Little Washington, Sperryville and Reva all fielded teams and players who ‘worked hard and played harder’
For five decades, young black men across Virginia denied access to local ball fields, including here in Rappahannock County, would gather in rural pastures and empty lots to play their own cherished form of “Negro League” baseball.
“For those able to recall the enduring tradition, it is one of the most talked about and treasured topics,” Charlottesville author Darrell J. Howard writes in his book, “Sunday Coming: Black Baseball in Virginia.”
“Black Baseball,” says the author, the guest speaker Saturday evening at the African American Heritage Center at historic Scrabble School, “was family and community baseball through Jim Crow segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the early stages of integration.”
All of which happened to coincide with the golden era of baseball in America.
Virtually every Virginia community from Tidewater to the Blue Ridge had at least one black baseball team between 1930 and 1970, each carrying the banner of their respective communities. Little Washington, Sperryville and Reva all fielded teams and players who “worked hard and played harder.”
“They came to evening practices dressed out in their work clothes and boots bearing the burden of a day’s labor, but when they put on their ball caps and their gloves . . . all thoughts were on the big weekend game, who they were playing and where it was to be played. They played baseball and they loved it,” Howard writes. “There were no clinics, no coaches, just a resolve and will to perfect their skills.”
The Sperryville Yellow Jackets (later the Tigers) lost very few games during the mid-1930’s, the author observees, “anchored by the Williams and Aylor families; they are remembered as the best ever to take the diamond. Tom Williams, Charles Williams, Sr., Reg Saylor, Henry and George Jordan, were touted as being as good as any professional ballplayers.”
Regional all-stars from Rappahannock, during just one period, included pitcher Robert T. “R.T.” Walker, who played for both Sperryville and the Little Washington Monarchs and was known for his “blazing fastball and curve.”
“He left Little Washington in the forties to play semi-pro baseball in Ohio and then after a short stint in the Army returned East, finding a spot in the pitching rotation of the Negro League Homestead Braves,” writes Howard, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Even rural Reva mustered a team: farmers, laborers and mill workers “playing cow pasture ball” on Saturdays and Sundays, the author describes.
Like the adults, young children in Rappahannock (teams such as Sperryville even had cheerleaders) were in awe of the talented players. Sam Aylor of Sperryville, who would later be a baseball standout himself, recalled growing up during the 1940s and ’50s:
“Around this area we had nothing to do, nowhere to go. I’d come to your house, let’s say you lived on somebody’s farm, there’s a big open field out there, that’s where we played ball every day. That’s all we had to do after we got our chores done at home. We weren’t old enough to work. You get all your buddies together . . . you wear me out today, tomorrow I’ll wear you out. We’d laugh, go on home and start again tomorrow. That’s how we learned to play.”
(Today, noted the author in his talk, there’s not nearly the interest in baseball among American children, black or white. “Kids aren’t outside and active. Even if you were just throwing the ball around, guys playing catch. Kids don’t even play catch outdoors anymore. That was one of the favorite things for us to do.”)
The later Little Washington Monarchs were more formidable than their predecessors of the 1920s and ’30s. Managed by George Evans, the team was led by pitcher Bobby Clanagan, nephew of R.T. Walker.
“Where his uncle was a stack of brawn, Clanagan was short and less imposing,” Howard writes. “But he had a slingshot arm, hit well and was one of the fastest players on the team. He was still in his teens when he came home from service in the military, and helped rebuild the Monarchs ball team with friends from the Little Washington community. Shortstop Arthur Bridges, pitchers Hampton Fletcher and Frederick Lawson, and first baseman George Taylor became local and regional legends. Arthur Bridges was like a vacuum cleaner at short . . .
“Black baseball fans still rave about encounters between George Love and Big Bill Aylor of the Washington Monarchs and Sperryville Tigers. The two often held each other’s team scoreless through seven innings. During one memorable clash both teams were scoreless after nine innings and both pitchers were courting no-hitters.”
Other standouts were Charles Williams, Jr., William Carter, Jr., Arthur “Seymore” Freeman, Arthur “Dolly” Glasgow, and Sperryville’s Aylor once he grew up. These five players “came to be some of the best in Virginia’s black baseball in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Charles Williams, Jr., could hit, run and throw with range seldom seen in sandlot baseball,” his rocket arm landing him on the mound as a pitcher for his hometown Sperryville Tigers.
Said Junior Carter about warming up as pitcher for the Monarchs: “I used to throw all during the week. I’d get three five gallon buckets and set them up against the barn and I would throw until I hit nine of out ten and then I knew I was ready.”
An amazing thing about the Reva Aces, which played 30 or more games a summer, was there were never more than ten players on the roster.
“We had a one-armed man that played for Reva,” player Billy Shanks recalled in Sunday Coming. “He was supposed to have made the pros but he fell out of a tree picking cherries and broke his arm and they had to amputate.”
Seated in the Scrabble audience was 78-year-old Richard Slaughter, who played first base over the years for several local squads, including Reva, a rural team that the more upscale Culpeper Dragons wouldn’t play because they didn’t have uniforms.
“When I first started I played for the Reva Aces, and that was in 1959,” Slaughter told the Rappahannock News, recalling the ball field as being next to the local dance hall. “We only had nine ballplayers. We had three young men who got killed up at Woodville, the car hit a tree, big maple tree. That put us down to six and that was the end of the team.”
“They had rising stars like Richard Slaughter and Roy Jackson playing with the team and then tragedy struck,” the author writes. “In September 1959 the team’s third baseman, shortstop and second baseman, General Jackson, perished in an automobile accident in Woodville . . . The accident sent shockwaves through the community and decimated an already sparse lineup.”
Interestingly enough, though, the “pastoral setting of Rappahannock . . . became a proving ground in the nineteen fifties and early sixties for Washington, D.C., area teams. Black ballplayers to the east knew that when the country boys were not in the fields they were either practicing baseball or playing a game.”
During the audience discussion, Howard noted that when players visited another county they always carried their own food and drink, as chances were they might not be served at restaurants “because you were colored.”
“I had a game in Sperryville and I’m going back to Charlottesville and maybe there was a place I could stop and get a hamburger at a back window or maybe not, because they didn’t have to serve you,” the author said for example.
“We always carried food,” agreed audience member Justin Kilby, 72, a resident of Flint Hill who played catcher for the Sperryville Tigers.
“I joined the Tigers in ’65. I was 18,” Kilby told the News. “Then I went into the service, the Marine Corps, and came back in ’67 and I played. We played off 211 going up the mountain to Luray.”
Slaughter and Kilby played during the same time for the Tigers, which folded around 1971. By then, the pair observed, a few white men from Rappahannock joined them on the ball fields. Which certainly wasn’t the case decades before.
“In rural communities if you were up and close and personal at a black baseball game, and you were white, it looked bad and you might be scorned in your community,” the author noted during his talk.
Which isn’t to say the local ball players weren’t recognized by blacks and whites alike in their respective communities, among them George Love, who had a successful tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Under the strains of early major league integration and homesickness, George Love was overwhelmed,” Howard reveals. “The pressures of having to perform, the alienation and change of environment did not add up to the worth of becoming a big-leaguer and Love returned home to the sandlots of Culpeper.”
Regardless, Love’s baseball skills were deemed national caliber, and he’d made inroads where few blacks had gone before.
“Back at home he was the talk of the black baseball circuit,” writes Howard, “known as the boy who’d tried out in the ‘League.’”