Adapted from an article that appeared in Black Ball News (June, 1992)
"If you want to be a star in baseball - I mean a real star, where everybody knows who you are and what your accomplishments are - then you have to play for one of those New York, Chicago or California teams. It was the same way in the Negro Leagues. Let me give you an example. Everybody knows that Hank Aaron hit more homeruns than Babe Ruth, but how many people really know it? Somehow, they think, it couldn't have been as good. That's not just because Aaron is black. It's because Ruth hit all those homers in front of the fans in New York, and Aaron was hitting his in Atlanta."
"Now think about it. Look at all the players from the Negro Leagues who are in the Hall of Fame. Every one of them played for a Northern team in one of the big cities. There ain't no Southern black players in the Hall of Fame - I mean, from Southern teams. Sure, the ones that are in the Hall of Fame were great ballplayers and deserve to be there. But, there are a lot of other players that played in the South with the Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox and teams like that who won't ever be considered even though they were just as good." This is the observation of a former Birmingham Black Baron.
This former Black Baron isn't alone in his feeling that professional baseball, including the Negro Leagues, has historically slighted the South, its teams and players, and the evidence seems to support his claim. One of the more popular books on Negro Leagues history refers to the Negro Southern League as a minor league. This view would not have been shared by fans of the Atlanta Black Crackers, Memphis Red Sox or Nashville Elite Giants. In recent years considerable media attention has been focused on the exploits of the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, New York Black Yankees and Kansas City Monarchs. Almost nothing has been mentioned in the national press about the great Southern teams of the 1930s and 1940s. And, no player whose career was predominately spent with a Southern team has been recognized by the Hall of Fame.
It seems appropriate that any study of professional black baseball in the South begin with a look at its most prominent figure. As organized professional leagues formed in the southern states during the 1920s, Nashville's Thomas T. Wilson quickly arose as the driving force in southern Negro baseball. During the following twenty-five years Wilson established himself as a captain of Negro League baseball on a national scale.
Thomas T. Wilson was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1890. At an early age he moved with his parents to Nashville, Tennessee where both his mother and father studied medicine at Meharry Medical College, the leading Southern Negro medical school of the day. Coming from an affluent family, Tom was afforded an opportunity to pursue his entrepreneurial interests as a young man. These interests were many and varied, ranging from dabbling in the commuter rail line business to investments in night spots and entertainment enterprises. Reputedly, one of Wilson's favorite and more lucrative entertainment ventures was the operation of illegal numbers games. Through this enterprise, it is said, he amassed a sizeable bankroll and established himself as one of the wealthier citizens of Nashville, black or white.
Although not himself a high caliber player, Wilson maintained an enthusiasm for baseball from an early age. At the age of 20 he involved himself in Nashville's Capital City League (CCL), an industrial league that often fostered semi-professional units, and by 1914 was himself sponsoring exhibition contests between semi-pro teams. (The CCL produced several early Negro Leaguers of national prominence, including Bruce Petway, legendary Chicago American Giants catcher.)
Given his growing interest and involvement in baseball as a commercial enterprise, Wilson took great notice of the arrival of Rube Foster and the Chicago American Giants who came to Nashville in the spring of 1914 for an exhibition game with two CCL teams. During this visit, Wilson sought out Rube Foster to to get his advice concerning the promotion of black baseball in the South, hoping to benefit from Foster's experience as the ramrod of the widely traveled Chicago American Giants. Whatever the tone of their discussion, the tone of black Nashville's response to the appearance of the the big time Chicago ball club must have been music to the ears of both baseball men. The exhibition games featuring the Chicago American Giants filled Nashville's old Athletic Park with the largest crowd ever to attend a Negro sporting event in Nashville up to that time.
Encouraged by the enthusiasm that Black Nashville held for baseball, Wilson began laying plans for the formation of his own professional team. In the spring of 1918 Wilson announced the availability of his Nashville Standard Giants (a semi-pro squad) for bookings and began to accept exhibition games for the team in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky. Playing regularly in Nashville and traveling for contests in Chattanooga, Montgomery and Atlanta, the team soon built a regional reputation.
In 1921 Wilson expanded the team's travel schedule to include strong professional squads and better semi-pro teams throughout the South. Wilson's team was beginning to take on an increasingly professional air, accepting games offering stiffer competition within a widening geographic area. Even the appearance of the team took on a more professional look in the spring of 1921 when Wilson outfitted his players with a new set of uniforms. On the front of the jerseys was emblazoned a new logo that read "Nashville Elite Giants."
During the early 1920s Wilson gradually transformed the Elite Giants into a full-time professional enterprise. Joining the Southern Negro League, the Elite Giants combined with teams from other Southern urban centers to form a viable league structure for colored baseball in the South. Franchises in Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta, Montgomery, Chattanooga, Jacksonville and Birmingham provided the organizational frame work for promoting Southern black baseball as a professional commodity.
By 1928 Wilson was ready to move his Elite Giants into the national arena Although the Southern Negro League had produced teams that were the match of the Negro National League squads on the field of play, Wilson knew well that his Elite Giants would never match their Northern brothers in ticket sales as long as they were confined to playing before black only audiences in the South. During the past several years he had developed business relationships with several Negro National League team owners, and in 1928 Wilson began a strategy for making his Elite Giants an attractive addition to the NNL.
Convincing Northern team owners to accept a new Southern franchise into the league posed several formidable hurdles. Norther team owners were reluctant to admit a new Southern member when Southern teams had a history of financial instability. The Birmingham Black Barons and Memphis Red Sox had man aged to remain viable NNL franchises during the 1924 and 1926 seasons. But, in 1926 financial pressures caused both teams to temporarily withdraw from the league. Although both re-entered for the1927 season (a very successful season on the field for the Black Barons), the Memphis team was again forced to withdraw for the 1928 season. The success of any league depends largely on the stability of the individual teams, and franchise owners were understandably reluctant to take on another Southern team, knowing all too well the difficulties that Southern segregation brought upon the successful operation of a baseball business.Travel considerations were important, as well.
Nashville's central location worked in Wilson's favor. Forming a triangle with Birmingham and Memphis, Nashville was ideally situated. Northern teams traveling South for league contests could travel in a circle between Memphis, Birmingham and Nashville, and upon completion of Nashville games would be within a comfortable drive to either Louisville, Lexington, St. Louis, Cincinnati or Indianapolis.
To demonstrate the financial strength of his team, Wilson offered in evidence the fact that the Elite Giants had profitably operated within the South since 1920. Further, Wilson's non-baseball business operations had associated him with several Northern team owners who were familiar with his business acumen.
Finally, in 1928 Wilson began work on a project that would distinguish him among Southern black baseball men - the construction of Wilson Park, the first black owned ballpark in the South, and one of the first such facilities in the nation.
Breaking ground in 1928, Wilson's crew completed construction of the park in early 1929. The new facility was located in the Trimble Bottom section of Nashville near the old Meharry Medical College and Waldon College. Built to accommodate some 8,000 fans, Wilson Park stood in the middle of Nashville's largest Negro community. In the spring of 1929 Wilson used the park for Elite Giants spring training exercises and for early exhibition games.
James Hendrix, a resident of Trimble Bottom at the time, recalls events at Wilson Park in his pamphlet, I Remember Tom. "Whenever there would be a game, the word of mouth promotion would guarantee a good attendance. The nearby residents would may as well be in attendance because the loud speakers would broadcast all the details and enthusiasm of the crowd for miles around. The activities at Wilson Park soon became so wide spread that the white spectators outnumbered the black spectators. Sulphur Dell, the white owned park near downtown Nashville (Ed. note: home of the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association) would hold some of their spring training sessions at Wilson Park. It was larger, and the April showers would not flood Wilson Park as they did Sulphur Dell. During some of these sessions I met Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and some of the other members of the New York Yankees ball team."
Although Wilson Park was located within a Negro neighbor hood in an urban center of the Deep South, Wilson demonstrated that he could attract white fans. How was this possible? No Southern team owner had managed this feat.
The answer probably lies in the personality of Tom Wilson. As a local businessman, Wilson was involved in many projects with his white counterparts, including the operation of the Franklin Inter-Urban Transportation System that shuttled commuters between Nashville and Franklin, Tenn. Wilson was a black community leader, a member of the Pride of Tennessee Negro advancement organization and the Elk Lodge. Politically, Wilson was influential in the black community and, as such, was a liaison between Black Nashville and local white business and community leaders.
Wilson Park was an attractive facility open to all patrons, and Wilson made the facility available to the entire Nashville community. Throughout the 1930s Wilson Park was used by numerous Nashville community groups and promoters, black and white. Through the good will generated by Wilson's business and civic undertakings he had built a perfect climate for the successful operation of his baseball enterprise.
When in 1930 Wilson was invited to enter his Elite Giants in the Negro National League he jumped at the chance. But, by the time opening day arrived, professional baseball, like all America, was operating on shaky ground after the market crash of 1929. The Elite Giants operated profitably through most of the 1930 season, although finishing near the bottom of the league standings. But, as the close of the season approached, it was clear to all that neither the Elite Giants nor the Negro National League could continue business as usual in the face of a devastating economic depression.
Despite the withdrawal of several cornerstone teams, including the Kansas City Monarchs, St. Louis Stars and Birmingham Black Barons, the NNL proposed to attempt operations during the 1931 season. Wilson rose to this challenge and kept the Elite Giants within the league structure, but not without some last minute maneuverings to keep the team solvent. Wilson knew that his team needed two things to survive in 1931÷a big name drawing card and a big town to play in. Wilson found the single biggest drawing card in black base ball when the failing Birmingham Black Barons, in an effort to raise some quick cash, sold Satchel Paige's contract to the Elite Giants. To the dismay of Nashville fans, Wilson also found a big town in Cleveland.
For much of the 1931 season Wilson's team took on the name of the Cleveland Cubs and performed before modest crowds in Cleveland. But, even Satchel Paige could not generate sufficient gate receipts to keep the team afloat in the dismal summer of 1931, and by mid-season both the Cleveland Cubs and the Negro National League were folding under financial pressures. At the close of the sea son, Wilson returned to Nashville, determined to somehow guide his team through the storm of the Depression.
During the winter of 1931 Wilson met with the owners of Cole's Chicago American Giants, Memphis Red Sox and member teams of the Negro Southern League to structure a league organization for the 1932 season. A revitalization of the Negro Southern League, to include franchises in Chicago and Indianapolis, was planned.
At the conclusion of this meeting Wilson returned to Nashville and began mapping out his own survival plan for 1932. The plan included using Wilson Park as a revenue generating source and staging exhibition contests at the white owned Sulphur Dell Park. During the Spring of 1932 Wilson Park was filled with activity. Wilson aggressively marketed the facility for use by semi-professional and amateur teams. Although the revenue from these rentals was modest, in light of economic conditions Wilson pursued whatever income any of his assets could produce.
Additionally, exhibition games featuring novel attractions, such as Syd Pollock's Bearded Cuban House of David squad (in actuality, the Cuban Stars), the Ethiopian Clowns and other barnstorming attractions were booked into the park. Wilson further plied his promotional craft by forming a semi-professional women's softball team and staging tournaments in the facility. Even a boxing match or two was slated at Wilson Park. Simultaneously with the promotions at his own facility, Wilson was promoting pre-season Negro baseball attractions at the white owned Sulphur Dell park.
By the time Opening Day 1932 arrived, Wilson already had made a good start on a successful season. What's more, he had put together a good ballclub. And, in an effort to kick off the regular season in high gear, he arranged a home opener pitting his Elite Giants against the hottest attraction in all of black baseball - Gus Greenlee's famed Pittsburgh Crawfords. R. R. Jackson, NSL president, was on hand in Nashville to inaugurate the 1932 Elite Giants season, and so was a record crowd of fans, black and white.
While Negro baseball as a whole struggled through the 1932 season with many formerly strong teams folding, Wilson guided his third place Elite Giants through a financially successful campaign. It is also rumored that Wilson enjoyed a financial windfall in his gambling operations as the hard Depression days brought a growing throng of numbers players in search of a winning ticket.
In 1933 big-time Negro professional baseball turned the financial corner with Gus Greenlee and Tom Wilson at the wheel. Greenlee, aided by Wilson, organized a new Negro National League on a firmer financial footing than had ever been known in Negro baseball. Combining their connections with underworld figures in the North, Greenlee and Wilson arranged for the infusion of considerable amounts of racketeer capital into the new NNL insuring a stable foundation for league operations. Then, in the spring of 1933 Wilson proposed to Greenlee and Robert Cole of Chicago that they jointly sponsor a showcase for the league's all-star talent. Thus, the East-West All Star Classic was born - a game which from the start proved to be among the most successful continuing sports promotions in American history.
The Elite Giants were to remain stalwarts of the Negro National League until its dissolution in 1947. Wilson moved the team from Nashville to Columbus in 1936 as the Nashville economy worsened, then again in 1936 to Washington, and in 1937 finally settled in Baltimore's Bugle Field where it remained until well after the integration of professional baseball.
In 1938 Wilson was elected by fellow team owners as President of the Negro National League, a position which he held for nearly a decade until, in 1946, a non-owner chief executive plan was adopted by the league in response to Branch Rickey's public criticisms of the NNL league office structure. Under Wilson's guidance, both the Baltimore Elite Giants and the Negro National League prospered, so much so that by 1946 the Negro National League was a $2 million enterprise - surely one of the largest Negro owned business associations in America. During Wilson's tenure player salaries rose to equal salaries in the upper level white minor league circuits, and the East-West Classic annually drew crowds comparing favorably to the All Star games staged by major league baseball.
During the same period the Elite Giants prospered under Wilson's leadership, both at the ticket office and on the field. Wilson consistently fielded a top team and developed such stars as Hall Of Famer Roy Campanella and Negro Leagues greats like Lester Locket and Bill Wright. At the turnstiles, both in Baltimore and in Nashville (where the Elite Giants were still considered the home team) the team was a resounding financial success.
In late 1946 Wilson was taken ill and was unable to personally attend to the day-to-day operations of his team, a task he delegated to long-time associate, Vernon Greene. However, despite his illness, after his departure from the NNL presidency Wilson responded to the urgings of Southern team owners to again take the helm of the Negro Southern League. Reluctantly, he agreed to oversee that league's operations for the1947 season. His worsening health prevented him from personally attending league meetings during the winter of 1946-47, and in May, 1947 Wilson died from heart failure at his country home near Nashville.
The death notice that appeared on the sports page of the Chicago Defender noted that Wilson was greatly admired by fans, players and team owners alike. It is also worth recognizing that he was a man revered by Nashville's black community. Some measure a man's life by his professional accomplishments. Others judge by his generosity, kindness, contributions to his community and positive effect on those who come into contact with him. By either standard, Nashville's Thomas T. Wilson was a Southern Star.