CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Charlotte’s history with professional baseball runs over a century deep. The city has been home to many Black men and women who fundamentally changed America’s pastime.
Local historian Michael Webb studies the roots of Negro League Baseball and its connection to the Carolinas.
“Charlotte had many teams, the Charlotte Quicksteps during the late 19th century, turn of the 20th century. Then you had the Charlotte Red Sox, who was a notable team as well in the 1920s. And then by the 1920s and thirties, you had the Charlotte Black Hornets and many of their players went on to play in what is now known as the major Negro League professional ranks,” he said.
Records show one of the first organized Black baseball teams in Charlotte was playing by 1890. The Charlotte Quicksteps played against a Wilmington-based team. The people who work to secure those players’ spots in the history books alongside their white counterparts say they’re getting more support now; just when they need it.
Webb’s research has unearthed some little-known stories about the early days of the game.
“The New York Giants played an exhibition game with Charlotte Red Sox and the New York Giants that year, in 1921 would go on to win the World Series,” Webb said. “This exhibition game took place at John C Smith University at the time, known as Biddle University.”
Part of Webb’s work involves bringing former negro league players’ stories to light — even though some never embraced their legacy as pro-athlete. Webb said many young players looked at the game as a way out of milling or farm towns, not necessarily as a new career.
“Unlike many of the professional players today where it’s their whole life, for these guys who played Negro Leagues, it wasn’t their whole life,” he said. “They knew, you know, the game and their career would be over one day. And that their love for the trades and professions that they were growing up in their community, they would go back to it.”
That was the case for Belmont native Carl Forney. He was a player and manager for the Indianapolis Clowns. He became the youngest manager in all professional baseball at 22 years old.
“None of his kids knew he played professional baseball until they became adults. And then they would always ask, ‘Dad, why didn’t you tell me?’ And Mr. Forney would be like, ‘you know, it was never something I thought to mention. My love was in the past as far as baseball and my love today and what signifies who I am as a person is a brick mason.’”
Webb’s work also brought him to Eddie “G.G.” Burton and his wife Gaile Dry-Burton.
“He was just so funny. He kept me laughing all the time. He was so interesting. It took me many years before I knew he was a Negro Leaguer,” Dry-Burton said.
She said she didn’t learn about this part of Eddie’s life until his former team, the Harrisburg Giants, invited him back to honor him.
“One thing about Eddie also is that it was never really about him. It was always about the team, the game, you know, the sport,” Gaile said. “Naturally, he had the opportunity to go solo, but he invited all the people that he knew that were still alive, not necessarily people from his team, but he just went out looking for leaguers. And there’s a lot there was a lot more than I thought there were.”
Eddie died in 2018. He started a friendship with Webb about a decade before he passed – and was able to pass on memories of playing with the greats of the game when he was just 16 years old.
“He did play with Josh Gibson. He played with Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella,” Gaile said. “But the stories they would tell!”
Not every story is centered on the love of the game.
“Eddie would always tell me, he would go into a town and they would see a lynching and then that same day they would play a baseball game and these same white men would cheer them on,” Webb said.
Gaile applauds the efforts of people like Webb and the Knights organization who honor the past while inspiring future players and fans.
“If people don’t know the trauma and the drama of what happened to Negroes through sports, politics, life, you know, to me, I think that this is an opportunity,” Gaile said. “When we celebrate these entities, there’s an opportunity to just let the world know that it happened and get over it. But you just can’t erase it.”
She is working to set up a foundation in her late husband’s name. They want to provide scholarships for young scholar-athletes and introduce more Black kids to baseball.
“I have to hand it to the Knights because they have been very instrumental in making sure that the city of Charlotte is aware that Eddie was here, and what his contribution to baseball meant,” Gaile said.
Negro League Baseball was first organized in 1919 by Ruth Foster, who is considered the father of Black baseball. Before then, teams were barnstorming across the country, playing against any team they could find while traveling.
“He wanted to lead by example to show the major leagues, ‘hey, we’re Black men. We can come together and organize to prove ourselves and our talent, that we should be playing alongside our white counterparts in the major leagues,’” said Webb.
He said many of the challenges Major League Baseball faced hit the Negro Leagues as well, like World War II. Organizers tried to keep dugouts full and the crowd interested. They invited women like Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Connie Morgan, and Toni Stone to play with the Indianapolis Clowns.
“They were kind of like we know of today as the Harlem Globetrotters. They would do all sorts of talents and tricks throughout the games. They would play around, they would “clown” around with, you know, some of the opposing teams and whatnot,” Webb said. “The people who were attending were really into not just watching the game, but the entertainment aspect of the game as well.”
Webb said the peak popularity of the game hit around the mid-1940s. He said contrary to popular belief, the league didn’t stop when Jackie Robinson started playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers and integrated the sport. Games were played well into the 1960s.