In addition to being a baseball history enthusiast, I’m also a major music fan, and my favorite genre is the blues. Those two interests might intersect with the guy above, Booker T. “Bukka” White, a singer/guitarist/occasional piano player who recorded and played live for roughly a half-century, beginning in the late 1920s and running until his death in 1977. Bukka was an early purveyor of the country, i.e. largely acoustic guitar-based, blues as espoused by everyone from Blind Willie McTell to Son House to Blind Lemon Jefferson.
As it turns out, the stories of many early blues musicians are very similar to those of Negro Leaguers — fascinating and mysterious, thrilling but clouded by fragmented memories and tall tales. In White’s case, one of those tall tales and points of braggadocio might have been an apparent boast that at one point, he supplemented his music income by playing semipro/professional baseball with all-black, segregation-era teams.
This assertion has been repeated so many times biographers that it’s become accepted fact. But the true fact is that there’s just about zero actual evidence to support such a claim. In the book, “Traditional Tennessee Singers,” edited by Thomas G. Burton, White is quoted as saying he starred for the stellar Birmingham Black Cats.
The problem is, however, if such a team even existed — let alone included Bukka on its roster — there is pretty much nada in terms of a record of it. I scoured several online newspaper and other databases, and all of the Negro Leagues experts to whom I spoke had never come across any evidence that White did, in fact, play pro ball and had never heard of a team called the Birmingham Black Cats.
There was, of course, the Birmingham Black Barons, that city’s primary Negro Leagues team for years, and there was the lower-level, barnstorming team, the Laurel (Miss.) Black Cats. Dr. Layton Revel of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, who would know if anyone did, says it’s possible that White meant the Laurel Black Cats, given that he was born and raised in Mississippi. Dr. Revel adds that he’s never found any mention of a Booker or Bukka White with the Birmingham Black Barons.
So did Bukka White play in the Negro Leagues? It’s of course possible, given that White is a very common name that whows up in countless game box scores over the years. But on the other hand, there is zero evidence that any of those Whites are him.
But, man oh man, his music is fantastic. If you want a starter CD to test out Bukka’s stuff, try this one, a popular Columbia compilation: