Ernie Banks died this past January. Like many baseball greats of the past, he began his baseball career in the Negro League. One of my earliest memories is of staying with my great grandmother, Big Momma, in her large house on Princeton Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama, and listening to the Birmingham Black Baron’s home games on the radio. She was a great fan of the Birmingham Black Baron’s, her ‘boys’ as she called them. And she really did not mean any thing demeaning with the term ‘boys.’ That was just the way it was in the deep South in the late 40’s and in to the 50’s. But she would not actually go to the home games even though the baseball field was only a few miles away; she didn’t think it proper for a white woman to go to a baseball game unescorted, and her husband was long dead when I arrived on the scene. Big Momma, as did most white folks in Birmingham, preferred the Black Barons to the White Barons or more accurately, the Barons. This was of course because the BBB were a far superior team, just saying. The BBB played their home games at Rickwood Field which was owned by the Barons. Of course, the BBB could only use the field on Sundays or when the Barons were on a road trip. (Rickwood Field was built early in the 20th century and amazingly is still in operation today. As I understand it, Rickwood Field is the oldest active baseball field in the country. In the 1960’s, it was used for high school football games and I played there many times. Big Momma couldn’t go to my games, but she did listen to one of them on the radio.) In those days before television, the radio was a prominent feature of the home. Big Momma had a console radio in the living room but she also had a smaller radio in her bedroom which was located in the front of the house in what was a bay. The radio in her bedroom looked something like this photo, and it got by far more use. Actually, I cannot remember ever listening to the big radio at her house.
Although small, it was not a “transistor” radio as transistors were not available to the public yet. Her radio had five or six vacuum tubes that I learned to replace when I was older. You could not tell by looking if a tube was really bad; you had to take all the tubes to the drugstore where there was a tube-tester and replacement tubes. Big Mama had her radio on a small table set just to the left of the fireplace. That fireplace held a gas space heater that was constantly on during the winter- the big house was very cold and drafty as there was no central heating (or air conditioning) back then. The rest of the room was taken up by her feather bed and a big rocking chair.
And so in the spring of 1949, the BBB began their pursuit of the Negro League Championship. In 1948, with the help of Willie Mays, the BBB won the American League pennant and played the Homestead Grays for the World Series but lost. That had been the third time during the 40’s that the BBB lost the world series to the Grays. Big Momma, as did an awful lot of people, picked the BBB to take the pennant again and then hopefully win the series. But it was not to be, for the integration of the major leagues rapidly siphoned off the talented black players beginning that year. Still Mays played for the BBB for part of that year, and Big Momma was thrilled. Her boy Willie was the favorite and I learned that right quick. She knew all the players’ names and really got into the games. I sat in her lap in the rocker and came to love the game.
Big Momma had a rhythm. Before each inning, she would refresh the snuff she held in her lip; Big Momma, Mama Wright (her daughter and my grandmother), and my father all used snuff. It was a gross and dangerous habit, though no one back then knew that. After each batter, she would spit into a large tomato can, accompanying the spit with a yell – “Alright Willie” – if her player got on base or a “God Damn” if he struck out. If I had known the word back then, I would have been grossed out. But I loved Big Momma and I learned to tolerate the snuff. Thankfully, I never was asked to empty the can.
All that spring and into summer, I often stayed with Big Momma and listened to the Barons play. Mama Wright did not like baseball and did not stay in the bedroom, though there was a second rocker she used when they listened to other things on the radio. Unlike today when you generally have only music or talk shows as your options, other then public radio, there were hundreds of radio shows in the 40’s. I’m sure we listened to other shows besides baseball that summer, but I can only remember the Baron’s games when I was at Big Momma’s house. When she babysat at our house down on 10th street at night, we listened to Dick Tracy, Superman, the Green Hornet and of course the Lone Ranger. My brother Dean had a prize premium from the Lone Ranger, a Atom Bomb ring that, of course, was shaped like a silver bullet with fins (we didn’t know, but the ring actually had a small bit of radioactive material that cause it to sparkle and buzz). I always sat in Big Momma’s lap in the rocker while Dean laid on his stomach on the braided rug on the floor in front of the radio. That all changed when we got the first TV in the neighborhood in 1951. But even then we kept the large radio in the living room because the local TV channel, there was only one, broadcast shows a few hours at night. The rest of the time, there was only the “test pattern” on the screen.
Besides her love of the BBB and baseball, Big Momma gave me one other precious gift: reading. Whenever she kept me, she always brought a book. And she would read to me as I sat in her lap. Over time, she let me pretend I was reading as she spoke the words. My favorite book was the Uncle Remus stories, which today is considered racist as is Disney’s film adaptation Song of the South. But to me and Big Momma, the stories were wonderful animal tales with Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Although I did not see the movie until much later, I think on TV actually, the anthropometric animals were a certain lead-in to my love of the Disney and Marvel comic books on which I polished my reading skills. After I started grammar school in 1950, I did not see Big Momma as much though she still babysat Dean and I nights when my mother and father went out.
After the Negro league folded, she shifted her allegiance to the big leagues, preferring the Yankees. Even though some of the games started being televised, she and I liked to get our baseball fix on the radio. Throughout the 1950’s on Saturdays and Sundays during baseball season, I would walk the two blocks up to her house and sit in the second chair with her. With her, the names of the boys of summer rang in my mind: Berra, Larson, Ford, Mantle, Maris. With her I heard Mickey Mantle win the batting title in 1956 as well as Don Larsen’s perfect game, the only perfect game ever completed in the world series. (OK, that last was a stretch, as I was in school those days; but I did hear the games on the small, transistor radio my brother Dean let me borrow.) The last game I heard with Big Momma was in 1961 when Rodger Maris broke the Babe’s home run record with his 61st. After that, my interest shifted to football as I had stumbled onto the fact that I was good at it and went out and made the team at Banks High. Big Momma stuck with baseball and we lost touch. I really did not realize what I was losing when I stopped listening to baseball with her. She died while I was away at the Academy in 1964, trying to play football.
“On February 26, 2006, ESPN Classic broadcast a throwback game from Rickwood Field featuring amateur players in the uniforms of the Birmingham Black Barons and fictitious “Bristol Barnstormers”. The style of play, the equipment and the umpires all reflected the 1940s game. Willie Mays and Charley Pride (Pride played for the BBB in the early 50s after being traded by the Louisville Clippers for a team bus!) were both in attendance. The Black Barons rallied to break an eighth inning tie and win the game, 9–8.” Big Momma would have loved that. 🙂