August 23, 2019

Alabama, the Cradle of Baseball Greatness

December 12, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

A little while ago I started to realize that Alabama has produced some of the greatest players in baseball history. I remembered reading Bill James making a point somewhere in his Historical Baseball Abstract from the ’80s about sports players tending to come from poor areas. I thought about Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and decided to do some research.

Well, Alabama in the 1930s bears out James’s point. The Heart of Dixie produced Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, and Billy Williams: four players with a combined 12,000 or so hits, 7,000 or so RBI, and close to 2,400 homers. All four men grew up black in the South during the Depression, a demographic that’s one of the most disadvantaged in American history with the opportunity to become major leaguers. In Alabama, it produced 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 great players 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 have emerged as major league greats if integration had happened in, say, the 1930s, or even earlier. What did the state lose in later bragging rights by not sending its great black players up North to play ball on the biggest stages in earlier years? I don’t know enough about the Negro Leagues to come up with a list of Alabama-born greats who played black ball exclusively, but Satchel Paige was from Mobile, and Aaron and Mays both briefly played in the Negro Leagues. It seems plausible that had baseball integrated earlier, fans would be debating whether the game’s greatest position player—Mays or Aaron—and its greatest pitcher—Paige—all 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. Mobile’s easily the smallest city in which four Hall of Famers were born: Smith, Paige, McCovey, and Aaron. (San Francisco is the only other city to produce four: Tony Lazzeri, Harry Heilman, George Kelly, and Joe Cronin.)

When you notice that Alabama has sharply curtailed its production of quality major leaguers in recent decades, 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 instead of baseball in recent years; Bo Jackson, the most dazzling talent to emerge from Alabama in recent decades, opted for football as well as baseball, and who knows how much that hurt his baseball career. A quick check of black players from Alabama in the NFL and NBA in recent decades turns up Charles Barkley, Terrell Owens, Walter Jones, Robert Horry, and Chuck Person. 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 included a talk with BayBears president Bill Shanahan. Shanahan said: “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.”

The devoted Alabama baseball fan might already know that the 1954 New York Giants outfield also included 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.

In closing, here’s a long list of Alabamians who were among the game’s best for at least a couple years, including 11 Hall of Famers. For whatever reason, most of these men are position players, including: 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 here’s some fine Alabama pitchers: Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Key, Vinegar Bend Mizell, Satchel Paige, Jake Peavy, Rip Sewell, Don Sutton, Virgil Trucks, Early Wynn, and Jeff Brantley.

Arne Christensen runs Misc. Baseball, a blog assembling eclectic items about baseball’s history, and 1995 Mariners.

Comments

3 Responses to “Alabama, the Cradle of Baseball Greatness”
  1. Mike Hoban says:

    Arne,

    Hall of Famers from San Fran – did you forget Joe D?

    Mike

  2. Cliff Blau says:

    New York City has produced at least 7 Hall of Famers- Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford, Frankie Frisch, Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, and Waite Hoyt.

  3. Arne says:

    I was going from what Shanahan said for S.F. and Mobile producing the most who were actually born within the city, with four apiece. He could be wrong-I didn’t check his statement. And, Joe D. was actually born in Martinez, across the Bay from S.F.: I think the DiMaggios moved to the city soon after he was born.

    You could do a sequel on the Bay Area producing players, because Oakland/the East Bay has Ernie Lombardi, Dennis Eckersley, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell and Rickey Henderson.

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