Iconic baseball team part of special heritage of Laurel
Abe Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, once said: “We cannot escape history. For good or ill, it will seek you out and light your way down through the ages.”
In 1925, when the Laurel Black Cats organized, Laurel was the epicenter of a lumber empire that had both national and international markets. The enterprising little town in the middle of the Mississippi Pine Belt was built by Midwestern “Lumber Barons” and had a Midwestern flavor. It was said that Laurel was the most Midwestern of Mississippi cities.
In 1925, Laurel was the No. 1 industrial town in Mississippi and had been since 1900. Twenty-five years is a long time to be No. 1 at anything. In 1925, Laurel’s population had topped 25,000 people and was projected to reach 30,000 by 1930. In 1925, Laurel boasted proudly of having 34 millionaires, more than any town its size in the entire United States.
Five years earlier, in 1920, the 18-hole golf course at the Laurel Country Club was rated the No. 1 golf links in the entire United States. Folks, Laurel was like a little Chicago. Lusty, proud, dynamic — a town with big shoulders — a workers’ town.
In 1925, Laurel had 53 active industries. Money was flowing. The town was labeled “The Pasadena of the South.” Charlie Parker, a proud old lumberman who lived well past the 100-year mark, once told me, “Boy, Lar’l (his pronunciation) was somethin’ else. There was a payday every day ’cept Sunday.”
Jobs were plentiful in the logging camps, in the woodyard, with the railroad crew and in all four giant lumber mills. Hours were long. Work was hard. Pay was good. And money was flowing. Workers naturally looked forward to the weekend, a respite from work. They needed rest and recreation. They needed a break. They needed entertainment.
Enter big Day’ton Hair, the founder of the Laurel Black Cats. Big Day’ton was a successful businessman and a highly respected man of color. His striking logo was a black cat with an arched back — a humpback black cat. Day’ton Hair was already well-established. He owned The Black Cat Insurance Company, Black Cat Real Estate and Collection Agency, The Black Cat Cafe and The Black Cat Cab Company, which had a fleet of five taxis.
In 1925, Hair added the Laurel Black Cats semi-professional baseball team to his Black Cat enterprises. Laurel’s location was very important. You see, Laurel was bracketed between four great regional cities: Birmingham, Mobile, New Orleans and Memphis. The Black Cat schedule included those four mainstays in the Negro Baseball League — the Birmingham Black Barons, The Mobile Buckeyes, The New Orleans Black Pelicans and the Memphis Red Sox.
The question must be asked: why was there a need for a Negro Baseball League? As Lincoln told us, “We cannot escape history.” Beginning in 1897, there was a conspiracy, an unwritten rule by white baseball owners and the commissioner, that prohibited the signing of Black players in Major League Baseball. This essentially was a ban on Black baseball players. Of course, this ban ended in 1947 when Jackie Robinson signed and played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. However, you already know that story!
From 1897 until 1947, there was a 50-year ban on Blacks in baseball, so Black players and owners formed a league of their own, namely The Negro Baseball League. So, when the Laurel Black Cats played the four regional teams along with some others, including teams from Pensacola and Montgomery, they competed against some of the best players to ever wear a baseball uniform.
In spite of the intense competition and level of play, The Laurel Black Cats held their own and won their share of games. Many of the players in the Negro Baseball League are now enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and at least two players from the Laurel Black Cats should be. They are Lefty Bell, a gifted pitcher, and A.W. Watson, a crack first baseman who they called “Bleakam.”
It was widely felt that the stars of the Negro league were as good or better than the white stars in the Major Leagues. In the Major Leagues of the 1920s, Babe Ruth, known as “The Sultan of Swat,” was crowned the greatest home-run hitter ever, but he had a counterpart in the Negro League. Josh Gibson was called “The Black Babe Ruth.” Gibson was the first, and at the time, the only player to ever hit a home run completely out of massive Yankee Stadium. Gibson hit an incredible 89 home runs in one season and 75 more in another.
Legend has it that Gibson once hit a ball so high and so far that no one ever saw it come down. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the umpire looked up for a few minutes, then had no other choice but to rule it a home run!
Gibson was the first member of the Negro League to be inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He was followed into the Hall of Fame by a 6-foot, 4-inch legendary pitcher for the Mobile Buckeyes — Satchel Paige.
On May 23, 1954, the Laurel Leader-Call reported that Hall-of-Fame pitcher, the colorful Satchel Paige, was in town visiting his longtime friend and fellow Negro League star Lefty Bell. The LL-C article further stated that Paige pitched an exhibition game before a large crowd of Black and White fans at Rahaim’s Park.
Day’ton Hair and the original Black Cat Players have all passed on to glory, but their legacy certainly added to the rich heritage of our great town of Laurel.