir. In high school, he had never sassed his teachers, popped off to his coaches, or back-talked his mother. That's not to say that he didn't have a temper or a fierce competitive streak. The day he joined the Barons, he told Sullivan that he'd knock down his own mother if she tried to dig in on him.
The cop took his license, then surveyed the new car. "Is this yours?" he asked.
"Why do you have it?"
"Do you understand English, boy? Why… do… you… have… this… car?"
Blue Moon squinted into the glare of the flashlight. "Because I like it," he answered.
"How'd you get it?"
"I bought it."
Blue Moon paused, feeling his anger rising. On the day he signed his pro contract, he told Mr. Finley what kind of car he wanted, and Mr. Finley had arranged for it to be delivered to him at the ballpark in Birmingham. The payment—$2,400—was deducted from Blue Moon's bonus check.
"I don't know where it was purchased… it was delivered to me."
"Do I look stupid?" said the cop. "You telling me this brand-new car is yours but you don't know where it come from?"
The cop opened the driver's-side door. "Step out of the car," he ordered.
Blue Moon did as instructed.
The officer glanced at Blue Moon's license. "This says you're from Georgia. Whattya doing in Birmingham?"
"I play for the Barons."
"I… play… for… the… Barons."
"Are you trying to be a smart-ass? Because if you are, it's a bad idea."
The cop shone his flashlight on the license. "Johnny Lee Odom… is that you?"
The cop paused, contemplating the name. Suddenly, a light went on. "Are you that new bonus baby pitcher I read about?"
"The newspaper said they gave you loads of money. That true?"
"Boy, what's a nigger like you gonna do with all that money?"
Blue Moon ignored the question. "Sir, can I ask you what I did wrong to make you pull me over?"
The cop hesitated, and then replied. "When you turned onto 14th, you didn't signal far enough in advance."
"There weren't no cars."
"I won't do it again."
"Well, Johnny Lee Odom, this is your lucky day. I'm going to let you go."
"Thank you, sir. Thank you."
"But let me give you some advice."
"What's that, sir?"
"This is Birmingham, Alabama. It's real important you stay in the nigger part of town."
Southern League and Me
In 1966, two years after this story takes place, I was a twenty-three-year-old pitcher for the Macon Peaches in the Southern League, a California boy experiencing the South for the first time. The idea of becoming a writer, let alone writing this book, never occurred to me then, not for a nanosecond. I was a ballplayer. That's it. Baseball defined who I was.
I could easily decouple baseball from the civil rights movement. I was not in Macon to observe the onerous habits of Jim Crow; my job was to blow the ball by any sonuvabitch who carried a Louisville Slugger into the batter's box. Like the players in this book, I was singular in purpose: have a good season and get to the major leagues.
I played against some of the players written about in this book, including Blue Moon. I am now almost forty years removed from the game, but instinctively and emotionally, once you've lived in the land of baseball, you're a permanent resident.
As a player in the Southern League, I never took notes or recorded my thoughts into a tape recorder—I would've been laughed out of the locker room. But over the years, a few distinct memories have stuck stubbornly in my mind. Details of specific games are long gone. The memories I do carry, however, were the seeds from which this book would emerge four decades later. And each of those memories had to do with race.
The first seed was planted on our initial road trip of the season, a visit to Montgomery, Alabama, to play the Rebels, a Detroit farm team. After the series opener at Paterson Field, the twenty-two Macon players and our manager, Andy Seminick, climbed onto our bus—nicknamed the Coffin—for the ride back to the hotel. I was sharing a seat with Leroy "Cat" Reams, an outfielder from Oakland, California. Leroy and I had played together on a semi-pro team in the Bay Area prior to launching our pro careers in the Phillie organization. This was his second year in the Southern League, my first.
Several blocks from the team hotel, the bus pulled to the curb and Leroy and the two other black players on the team got up and started down the aisle toward the door. "Hey, Cat," I said. "Wanna go grab a bite to eat?"
He whirled around and looked at me as if I'd lost my skull. "Not unless you have a death wish." He turned and got off the bus and disappeared into the Alabama night.
Okay, I was in that Montgomery, the city where Rosa Parks had started the bus boycott a decade earlier and where George Wallace sat as governor. It didn't matter that the Civil Rights Act had been passed two years earlier—most hotels and restaurants in Alabama still didn't serve blacks, and hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan were as common as grits.
I played that whole season and never knew where Leroy and the others went after the games. I never asked. I saw them only on the bus and at the ballpark.
A second memory is of a team picnic, a chance for us to gather socially with our families on a rare day off and to share some brews and barbecued burgers. I brought my wife, Denise; she was eight months pregnant. She had been an art major at Berkeley, and had just finished a haunting charcoal portrait of the four young black girls who had been murdered in the bombing of the Birmingham church. It hung in the living room of our small Macon apartment right next to another one of her paintings—Mickey Mantle sliding into third. (In our divorce several years later, I got the Mantle painting.)
We arrived at the park at the same time as Cat and John Lucas, who was Hank Aaron's cousin. Together, we headed into the park, searching for our teammates. As we walked deeper into a wooded area, the path led us toward an opening and a very large white tent. Suddenly, Cat and John spun around and started sprinting back toward the street, looking like they'd seen seven ghosts.
They pointed back toward the tent. Standing there were half a dozen hooded Ku Klux Klan members, squinting through the slits of their hoods.
It was one thing to have seen newsreel footage of KKK cross burnings, but an altogether different experience to peer into those hard, angry eyes. Our picnic was canceled.
Perhaps my most vivid memory of my season in the Southern League springs from a road trip to Mobile. Somewhere along US 31 between Montgomery and Mobile, the Coffin stopped for lunch at a small greasy spoon café nestled in a clump of pine trees. I took a seat at the counter. A heavyset waitress wearing a hairnet served me a glass of water in a plastic tumbler. Watching the rest of the team straggle in, she spotted Cat.
"Niggers have to eat out back," she instructed.
Andy Seminick, an old-school, barrel-chested, tobacco-chewing native of West Virginia who once caught a World Series game with a broken wrist, and was the Phillie catcher the day Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues, glared at her.
"Then you don't serve none of us," he said, signaling the team to head back to the bus.
His response surprised me. I'd never thought of him as a champion of civil rights, yet when I thought more about it, his stance was consistent with his constant preaching about the importance of being a team. "We're in this together," he repeatedly said. "We got to jump on 'em, both feet."
Back on the bus, we all returned to our seats, nobody trying to analyze what had just happened. The card games, chewing, and spitting continued. We were a team of twenty-year-olds from all over the country, not Freedom Riders. Neither Cat nor the other black players said anything.
But Seminick's declaration of the unifying principle of team above all else never left me. The four other books I've written have all had a common theme of team, seen not just as wins and losses, but as stories illuminating how people function and interact under pressure—whether it's a championship NBA team; a college fraternity; a high school girls' basketball team on an Indian reservation; or submariners facing the ultimate test in World War II. In dissecting each of those teams, I learned that the subjects' relationships to time and place, as well as to each other, are what shape the narrative.
Four decades passed before the seeds that had been planted in memories of the Southern League's red Georgia clay began to take root as a story. Long after I was out of baseball, I began to think of the sport in its broader context. I was no longer obsessed with my own trajectory in the game—that arc had led to a crash landing. Instead, I puzzled over baseball's place in American culture—both the good and the bad—and its assigned role in our country's evolution. Since its inception, baseball has been a way to connect us, to transcend the boundaries of time and place, to bind generations, and to offer us a unique sense of community, a dialogue among strangers. In Southern League, baseball brings blacks and whites together in a place where it had never happened before.
I am constantly reminded of how, to many, baseball is a religion. I played in only one big-league game in 1968, and yet I still get a steady stream of letters requesting an autograph on my Topps rookie baseball card. I have been a writer for over three decades, but it's a rare day when I receive a copy of one of my books in the mail with a request to sign it.
It is this fascination with baseball's place in the cosmos that ultimately drew me to the 1964 Birmingham Barons, a story that somehow seemed to fit the notion that baseball is a perfect companion to our history, and even at times an augur of politics, as in the marvelous chronicle of Jackie Robinson. This seemed like just such a story.
More than the home runs and suicides squeezes, what drew me in were the backstories of the players—twenty-two young men as diverse as America—and the way they intertwined (or didn't) with the turmoil that was Birmingham, the epicenter of the civil rights movement in 1964. I was looking for glimpses into the nobility of the sport and its recurrent sagas of success and failure… and, occasionally, perhaps, redemption.
To tell this narrative, I chose to focus on four players—two black, John Odom and Tommie Reynolds; and two white, Hoss Bowlin and Paul Lindblad—along with their manager, Haywood Sullivan, a man whose roots in the South were as deep as those of the trees used for lynchings in the town square where he was raised.
Along the way, I talked to the players, their wives (or ex-wives), and, in one case, a player's widow. I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for, but I was hoping it would be a story where baseball and the real world collided… and baseball won.
Baseball is reassuring. It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.
—Sharon Olds, poet
Asleep at the Wheel
Tommie Reynolds, twenty-two, felt his eyes getting heavy. It was February 1964, and as he drove east along the Gulf Coast on his way to spring training, he yawned, trying to keep alert.
This was the start of Reynolds's second year in pro ball, and he was on the fast track to the big leagues. In his first year at Burlington in the Class A Mid-west League, he led the league in batting average (.332) and home runs (27), and was so impressive that he'd gotten called up to Kansas City for the last month of the season, a rare feat for a player from A ball. And now he was heading to the big-league training camp in Bradenton, Florida. Pretty heady stuff, especially for a guy the scouts had ignored when he played outfield at Lincoln High in baseball-rich San Diego.
Spotting a Holiday Inn sign, he didn't even think about stopping. This was 1964, and motels across America weren't an option for blacks, certainly not in the Deep South. Having slept in his car for three nights, he was a bit discombobulated.
Ahead, he eyed a highway sign announcing a rest stop in five miles.
Even though he'd grown up in the relative racial calm of San Diego, Reynolds understood the reality of America's racial divide. His parents were from Louisiana and had shared stories of the Jim Crow way of life where they'd grown up. In his early years, he'd lived in the projects of San Diego, and although he didn't have to drink out of separate drinking fountains, the city's rigid redlining had kept neighborhoods segregated. And during his two years in the army, either at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri or at the base in Augsburg, Germany, he knew that certain places were off-limits to blacks, and that many of his white comrades dismissed him simply because of the color of his skin.
Nearing the rest stop, he felt his head nod forward, and then jerk back, snapping him back to the task at hand. Ending up in a ditch would be a lousy outcome for many reasons, including the damage it would surely do to his new '64 Chevy Malibu Super Sport, with its wire rims, aqua-green custom paint job, and front-seat console. It was his first car.
To his dismay, the rest area was closed for construction. But it was late at night and he was dead tired. To keep going would be foolish, so after surveying the scene and figuring it was safe, he steered his Super Sport off to the side of the construction site, turned off the engine, and leaned back his seat. He checked to make sure his .45-caliber service revolver was within easy reach beneath his seat, and then fell fast asleep.
The Early Years
Born in Louisiana in 1941, Tommie Reynolds migrated to San Diego with his family when he was one. The third of seven siblings, he first lived with his family in Frontier Housing, a government project for defense workers in the low-income Midway area of San Diego, on the north end of Point Loma. His dad, J. D. Reynolds, had moved west in the hope of finding a good wartime job, joining thousands of other families lured from around the country by San Diego's military support industry (78 percent of income in the area was derived from defense spending). Mr. Reynolds landed a job working on the assembly line with Convair, helping build the B-36 strategic bombers. But with seven kids to feed, he also worked a second job, busing dishes at Oscar's, a popular drive-in restaurant. He had little time to play catch with his sons.
Beulah Reynolds was a housewife, staying home to take care of their seven kids, doing laundry and fixing meals. The family always ate dinner together, and she arose early every day to make them breakfast and pack lunches. A tough disciplinarian, she demanded that her kids buckle down in school. Tommie didn't dare sass a teacher or blow off his homework, and Mom wasn't shy about coming to school to check up on him. She was the one to take out the belt, with Dad stepping in only as a last resort. Her response to misbehavior was always the same: "God don't like ugly," she'd say.
Eventually, Mr. Reynolds quit his job at Convair to take a higher-paying job with the San Diego Sanitation Department as a garbage man. His goal was to move the family out of Frontier Housing.
When the Reynolds family moved west and away from Jim Crow in Louisiana, a friend had told them black people could live anyplace they wanted in California, as long as they had the money. But they quickly learned that wasn't true. Jim Crow was subtler in San Diego—there were no separate drinking fountains, no overt discrimination at lunch counters—but the explicit restrictions on real estate sales to blacks, practiced by banks and local Realtors and known as redlining, kept the city segregated. The fear was that the arrival of minorities would drive down property values. Once, north of San Diego, the Reynoldses passed a sign posted alongside Highway 395 just outside Escondido that read: STAY OUT NIGGERS. NO NEED TO STOP IN ESCONDIDO.
But slowly, as white families began a flight to the suburbs, black families started moving to southeast San Diego and into neighborhoods historically populated by white families. When Tommie was in junior high, his family purchased a home in Logan Heights. Built in the postwar boom of the late 1940s, the house was a modest, three-bedroom, one-bath California wood-frame with a patio, fenced backyard, and two-car garage, although the family had only one car, a big black Chrysler Imperial with the new push-button drive and fins almost as big as Escondido. The Reynoldses were one of the first black families to move onto their block. Tommie earned his fifty-cents-a-week allowance mowing the lawn. He never shirked his duty. Disobeying was not part of his character.
The Sound of Shattering Glass
The sound of breaking glass jarred Tommie from his sleep. Groggily, he looked around, and quickly saw that the passenger window of his Super Sport was shattered, shards of glass spread across the passenger seat as if somebody had taken a hammer and smashed it.
Tommie reached under his seat for his gun, and then straightened in his seat, looking around. He didn't see anyone. Without bothering to get out and investigate or clean the glass off the seat, he started the car and quickly drove away.
But thirty miles down the road, he was sleepy again. Maybe he was in Alabama now, maybe the Florida panhandle. He rolled down his window, trying to let the cool February air keep him alert. It was past midnight. If he could find another rest stop, he reckoned, he'd sleep until daylight and then drive all the way to Bradenton… and big-league training camp. No more having to sleep in his car and worry about getting attacked.
He didn't hear the sound of gravel under his wheels as he started to drift off the highway.
Every Slide but One
It was the fourth day of the Kansas City A's minor-league spring training camp in Daytona Beach. Gathered around the sawdust pit, thirty players, all wearing baggy wool uniforms, waited restlessly for sliding instruction to begin. A few shielded their eyes from the relentless Florida sun; others dabbed at the zinc oxide they'd smeared on their noses and necks.
"Hoss, step up here," ordered Haywood Sullivan, the first-year manager of the Birmingham Barons. "You can help show how it's done."
Second baseman Weldon "Hoss" Bowlin stepped forward and smiled. At five foot seven, he was one of the shortest of the two hundred players in camp. This was the start of his sixth year in pro ball, none above A ball… not exactly the express lane for making it to the big leagues. Standing next to the towering six-foot-four Sullivan, he felt dwarfed.
He liked it that Sullivan had called his name—a good sign. But more than that, he was thrilled just to be in spring training and to have a shot at making the Double A Barons. It had been only two months since that dreadful December day in Memphis when his oncologist told him he wasn't sure if the surgery had gotten all the cancer, and even if it had, baseball would be out of the question.
"Let's start with the hook slide to the right," said Sullivan, motioning Hoss toward the end of the runway leading to the pit.
Hoss took off running toward the pit, and when he got to a few feet in front of it he launched himself airborne, horizontal to the ground, his right leg extended, his left leg bent at the knee… a textbook hook slide.
"Perfect," said Sullivan, patting him on the rump as Hoss hustled back to the head of the runway. "Now show 'em how to do it from the left side."
And Hoss did that one, too. And then he demonstrated the fadeaway, the pop-up, and the break-up-the-double-play slides.
"Okay, one more," said Sullivan, glancing at Hoss. "Let's show 'em the headfirst."
Hoss returned the glance, and shrugged his shoulders. "I think I better not try that one yet," he said.
"I understand," replied Sullivan. "No need to take any unnecessary chances."
A Bad Hop to the Testicles
Hoss had spent the previous season at Lewiston, Idaho, in the Northwest League, enjoying his best year. With a week to go, he was hitting .285, on his way to being named to the All-Star team, leading the league in doubles. But then he suffered every infielder's worst nightmare—a bad hop to the balls.
He limped off the field, but in the dugout he started turning green and throwing up. As a precaution, he sat out the final few games with ice bags on his groin, and then returned home to Paragould, Arkansas, with his wife, Madelyn, and their three-year-old son, Parrish. The pain subsided—the only time it bothered him was during orgasm—and when the A's invited him to the Florida Instructional League in Bradenton (two months of extended work for promising players), he jumped at the chance. It was decent money—$500 a month—and with Madelyn attending classes full-time at Arkansas State in Jonesboro to become a teacher, it was better pay than he'd made the previous off-season driving a milk truck for predawn deliveries to schools all over Green County. Instructional League was where he'd first met Sullivan, and when they first shook hands Hoss thought Sullivan had the biggest hands he'd ever seen. Sullivan appreciated Hoss's gritty approach to the game, always hustling and always fundamentally sound.
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