ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – Major League Baseball will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues on Sunday with players, coaches and umpires wearing a patch.
Teams like the Kansas City Monarchs and Birmingham Black Barons laid the foundation for the Negro League glory days. However, the Elizabethton Blue Grays were also crucial in helping grow the game in the United States.
The Blue Grays were a semiprofessional baseball team that traveled throughout the Southwest between 1935 and 1955 and it featured some of the best players this region has ever seen.
James “Chick” Forney, James Napier, Garland “Big Red” Norwood and so many others suited up for the Tri-Cities only Negro League baseball team. Players came from Elizabethton, Johnson City, Kingsport, Virginia, Greeneville and Middle Tennessee.
Blue Grays historian Jacey Augustus mentioned how important these players were to the baseball landscape.
“These guys were troopers for what they did,” Augustus said. “The times were what they were, (they) were the best at what (they did), (they) played in the manner in which (they) could.”
During this time, the Blue Grays would travel at night to avoid any racial problems and during road trips, the team sometimes had to stay at churches or at places the team was familiar with. Even though there was some areas that didn’t have the most positive reception, this squad still persisted through some tough times.
“That color line did nothing for the Elizabethton Blue Grays, but encourage them to keep playing, they kept loving the game and they kept traveling from town to town,” Augustus said. “Everyone despite their color had something in common and it was that ever loving love of baseball.”
In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. Robinson suited for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, while competing in the East-West All-Star Game. Robinson’s actions were monumental to the baseball world, but Augustus mentioned how the Blue Grays helped that process.
“It absolutely warms my heart, because it was teams like the Elizabethan Blue Grays that actually paved the way for Jackie Robinson to step on to that field in ’47,” Augustus said. “It’s a bond that’s never, ever going to be broken. I mean come on, it’s baseball, it’s America’s Pastime.”