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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 12.2 (2004) 73-101
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Earl Mann, Nat Peeples, and the Failed Attempt of Integration in the Southern Association
Kenneth R. Fenster
At 10:30 P.M. on Apri l9, 1954, Nat Peeples, an outfielder for the Atlanta Crackers, made history as he broke the color line in the venerable, tradition-rich, class-AA Southern Association. 1 In the Crackers' opening game of the season against the Mobile Bears in Mobile, Alabama, Peeples batted in the fifth inning as a pinch hitter for pitcher Noel Oquendo. He took the first two offerings for balls and then tapped the third pitch weakly back to the pitcher for an easy out. In the second game of the season, played the next night, Peeples started in left field and batted in the important third spot in the lineup. In four plate appearances Peeples walked once and made routine groundouts in his other three at-bats. He did not play in the third and final game of the series in Mobile. The Crackers then returned to Atlanta to open their home season. Peeples had not played in Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Park when, on April 17, the Crackers optioned him to the Jacksonville Braves of the class-A South Atlantic League. After appearing in only 2 games and without ever hitting the ball out of the infield, Peeples never again played in the Southern Association. He was the first and only Negro to play in the league. (The wordNegro was the most commonly used term to refer to African Americans in 1954. It was encountered almost exclusively in the written sources on which this study is based. Thus it is used in this essay to maintain the integrity of those sources and to re-create the atmosphere of the time.) 2
Cracker owner Earl Mann explained that "Peeples was optioned to Jacksonville so that he can play everyday. We feel that we have more experienced outfielders on the roster now who can be of more help to the club than Peeples. There definitely was no other reason for assigning him to Jacksonville." The team, Mann continued, could obtain additional outfielders in a few days from the Milwaukee Braves, with whom the Crackers had had a working agreement since 1950. Ever since Mann uttered these words, a controversy concerning the motives behind the decision to demote Peeples has existed. The Atlanta sports [End Page 73] writers who saw Peeples play in 1954 agreed then and now that the Crackers optioned him to Jacksonville because his baseball skills were deficient and were well below the standards of the Southern Association. On April 19, 1954, Furman Bisher, sports editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote: "Peeples was sent out because he wasn't ready for Double A. He got a full trial and lost his job in a battle with [outfield teammates] Bob Montag and Lloyd Gearhart." In several publications and interviews since then, Bisher has insisted that Peeples got a fair chance to make the team and was not good enough for the league. Negro sportswriters believed that Mann optioned Peeples because the Southern Association was not ready for integration. They argued that the association pressured Mann to remove Peeples from the Cracker roster and that he capitulated. 3 The leading proponent of this interpretation is Marion Jackson, sports editor of the Atlanta Daily World in 1954. In a vitriolic column of April 20, he accused Furman Bisher of having waged a malicious campaign of racial discrimination against Peeples. For the next week he fulminated against Earl Mann and the city of Atlanta in his daily column, lashing out at the city for its racial intolerance. Jackson charged Mann with deception and excoriated him for lacking courage and leadership. Mann refused, Jackson concluded, to give Peeples a fair chance on the field and never even seriously intended to integrate his team or the league. He succumbed to outside pressure and sacrificed Peeples to maintain the racial purity...