Baseball and Alabama

A little while ago I started to realize that Alabama’s produced some of the great players in baseball history. I thought about Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, decided to do some research, and came up with an All-Star list of over 20 Alabamians who were among the game’s best at their peak.

Here’s a pretty liberal list of good Alabama hitters: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, Lyman Bostock, Tommie Agee, Frank Bolling, George Foster, Oscar Gamble, Rusty Greer, Spud Davis, Butch Hobson, Bo Jackson, Monte Irvin, Cleon Jones, Terrence Long, Willie Kirkland, Heinie Manush, Lee May, Don Mincher, Amos Otis, Juan Pierre, Dusty Rhodes, Joe and Luke Sewell, Ozzie Smith, Ted Sizemore, Riggs Stephenson, Andre Thornton, Willie Wilson, and Rudy York.

And some pitchers: Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Key, Vinegar Bend Mizell, Satchel Paige, Jake Peavy, Rip Sewell, Don Sutton, Virgil Trucks, Early Wynn, and Jeff Brantley.

Somewhere in his Historical Baseball Abstract from the ’80s, Bill James makes a point about sports players tending to come from poor areas, and Alabama in the 1930s bears out this point. The Heart of Dixie produced Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, and Billy Williams: four players with a combined 13,000 or so hits, 7,000 or so RBI, and over 2,400 homers. The obvious thing these four had in common was being black in the South during the Depression. That demographic is one of the most disadvantaged in American history that has had the opportunity to become major leaguers. In Alabama, it accounted for two all-time greats and two other great players of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

There were, of course, many black sons born in other parts of the South during the Depression. I don’t know why those other states didn’t produce the same level of talent: Alabama had its idiosyncrasies, but at this remove, nothing jumps out to say, “This is why Mississippi and Georgia and South Carolina failed to produce their own Willie McCoveys from the Depression.” It only takes a few exceptional talents to establish a trend in the major leagues, and for whatever reason, those talents emerged from Alabama.

The talents also make you wonder about the other black Alabamians who would show up on this list if integration had happened in, say, the 1930s, or even earlier. What did the state lose in later bragging rights by not sending (and not being able to send) its great black players up North to play ball on the biggest stages before the late ’40s? I don’t know enough about the Negro Leagues to come up with a list of Alabama-born greats who played exclusively in those organizations, but Satchel Paige was from Mobile, and Aaron and Mays both played in the Negro Leagues. It seems plausible that if Paige had spent his prime in the majors, many fans would be debating whether the game’s greatest position player—Mays or Aaron—and its greatest pitcher—Paige—both came from the same state.

Or even the same city: Paige and Aaron both hail from the port city of Mobile. Mobile’s also the cradle in which Ozzie Smith, Amos Otis, and Willie McCovey developed (and, more recently, Jake Peavy). Billy Williams grew up there too. It’s easily the smallest city in which four Hall of Famers were born, with a population of under 150,000 people until the 1950s came along.

When you notice that Alabama has steeply curtailed its production of quality major leaguers, you sense that it must be linked to the general declining presence of black players in the sport. We’ve seen many stories about poor blacks pursuing stardom in football and basketball over baseball in recent years; Bo Jackson, the most famous talent to emerge from Alabama in recent decades, opted for football as well as baseball, and who knows exactly how much that hurt his baseball career. I don’t have a rundown of where the current black players in the NFL and NBA come from, but Charles Barkley, Chuck Person, and Robert Horry all came from Alabama. Meanwhile, the best baseball players from Alabama born in the mid-‘60s or later are Rusty Greer, Jake Peavy, and Juan Pierre.

In late February, the Mobile BayBears did an article about the town’s baseball heritage. It focused on Hank Aaron and a talk with BayBears president Bill Shanahan. Shanahan said: “Aaron, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ozzie Smith are all from Mobile. We’re tied with the city of San Francisco for most Hall of Famers born in one city. The entire 1969 Miracle Mets Opening Day outfield were all from here as well—Amos Otis, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee. And Jake Peavy wasn’t just born here; he went on to play for the BayBears. There’s just something in the water.

“It is our goal and objective to honor all of our Hall of Famers and great players in this ballpark. It’s a great connection—Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball all at one time.”

The trivia lovers and Alabama baseball fans out there might have already noticed that the 1954 New York Giants featured three Alabamians: Mays, Monte Irvin, and Dusty Rhodes. The San Francisco Giants went on to feature Mays and McCovey, as well as Willie Kirkland for a few years. For whatever reason, most of the notable Alabama big leaguers have been position players: aside from Sutton and Wynn, two 300-game winners (and Paige), its best pitcher has been either Jimmy Key or Virgil Trucks.

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