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.
The Jacksonville Red Caps in the Majors
Two unidentified Red Caps players. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
The Negro American League launched in 1937 with eight teams in the Midwest and upper South. They quickly emerged as the dominant rival to the Negro National League. Both leagues featured play comparable to the white big leagues, and as of December 2020, Major League Baseball formally recognizes the Negro Majors as major leagues, finally giving their players the status they deserve.
The Jacksonville Red Caps joined the Negro American League for the 1938 season, along with fellow newcomers the Atlanta Black Crackers and Indianapolis ABCs. They were the only team from Florida ever to play in the Negro Majors, and preceded Florida’s first Major League Baseball team, the Miami Marlins, by 55 years. According to Seamheads, the Red Caps had four players with a batting average over .400 that year, with Skin Down Robinson batting .475. This was an unusual accomplishment even at that time; excluding the Negro Leagues, only 20 players in Major League Baseball have batted over .400, and none have batted over .440. Nonetheless, Jacksonville finished the season with only 14 wins against 16 losses and a tie, placing them fifth of seven teams in the NAL standings.
To Cleveland and back
Cleveland Bears pitchers Leo “Preacher” Henry, Andrew Sarvis, and Raymond Owens. From the Chicago Defender, May 25, 1940.
After the 1938 season, Greer sold the team to new owners who shipped them off to the larger market of Cleveland. The Red Caps name was not part of the deal, so the owners hosted a contest to choose a new moniker, and the team became the Cleveland Bears in 1939. The Bears finished the season with a 20-21 record, good for third place in the NAL. In 1940 the Bears went 18-15, but were plagued with stadium issues, injuries, and management problems through the year. Attendance plummeted, and the owners sold the team back to J.B. Greer, who brought the remains of the franchise back to Jacksonville.
The Red Caps after their return to Jacksonville in 1941. Some of the players are still wearing Cleveland Bears jerseys.
In Jacksonville the team resumed the Red Caps name for the 1941 season. Their prospects did not improve, however; they went 12-19-1 and ended the season dead last in the NAL standings. In the 1942 season, they won only seven games and dropped out of the Negro American League in July.
The Red Caps returned to the independent circuit, where they lasted until at least 1944. A succession of Jacksonville-based teams succeeded them in the Negro Minor Leagues through the 1950s, some of which resurrected the Red Caps name. But with the end of their major league stint and the decline of the Negro Leagues following the integration of Major League Baseball, the Red Caps faded from memory in much of their home city.
In more recent years, however, the Red Caps have received renewed attention as a significant part of Florida’s African-American and sports history. The Tampa Bay Rays and Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp have worn Red Caps throwback uniforms to celebrate Florida’s only Negro Major League team, and they are honored in the museum at J.P. Small Stadium. Strings Sports Brewery even sells a Red Caps beer. The last one is especially fitting; the memory of Florida’s first ever major league sports team is certainly something worthy of raising a glass to.
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.