Some years need no introduction: 1066, 1492, 1776.
We all understand what those years mean: the year that William the Bastard transformed into William the Conqueror and wrenched the future Great Britain out of the Scandinavian orbit, the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue and opened two continents to colonization, the year that some upstart colonies on one of those continents threw off their royal master and made the radical decision to govern themselves.
Other years, though, are consequential in quieter ways.
A few weeks ago, Cardinal ran a story by Ralph Berrier Jr. about a new historical marker going up in Norton, marking how that small city in the coalfields did something in 1951 that wasn’t supposed to be done. It started a Little League program – and let Black boys play alongside white boys. Norton just wanted to play ball, but others weren’t so keen on how it was doing so. When the Norton All-Star team advanced to the state championship, Charlottesville refused to let the team play on its field – although the Charlottesville team reluctantly agreed to play on the road in Norton and promptly got whipped. That Norton team in 1951 stands as the first integrated Little League in the South. Orlando, Florida, also claims that distinction, but Orlando’s team took the field four years later, in 1955. Norton just didn’t call attention to itself. That will be a theme you’ll see again.
Not long after that story ran, someone in Roanoke pointed out to me that another racial barrier quietly fell in 1951. That year Roanoke’s Jewish community created the B’nai B’rith Athletic and Achievement Award to honor local high school athletes who have also distinguished themselves in academics and community service. That first year, there were 18 nominees. One of those was Everett Miller, the star quarterback and basketball guard for Lucy Addison High School, then the city’s Black school. It was remarkable enough that Miller was even included as a nominee in those segregated days. It was completely astonishing when he was announced as the winner. “It was almost disbelief, to say the least,” Miller said in a 2000 interview with The Roanoke Times. (Sadly, he has since passed away.) In that same 2000 story, one of the B’nai B’rith members who started the award, Joseph Brumburg, recalled: “We decided what was fair was fair. He had won it fair and square, and he was going to get it.”
These may have been isolated events – in cities 184 miles apart – but in some ways they weren’t isolated at all. It turns out there were at least three other civil rights first recorded in Virginia in 1951, and they all took place on sports fields. We can’t say those events have been lost to history because the documentation is out there – I found it all with some Google searches – but it’s history that’s certainly not well-known and, arguably, should be better known.
First, let’s establish some context. The color barrier in Major League Baseball had famously fallen in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, but by 1951 it hadn’t fallen by much. In 1951, only five of 16 teams had Black players. The Norton Little Leaguers had four Black players, one on each team in the regular season league. The All-Star team that they fielded for the state tournament – and that went on to win the state championship – had two Black players. That was more than 12 of the 16 Major League teams. Only the Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and New York Giants had that many Black players on their rosters.
There were also no major league teams in the South, where racial tensions were most pronounced. That’s why the events I’m about to mention should stand out more in history than they do. The sports landscape in those days included a low-level minor league called the Mountain States League, which consisted of a changing cast of small towns in Southwest Virginia, eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky. Today some of those towns are barely hanging on, but in the post-war era they were thriving communities that enthusiastically supported their local clubs, even if they were at the lowest rung of professional baseball.
One of those teams was the Pennington Gap Miners. The year before, the Lee County team had flirted with signing a Black player, according to a document posted on the Diamonds in the Dusk website. Whether the team considered this groundbreaking move because the team was mired in last place or because it had the league’s lowest attendance or some other reason, we don’t know. We just know that the Miners explored the idea of signing a Black player but, in the words of one contemporary press account, “so much objection was raised by home town fans and other league teams” that the team abandoned the idea. Some teams had told the league president they’d refuse to play Pennington Gap, and that was that. Pennington Gap could have had the distinction of fielding the first integrated professional baseball team in the South but missed its shot at history. The team finished last in the league.
The 1951 season began with the league just as white as it always had been. The Middlesboro Athletics, just over the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky, were hoping to compete against the team’s perennial powerhouses, the Hazard Bombers and the Harlan Smokies. However, Middlesboro was hurting for pitching (some things never change). It was hurting so much that the team started to entertain what had been an unthinkable option. Middlesboro fans were familiar with Bob Bowman, a longtime star of local Black leagues who had once toured with the barnstorming Ethiopian Clowns. He also was said to have a “devastating sidearm” delivery. Bowman was 45 – long past his prime – but he still had more zip than most. Bowman was a hometown guy – he was born in Lee County, Virginia, but had grown up in Middlesboro. That meant he was “well-known to local white fans,” according to a historical account by Gary Joseph Cleradkowksi, which might have been a significant factor. On May 8, 1951, Middlesboro signed him just two hours before game time and sent him to the mound that night in relief against the Big Stone Gap Rebels.
I’m indebted to “Ball, Bat and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball in the Appalachian South” by L.F. Sutter for many of the following details. League president Virgil Q. Wacks gave Bowman a “tepid blessing” and wondered what the reaction would be. “I know this is the first Negro player signed on organized ball below the Mason-Dixon Line,” he said at the time. The fans that night in Middlesboro had quite a different reaction. According to Sutter, attendance was triple what it usually was, and Bowman was greeted with “a nice round of applause” each time he struck out a batter. It no doubt helped that Bowman preserved a small lead, with Middlesboro going on to win the game 10-8. With those two innings, Bowman became the first Black player to play in a professional league in the South – assuming you consider Kentucky as part of the South. Kentucky certainly did.
In the majors, Jackie Robinson was not always greeted warmly – sometimes the reaction was just the opposite. However, by the few accounts that can be found, Bowman proved to be quite a popular player in the heart of Appalachia. Even at his advanced age, “he was still the greatest pitcher eastern Kentucky had ever seen and the town was smitten with him,” Sutter writes. “He began to be referred to affectionately as ‘Big Bob.’” (He stood 6-foot-2). The book says that Bowman consistently won favorable headlines in local newspapers, even if the rest of his team stunk up the joint on a particular night, which, unfortunately for hometown fans, it did. Middlesboro fell out of contention but not for lack of relief pitching. Bowman might have led the league in strikeouts if the recordkeeping had been better. For years later, Sutter writes, Bowman was considered a local celebrity – and merited a full chapter in her history of Appalachian baseball.
I realize much of this history played out across the state line, but Bowman was a Virginia native. If Virginia can claim Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on the grounds that he was born in Staunton even though he left before he was 2, then perhaps Virginia should claim part of Bowman’s legacy, too. Wilson made his name in New Jersey and Washington; Bowman at least made part of his history on ballfields in Big Stone Gap, Norton and Pennington Gap. It’s also notable to me how many of the sports-related civil rights milestones took place in or near the Virginia mountains. There’s a long political context for that. In the 1880s, it was the western part of the state that was most supportive of the Readjusters, a short-lived party that promoted what passed for civil rights measures of that era. Later, it was the western part of the state that formed the political base for the so-called “Mountain Valley Republicans,” who opposed the state’s conservative Democrats when they tried to shut down public schools rather than integrate in the 1950s. Today, coal country may be the most conservative part of the state – election returns certainly suggest so – but in those days it was actually one of the most progressive, as evidenced by the Norton Little League, and Bowman’s warm reception. We’ll return to another sports/civil rights first in coal country but before we get to it, we must take a detour east.
That August, the Danville Leafs – then in the Carolina League – were losing games, losing fans and, their owners feared, perhaps losing money. They searched for some ways to shake things up. As Berrier wrote for The Roanoke Times in 1997: “The team tried bathing beauty contests and raffles. Nothing worked.” Finally, in desperation, the Leafs decided to sign a Black player. To some extent, it was a promotional stunt, but Percy Miller Jr. was a legitimate athlete.
He’d been a three-sport standout at Langston High School, Danville’s Black school in those segregated days. He was spending the summer of ’51 playing for one of those barnstorming Black teams that were popular then. He was batting a scorching .375. Miller didn’t want to sign with the Leafs, but his family urged him to seize the opportunity. He signed. On Aug. 10, 1951, he came to bat against the Durham Bulls and rapped a solid hit over second base that drove in two runs. With that, Miller made history of his own. Bowman might have been the first Black player for a professional team in the South, but Miller was the first Black player for a professional team in the old Confederacy. He also made the team some money: Attendance was twice what it normally was. Unfortunately, the rest of the season didn’t go nearly as well for Miller and he never played for the Leafs again. It would be two years before another Black player stepped onto a Carolina League field.
There was still yet more history to be made that summer. Late in the season, the Pennington Gap Miners finally did what they had tried to do the year before – they signed a Black player. Dick Mims (or possibly Minns; accounts varied) was perhaps in his 50s, maybe even upper 50s. Some said he might have been as old as 58. He was also said to have played in the Negro Leagues for the famed Homestead Grays. Whatever his age, he was clearly now in the proverbial twilight of his career, eking out a few more innings for a small-town team in coal country. On the night of Aug. 26, 1951, the Mountain States League saw a first: two teams with opposing Black starting pitchers, Bowman for Middlesboro, Mims (or maybe Minns) for Pennington Gap, going against each other. The game was apparently well-promoted for this historic first, but neither of the aging pitchers lived up to his billing that night, with Middlesboro winning 12-6.
Still, this was historic (and, for our purposes, did take place in Virginia). The Major Leagues had never seen such a thing at the time. It would be 1953 before there were two Black pitchers taking the mound in the same game for opposing teams – Connie Johnson for the Chicago White Sox against Satchel Paige for the St. Louis Browns. Even then Virginia has an advantage: The Bowman-Mims duel featured two starting pitchers in scheduled appearances; Johnson and Paige were both relievers, so theirs was not an intentional pairing.
Virginia is going through a long overdue reckoning with its past, and trying to make up for that with historical markers to call attention to parts of our history that have long been ignored. We’ve seen historical markers in Clifton Forge to Roger Arliner Young, the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in zoology. In Botetourt County to Norvel Lee, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1952. In Roanoke to Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken from her body to use in ground-breaking cancer research. In Lynchburg to Sam Kelso, the founder of Virginia’s public school system. I could go on and on with examples. Here seem to be three more that we ought to be putting up: to the Lee County birthplace of the first Black player to integrate pro baseball in the South, to the Pennington Gap ballfield that saw the first matchup of Black pitchers in the South, to Miller in Danville who became the first Black player to integrate pro baseball in the former Confederacy.
As a Virginian, and as a baseball fan, I’m fascinated by all these stories. History was made here, even if it didn’t necessarily lead to immediate breakthroughs. We remember that the biggest event of 1951 in Virginia didn’t involve something as transitory as a game. One April morning in Farmville a precocious teenager named Barbara Johns led a walkout from the all-Black R.R. Moton High School to protest the poor conditions there. Two of the state’s best-known Black lawyers, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson from Richmond, took up the case and three years later it was part of the consolidated slate of cases known as Brown v. Board of Education.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that decision. Still, history records that two baseball leagues in Virginia were integrated years before the state integrated any of its schools. Surely that deserves a historical marker.