The Jax Red Caps: Florida's first major leaguers
Major League Baseball's decision to recognize seven historic Negro Leagues as major leagues will shake up the sports history of many cities. Jacksonville, home to the Red Caps of the Negro American League in 1938 and 1941-42, is no exception. Here's a look at the trailblazing history of Florida's first major leaguers.
Black baseball in Jim Crow Jacksonville
Fans in the African-American section during a ballgame at Durkee Field. Courtesy of the Durkeeville Historical Society.
Baseball was a well established game in Jacksonville in the late 19th century, and with Jim Crow enforcing strict segregation, African-American ballplayers had to form their own teams. All-Black teams formed in both Jacksonville and St. Augustine, often representing social clubs or employees of a particular place. Though the teams were segregated, the crowds often were multiracial; Black teams were a draw for white locals and tourists hoping to see a good game of baseball.
As a young man James Weldon Johnson, creator of the famed hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” among many other accomplishments, pitched for one such team, the Roman Cities, where he gained renown as one of the first in the city to master the curveball. A number of local teams played as independents in the Negro Leagues. Possibly the first local Black team to play in an organized league were the Jacksonville Stars, who spent the 1920 season in the Negro Southern League.
At that time, the Negro Southern League was a minor league feeder to the Negro Major Leagues. Before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, the Negro Majors were home to baseball talent equal to anything found in the “White Majors.” Jacksonville would get a taste of the Negro Majors in 1938 when the Red Caps entered the scene.
Enter the Jacksonville Red Caps
Jacksonville Red Caps team photo by Ellie Lee Weems, circa 1938. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Historical Society.
The Red Caps got their start sometime before the late 1930s – it’s unclear exactly when – as an independent team organized by the Jacksonville Terminal Station. The owner was white stationmaster J.B. Greer, and the players all worked at the station as porters. Porters were nicknamed “redcaps” for the hats they wore, hence the team’s nickname.
Porter jobs were coveted, middle class positions for African-Americans at the time, thanks in no small part to unionization efforts spearheaded by Jacksonville native A. Philip Randolph in the 1920s. For prospective ballplayers, a dayjob as a porter was an especially enticing perk, as it offered opportunities for advancement and benefits. The Red Caps recruited catcher Herbert Barnhill away from the Atlanta Black Crackers with an employment offer, telling him, “you have a railroad job here. You have a chance to grow and get a pension.” Harold “Buster” Hair, who served the Red Caps as a batboy and later had a career in the Negro Leagues, told the Orlando Sentinel in 2005, “back in the those days, man, that was one of the finest jobs for blacks… if you quit, somebody would step into your place.”
Durkee Field in 1939. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
J.P. Small Memorial Park, formerly Durkee Field.
The Red Caps played their games at Durkee Field, then Jacksonville’s primary baseball park, on Myrtle Avenue in Durkeeville. Pitcher Alonzo “Fluke” Mitchell served as the team’s manager throughout most of their existence. Attendance records are slim, but those who saw the Red Caps play remember them outdrawing the city’s white minor league team, the hapless Jacksonville Tars. The Tars, later renamed the Jacksonville Braves, wouldn’t see much improvement until they themselves added Black players in 1953, including Hank Aaron and Felix Mantilla.
According to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, in 1937 the Jacksonville Red Caps went 4-6 as an independent club. Pitcher Leo “Preacher” Henry was a standout, earning the best WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) in the Negro Leagues that season. The team was evidently successful enough that the next season they joined one of the top leagues, the Negro American League, becoming Florida’s first major league team in any sport.
Next page: The Red Caps in the Majors