‘They are living legends’: The effort to preserve the rich history of the South Texas Negro League

A recent event hosted by the San Antonio African America Community Archive & Museum brought together former players of the semi-professional South Texas Negro League to share their stories and experiences playing for the league.

By Marian Navarro, Texas Public RadioMay 15, 2024 11:14 am, , , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

Major League Baseball has taken steps in recent years to recognize the legacy and importance of the segregation-era Negro Leagues.

The circuit was given major league status in 2020, which incorporated player statistics and records as an official part of MLB history.

Far-less recognized is the semi-professional Negro League circuit that ran into the late 1970s.

In San Antonio, the league brought together talented Black athletes and gave them a chance to play the game at the highest level in the area.

The South Texas Negro League (STNL) was founded by locals Royal Brock and Odie Davis, Sr. Brock in 1945. Brock owned the San Antonio Black Sox and Davis owned the Denver Heights Bears, named after the San Antonio neighborhood.

The league included several other teams like the San Antonio Ramblers, the San Antonio Black Sox, and the Austin Greyhounds. Teams played through the 1978 season, long after Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier by being drafted to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

The San Antonio African American Community Archive & Museum (SAAACAM) hosted an event titled “Home Base Heroes: Living Legends of the South Texas Negro League” at the Davis-Scott YMCA in April that brought together more than a dozen former players of the league.

Players participated in an hour-long panel discussion, reminiscing about their time playing the game in the league and the impact it had in the community then and now.

Most league games were played in San Antonio at Pittman Sullivan Park on the city’s East Side. The park quickly became the place to be for the community on a Sunday after church.

Travis Darden played as an outfielder for the San Antonio Ramblers. He said not every field the teams played on compared to the one at home.

“Pittman Sullivan was a good field,” he said. “But some places we had to go where the field was just — they would make it out of a cow pasture.”

Before he played for the Ramblers, Darden recalled one especially ugly incident playing for a mixed-race Air Force baseball team. The team played in front of an all-white crowd in Mississippi during the 1950s and scored 14 runs during the first inning of the game.

The crowd quickly grew threatening.

“The words that they used when they stood up in the stands and they said, ‘If you all score any more runs, we’re going to hang every last one of you.’ So we played defensive baseball from that time on,” he said.

Security guards later escorted them off the field.

Odie Davis III played with the Denver Heights Bears and was later drafted by the Texas Rangers. Odie Davis’ father, Odie Davis Sr., owned the Denver Heights Bears and helped form the South Texas Negro League with Royal Brock in 1945.
Courtesy photo / San Antonio African American Community Archive & Museum

For Odie Davis III, a player for the Denver Heights Bears, the league gave talented Black players in the region an opportunity to showcase their skills before and after the Jim Crow era of segregation.

“By getting a chance to get on the field … I think we all found out that talent can come from any race or anywhere, but it was a barrier that got broken that probably needed to,” he said.

Davis’ talent was recognized. He was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1977 and played one season. He was one of three players from the South Texas Negro League who made it to the majors.

SAAACAM has been part of the local effort to highlight the rich culture and history of the STNL.

Its pop-up exhibit, “The Invisible Diamond: 100 years of Negro League Baseball” travels to schools and throughout the community to educate about the Negro Leagues and its impact in San Antonio.

“When we think about the social consciousness of what Black baseball is and where Black baseball occurred,” said Caira Spenrath, an archivist with SAAACAM, “we were really inspired to collect, preserve, and share the history because we have literal living legends.”

Spenrath said the league provided a space for Black athletes and also became a focal point of the community during its run.

A panel featured as part of SAAACAM’s “The Invisible Diamond: 100 Years of Negro League Baseball.”
Marian Navarro / TPR

“These games themselves became incredible bastions of community gathering,” she said. “There would be musical acts, there would be food, there [were] these really communal spaces that allowed for the community to just be.”

Layton Revel, a historian and founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research and the co-founder of the Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, has spent the last three decades working to preserve the history of the Negro Leagues and its offshoots.

He said time is running out to tell the stories of the players from the South Texas League. “We had 95 players in San Antonio,” he added. “We’re down to about a third of that, if we’re lucky.”

SAAACAM said the history of the South Texas Negro League will be featured in one of the galleries at the newly-purchased historic Kress-Grant building. The nonprofit is also exploring ways to partner with the Center for Negro League Research to share the history of the league in San Antonio.

For Darden, educating the community about the league may help inspire young Black athletes to play the game, especially during a time when Black players in the major league remains low.

“It’s very important that we get some Afro-Americanas and get the kids interested to play baseball again,” he added.

In the meantime, Darden and other players said they’re happy to share their memories of their time in the league with anyone willing to listen.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and TPR.org. Thanks for donating today.