An often overlooked facet of Black baseball history is the sport’s prevalence on a collegiate level. The story of HBCU baseball, as well as African-American trailblazers at once-segregated white institutions, remains a key element in the overall Black baseball tradition.
And now, that history and heritage has been documented on a large scale for the first time by author Jay Sokol, the founder and editor of the definitive HBCU baseball Web site, Black College Nines, who this year published, “The History of HBCU Baseball and Integrators of Historically White College Baseball Program.”
The following is a lightly-edited email interview with Sokol about his book, the importance of HBCU hardball heritage, and the overlooked greatness of HBCU baseball.
Ryan Whirty: Where does your interest in HBCU baseball come from? What drew you to the subject?
Jay Sokol: My lifelong interest in college baseball was born of a personalized autograph of 1960 Ohio State University baseball All-American Tom Perdue (also co-captain of the 1961 national championship football team), who rented an apartment from my father while Perdue was in school. Though growing up in OSU-football-crazy Columbus, Ohio, I became an avid follower of Buckeye baseball, especially its 1966 College World Series championship team.
My interest specifically in HBCU baseball, which I was totally unaware of until this time, grew from reading a simple blurb in a “Faces in the Crowd” section of a 1967 Sports Illustrated issue about Grambling College’s Ralph Garr. [It’s now called Grambling State University — ed.]
As a sports trading card collector in the 1960s, I was fond of Grambling and other Southwestern Athletic Conference football alums playing pro ball like Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Lem Barney, Bob Hayes and plenty of others. As a result of reading about Grambling’s Ralph Garr, I then began discovering HBCU alums in professional baseball like Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee, George Altman and Lou Brock.
RW: How has the Black College Nines Web site developed and evolved over time? How much of a challenge has it been to keep working on, adding to and improving it?
JS: The Web site, blackcollegenines.com, was created in 2008 as an extension of a project I was working on taking a deeper dive into the life of Charles Thomas, the lone African-American ballplayer on Ohio Wesleyan University baseball teams of 1903-1905 and inspiration for his then coach, Branch Rickey, to someday integrate professional baseball – which Rickey eventually did as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers when he signed Jackie Robinson to a professional baseball contract in 1945.
Initially, the stories were confined to Black college baseball’s past and short biographical sketches on integrators of historically white college baseball programs, like Charles Thomas.
The name Black College Nines was chosen in order to highlight the historical aspect of black college baseball since the term “Nines” was a prevalent moniker used in the 19th century.
At the time we started up, there was an existing website run by Ruffin Bell called blackcollegebaseball.com. That site reported on current HBCU baseball happenings, and we considered ourselves a sister site dedicated to preserving the legacy of HBCU baseball. Unfortunately, Mr. Bell’s time constraints forced the termination of that great Web site. In time, Michael Coker, a reporter for that defunct site, approached me about expanding our offerings to include the happenings of current day black college baseball, which we did in 2012.
Year by year, blackcollegenines.com has grown (thanks in good part to Michael Coker) to become the recognized source of everything HBCU baseball, including running polls that result in crowning mythical national champions and naming All-Elites (our version of All-American status).
RW: What was the genesis of the book? What prompted you to tackle such a complex, richly textured task of encompassing the history of HBCU baseball?
JS: For much of my adult life, I’ve been a baseball history nut. So, being an HBCU baseball enthusiast, it naturally made me a Black college baseball history buff, too.
But the impetus for the book came from a few other sources. When I originally created the Web site blackcollegenines.com, I came up with the tagline, “Preserving the Legacy of Historically Black College and University baseball.” What better way to preserve that history than to research and then record it and have it as a permanent, lasting tribute to HBCU baseball.
The other sources of inspiration were two quotes I once read and an email of encouragement. One quote, in response to a question posed to College Baseball Hall of Fame coach Roger Cador asking why HBCU baseball matters, Cador stated, “It’s a story that’s extremely important for the making of the history of American baseball.” Another, from Daryl Russell Grigsby, author of Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball, stated, “Despite the depth and breadth of baseball, there is no comprehensive record of the role of Historically Black College and Universities in promoting baseball.”
Later, in an email response to a question I asked of Dr. Richard Lapchick, a prolific writer, human rights activist, and internationally recognized expert on sports issues, he ended the email wishing me good luck with my efforts and that it was important work.
RW: What was the most rewarding aspect of researching and completing the book? What was the biggest challenge to overcome?
JS: I found it exhilarating when I’d discover some fact that, as far as I was aware, had not previously been addressed. I think that’s true for most who do any type of historical research. As far as HBCU baseball historical research, I found it frustrating that many accounts in newspapers of the early-20th century failed to accurately identify individual performances, listing only last names – if even that. It was also disappointing that, more often than not, school archives departments had little information (other than photos) about their baseball team’s history. It was disappointing, but understandable in most cases why they didn’t.
RW: Are you pleased with how the book turned out?
JS: Since I don’t believe there has ever been nearly as much detailed information dedicated solely to the history of HBCU baseball, nor integrators of college baseball programs, I wanted to make sure I was pleased with my effort before publishing … and I’m pretty pleased.
RW: What were some of the most interesting nuggets or discoveries you made along the way?
JS: Two things that really stuck out were the number of early Black college ballplayers who either made careers of baseball, or were involved in seeking racial justice, and that quite a few historically white college baseball integrators went on to careers serving HBCUs either as presidents, professors, athletic administrators or coaches. Examples are James Weldon Johnson and Walter White, both of Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), who each headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
A discovery that excited me was locating an HBCU intercollegiate ballgame from 1887 between Louisiana’s Southern University and Straight University (which later merged with New Orleans University to form Dillard University) that pre-dated the only game previously documented. Also, I was provided a copy of a photo of the Wilberforce University baseball team dated 1897 that, unbeknownst to its owner, contained an image of Sol White, the Negro Leaguer who was selected for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
RW: What is the importance of HBCU baseball, and its history in particular, to overall baseball history? How has HBCU baseball contributed to the modern-day game and to those who love the sport?
JS: Well, for starters, I agree with former Southern University head coach Roger Cador, who in an interview with you [this writer] once said it is 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.
It’s important overall to baseball history because many stars of Negro League and Major League baseball got their starts playing at HBCUs. So to know their baseball lives means to include their HBCU playing days, too.
RW: What’s next on your agenda? What new challenge are you getting ready to tackle?
JS: It depends … do you think my wife will be reading this? Let’s just say that if there is any second edition with updates since the 2019 college baseball season and newly discovered research, I will only be a collaborator. I would like to learn more of that first HBCU game and the individuals who participated. I think that would be interesting.
That being said, the future plans include continued work with the current 52 HBCU baseball programs to promote black college baseball and to preserve its legacy via our Web site blackcollegenines.com.
For more information on Sokol’s book, “The History of HBCU Baseball and Integrators of Historically White College Baseball Program,” check out this link. To purchase a copy, go to Amazon. As for this writer in New Orleans, go Gold Rush and go Bleu Devils!