The scent of a cigar still reminds Ron Williams of his father.
Malcolm Williams earned the nickname “Red” because of his preference for a popular 5-cent, red-labeled cigar brand back when he played baseball in Roanoke in the 1940s. A generation later, even as a widower raising six kids in Northwest Roanoke after his playing days were through, Red Williams kept a cigar between his lips, though he mostly chewed them rather than smoked them.
“Every time I smell a cigar, I think of him,” Ron Williams said.
Memories of his dad came at him like a line drive on a recent June evening inside Salem Memorial Ballpark, home of the Salem Red Sox minor-league baseball team. Not because of the wafting aroma of tobacco, but because of a photo that was part of a modest display. There, in a fuzzy, enlarged photograph, Red Williams stared out from the top row of a team picture of the Roanoke Cardinals, the ballclub for which he played as a power-hitting third baseman in the years just after World War II.
The Cardinals were more popularly known as the Roanoke Black Cardinals, because of the skin color of the ballplayers. They were part of Roanoke’s version of the Negro Leagues, when Southern segregation meant that Black baseball players could not play against or with white teams, so they formed their own loosely aligned leagues and played other Black teams from the region.
All of those players are gone now.
“His moth-ridden Cardinals uniform used to be at the house,” Ron Williams recalled. He never got to see his father play baseball.
“He had finished playing for a while by the time I came along. He’d tell us about his escapades on the field.”
David Denham listened nearby as Williams talked about his father. Denham had set up the simple display on a table during a windy evening when the Salem Red Sox celebrated African American Heritage Night on June 16, just before the Juneteenth holiday. Denham, a white retired minister of the United Church of Christ, wore baggy jeans with rolled cuffs emblazoned with patches of old Negro League baseball teams that dominated during the pre-integration era before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947. His display consisted mainly of a picture of Robinson, a few Negro League replica jerseys and a book about former Roanoke baseball player Larry LeGrande, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs and other teams.
Denham buttonholed fans as he held down his posters in the swirling wind.
“What do you know about the Negro Leagues?” he asked.
He has made it his task to tell the stories of the Negro Leagues, the Roanoke Black Cardinals and players such as Larry LeGrande and Malcolm “Red” Williams.
“Most of Roanoke doesn’t know that the Black Cardinals existed,” Denham said.
Golden age of the Black Cardinals
During days of segregation, Black Roanokers loved baseball.
African American teams thrived in the early to mid-20th century, starting when the “Magic City” railroad boomtown of Roanoke rose from the creek-lined village of Big Lick and drew people by the thousands to form new communities from scratch.
The Norfolk & Western Railway offered better jobs for Black men than other industries — although opportunities were still limited during government-sanctioned segregation — and by the early 1900s, predominantly Black neighborhoods blossomed north of the railroad tracks that virtually divided the city in half. Before integration, Black Roanokers built a bustling business and entertainment district along Henry Street, considered the main drag of the Gainsboro neighborhood, a place that traced its roots back to the early 1800s.
In addition to businesses, doctor’s offices, hotels and theaters, Gainsboro was home to parks and recreational venues. A few blocks north of Henry Street stood the Royal Gardens, an outdoor entertainment complex next to Washington Park that included tennis courts, a swimming pool and a large dance hall. Adjacent to the Royal Gardens was Springwood Park, a ballfield hugged with wooden bleachers where fans by the hundreds spent many Sunday afternoons watching baseball games. (The park was torn down in the 1960s. A football and soccer practice field is there now.)
Roanoke’s local version of the Negro Leagues played out in Springwood Park and other fields that bubbled up on the city’s north side. From the 1920s until about 1960, ballclubs included he Springwood Giants, the Norfolk & Western Stars, the Roanoke All-Stars, the Royal Giants, the West End Athletics, the Northeast Blue Sox, the Roanoke Dodgers and, perhaps the best team of all, the Roanoke Black Cardinals.
Very little has been written about the history of Roanoke’s African American baseball teams that played during segregation. In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s history-defining debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Roanoke Times published a lengthy article that included interviews with a few surviving players who took the field from the 1920s to the 1950s, which included Henry Craighead and Alphonzo Holland. Nelson Harris, a Roanoke historian, minister and former mayor, included a chapter about the Black Cardinals in his 2013 book, “Hidden History of Roanoke.” Other bits of history can be found in professor and historian Reginald Shareef’s pictorial book, “The Roanoke Valley’s African American Heritage,” and in Darrell J. Howard’s “Sunday Coming: Black Baseball in Virginia.”
Otherwise, the stories lived in the memories of people who were there, playing and watching ballgames on Sunday afternoons when fans walked or took the streetcar to Springwood Park, toting picnic baskets, blankets and the occasional jar of homebrew.
Just about all those people are gone now.
In his chapter about the Black Cardinals, Harris writes: “The Cardinals, like many teams preceding them, had such raw talent that, if times had been different, some players might have had an opportunity to play professionally.”
Times being what they were, though, meant that the Cardinals and other Black ballclubs played against teams from places that included Bedford, Salem, Vinton, Radford, Pulaski and sometimes squads from West Virginia and North Carolina. Although the teams might not have been full-time professional clubs, they did play for a cut of ticket sales or a guaranteed fee if they were traveling. With tickets selling anywhere from a quarter to 50 cents each, players didn’t make a lot of money, but on good days a Black baseball team could earn more than $100 — which meant 10 bucks a man for a 10-player roster. Even in the 1940s, $10 didn’t go very far when your team was traveling to Greensboro, North Carolina, or Slab Fork, West Virginia, to play a baseball game.
Local baseball teams weren’t different from other institutions of Roanoke’s 20th-century civic life — usually, the N&W was involved.
Some of Roanoke’s earliest semi-professional baseball teams — whether white or African American clubs — were sponsored by the railway. One of Roanoke’s earliest successful Black teams was the N&W All-Stars, which included players who would later form the Black Cardinals. According to Harris’ book, a white N&W supervisor named Roy Gable hired many Black workers by asking this pertinent question: “Can you play ball?”
The Black Cardinals’ heyday was right after World War II and just before integration chipped away at Black-only rosters. Player-manager Jim “Bull” Jones powered a lineup that included the speedy brother tandem of Mack and Henry Craighead, and outfielders George Brown and George Hampton, whose gloves turned extra-base hits into outs. Catcher Fred Rice and third baseman Red Williams were powerful sluggers in the middle of a formidable lineup.
Springwood was packed for many Sunday ballgames, with even more fans watching from outside the ballpark atop a knoll called “Panic Hill.” The city had constructed a landfill next to the ballfield, a health hazard that became a flashpoint in city racial relations until it closed in 1963, and some Cardinals fans sat on oil drums they had repossessed from the dump.
A hogpen lay beyond the rightfield fence — an inviting target for a left-handed power hitter like the mighty Jones. Whenever the player-manager stepped to the plate, fans would holler, “Wake the hogs up, Jim! Make ’em talk!”
In 1997, longtime Roanoke funeral director and businessman Lawrence Hamlar, who as a boy had chased after home run balls at Springwood Park, told The Roanoke Times, “Jim Jones was our Babe Ruth.”
At least two Roanokers played in the major Negro League: Mack Eggleston, who played for numerous teams in the 1910s and ’20s that included the Baltimore Black Sox and Baltimore Elites, and LeGrande, who played for the Memphis Red Sox, the fabled Kansas City Monarchs and an all-star team managed by Hall of Famer Satchel Paige.
LeGrande hooked up with an integrated minor-league team affiliated with the New York Yankees in 1960, but the Bronx Bombers, who were one of the last teams to integrate, had Black catcher Elston Howard at the Major League level and did not seem motivated to bring up another African American backstop. LeGrande ended his career and returned home, where he worked for General Electric and he and wife, Mary, raised a family.
LeGrande died on April 13 at age 83. He is enshrined in the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame at the Salem ballpark, along with the late Henry Craighead, a former Roanoke Black Cardinal.
Eyes on the future
Denham, a Baltimore native, is a lifelong baseball fan and devotee of the Baltimore Orioles. During his travels as a United Church of Christ minister, he lived for a while in Northern Virginia, where he joined a network of Negro League historians who wanted to raise awareness about forgotten Black baseball players. He likes to point out that Jackie Robinson joined the United Church of Christ, a denomination that includes social justice as part of its mission, not long before his death.
“He went into the Hall of Fame as a member of the UCC,” Denham said with a shade of pride.
Upon arriving in Roanoke in 2007, Denham learned about LeGrande’s career and soon met the former player. Over the years, LeGrande earned attention locally for his career — a biography was published about his playing days and the Salem Red Sox honored him during their annual African American Heritage Night promotions, which in 2018 included a commemorative Larry LeGrande bobblehead figure giveaway.
Denham wants more people to know about LeGrande’s career and the story of the Black Cardinals and other African American baseball teams from Roanoke. His exhibit is small now, but he has connections with the Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, which he hopes could one day be a home for a display about Roanoke baseball. At age 74, he knows he needs younger people to take an interest in this project.
LeGrande was honored posthumously before the Red Sox game on June 16, as a few friends and family members threw out ceremonial first pitches. Among those folks were LeGrande’s wife, Mary, and his great-grandson, Jon LeGrande Jr., a college baseball player at Wabash Valley College in Indiana, where this spring he batted .298 with a couple of home runs and 13 stolen bases as a freshman centerfielder on a team that won 57 games, lost only 13 and made it to the quarterfinals of the junior college national championship tournament.
Jon grew up in the Bronx, the home base for the team that denied his great-grandfather a chance to move up the minor-league ladder more than 60 years ago. He knows some of the family legend, having visited Roanoke over the years as a kid. He has heard the story about his great-grandpa leaving home to join the Memphis Red Sox, taking two whole chickens in a paper sack that his mother killed and cooked for him to eat during the train ride.
His great-grandfather is gone now, so somebody else will have to tell those stories.
“He kept up with me,” he said of Larry. “He liked to follow how I was doing and how the team was doing.”
Jon’s dad, Jon LeGrande Sr., said that Larry gave his son a few baseball tips during those visits.
“When we’d play travel ball, and come to places like Northern Virginia, Larry would go to see him play,” Jon Sr. said. “Larry focused on him. He always wanted somebody in the family to make the Major Leagues.”
As Jon LeGrande writes his own baseball story, Denham still doesn’t want folks to forget the past.
“This is a core part of Roanoke’s history,” he said. “People don’t know the details about Gainsboro or the Black Cardinals. You can’t move ahead into the future without knowing the truth about your history.”