Why HBCU baseball history matters

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Southern University baseball coach Roger Cador (photo courtesy SU Athletic Department)

Roger Cador has been coaching baseball at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and in that time, he’s seen the importance of America’s pastime at HBCUs like SU gradually decline despite a rich history that stretches back a century or more.

And as the drop-off in interest has taken place, so has the desire among researchers and the public to document and preserve that history. That, Cador says, is unfortunate.

“It’s a story that’s extremely important for the making of the history of American baseball,” Cador says.

He says it’s crucial to remember the sociopolitical conditions in which many HBCU baseball programs developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The crucible of segregation and prejudice that existed during Jim Crow shaded everything about the black educational experience. That includes athletics, even into the mid-20th century.

“This happened at a time when baseball was king,” Cador says. “It was played in the deep South and at its height in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s. We had a different country then, when people of color were denied social justice.”

Despite this, HBCUs have managed to produce numerous Major League players, led by Hall of Fame base swiper Lou Brock, whose tenure at none other than Southern proved to be a very fruitful experience that helped him blossomed into an elite player.

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The great Lou Brock

Cador also pointed to two-time MLB All Star and 1969 World Series champion Tommie Agee, who attended Grambling, as another example of a top-level star to come from an HBCU. Agee was joined on ’69’s Miracle Mets by Alabama A&M product and childhood friend Cleon Jones, who batted a quite respectable .281 over an MLB career that lasted from 1963 to 1976.

“There were several guys who played in the big leagues at some point,” Cador says. “That says a lot about how important [HBCU baseball] was. There were a lot of great people that played baseball and were important to baseball.”

But the fertile history of HBCU hardball stretches back decades before that; for example, one of my favorite Negro Leagues players, and one of my favorite topics to write about, Gentleman Dave Malarcher, was a graduate, in the 1910s, of New Orleans University (now Dillard), where he led the varsity squad to an undefeated record over three seasons.

But, somewhat ironically, it was the integration of baseball that slowly crippled HBCU ball, much like it did the professional Negro Leagues. That dynamic was triggered in the South right here in New Orleans, when, in 1966, Tulane’s Stephen Martin became the first varsity athlete to compete in any SEC sport. (That was Tulane’s last year in the SEC.)

With the desegregation of college baseball, Cador says, HBCUs had a hard time competing for the attention of both young African-American players as well as African-American coaches, a phenomenon that sucked much of the lifeblood from HBCU programs, a complex development that continues today.

Cador goes so far as to say that major universities hoodwinked parents of African-American prospects into believing that HBCU baseball no longer mattered as a way to lure the youth to their own teams.

“Right now, with the height of baseball at the Division I level, it’s difficult for HBCUs to get coverage,” Cador says. “Everything is so big.”

That trend has been coupled a general decrease in interest in baseball among black youth, who now prefer to play football and basketball over the American pastime despite the rich, historical importance and influence African-American baseball.

But every once in a while, a few HBCU programs manage to return to the national spotlight, like Cador’s Southern Jaguars did in the early 2000s, when they toppled top-level teams like LSU and Southern Miss and had 24 players drafted by professional organizations.

Cador’s 2015 squad is currently a streaky 14-18.

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(Photo courtesy SU Athletic Department)

Such resurgences prove that HBCU baseball can be poised to make a major comeback on the national scene, even right now, Cador says.

“We are in a good situation where we can try to get the good players back,” he says. “We have the right things we need to attract them.”

In the meantime, it’s up to historians and researchers, as well as coaches and officials at HBCUs, to strive to preserve the legacy of baseball at historically black colleges and universities.

“[Many historians] don’t know the history,” Cador says. “I know the history.”

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2 thoughts on “Why HBCU baseball history matters

  1. Pingback: SU Baseball Alumni in the News | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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