Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jim Tugerson and the Cotton States League

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Branch Rickey's "Great Experiment" had gone awry - if Jackie Robinson had been unable to withstand the pressure of being the major leagues' first African-American player (let alone become perhaps its best player in his rookie season); if the abortive strike by the St. Louis Cardinals had caught on with the rest of the National League, or if the other owners had moved to block Rickey. In the case of Rickey and Robinson, it certainly helped to have a visionary owner and an exciting, dynamic player seemingly from central casting to carry out this athletic and social revolution.

When we look back at the events of 1947 and marvel at Robinson's triumph, we sometimes have the mistaken impression that the floodgates opened in 1947, discrimination was banished, and we all lived happily ever after. But a full six years after Robinson's groundbreaking first season, only half of major league clubs had in fact integrated. In fact, baseball integration came in fits and starts, and in some places it seemed it might not come at all.

After a post-war boom in the fortunes of minor league baseball, by the early fifties televised major league games had begun to take a huge toll on the minors' coffers. The Cotton States League, with teams in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana was no exception. The owners of the Hot Springs Bathers decided to try to reverse their fortunes by signing two African-American pitching prodigies, the Florida-born brothers Jim and Leander Tugerson. Both were members of the Negro American League's Indianapolis Clowns (Jim having roomed with rookie Henry Aaron in 1952).

The move sent shock waves throughout the league, and also exposed deep regional divisions (the Arkansas and Louisiana clubs were generally tolerant, while the Mississippi teams were adamantly opposed). The Bathers were accused of "treason" by League president Al Haraway, and Mississippi's attorney general J.P. Coleman claimed that his state's constitution prohibited integrated games. The Bathers' offer to use the Turgesons only in home games was not accepted, and on April 6 the league voted to expel Hot Springs. To his credit, National Association president Trautman ruled against the league, but bowing to pressure, the Bathers reassigned both brothers to the Knoxville Smokies of the Mountain States League, with whom they had a working agreement.

Desperately needing pitching help, and doing poorly in attendance, Hot Springs recalled Jim Tugerson from Knoxville on May 20th. Haraway issued instructions to the umpires to forfeit the game if Tugerson's name appeared in the line-up. To the displeasure of a capacity crowd, the game was indeed forfeited. Although the forfeiture was later voided by Trautman, it came too late for Tugerson, who was sent back to Knoxville where he received a much warmer welcome, winning 33 games (including four playoff victories) a league record. The Smokies even had a "Jim Tugerson Night" where black fans were admitted free.

Integration was postponed in the CSL for the time being, but Jim Tugerson was not finished. He sued the Cotton States League for having his civil rights violated and denying him the opportunity to earn a living playing baseball. Circuit court judge John Miller dismissed his claim on the basis that it was a private, not federal matter, but Tugerson's contract was sold to Dallas, thereby giving him an opportunity to play professional ball at a higher level. He eventually retired in 1957, having also pitched at Amarillo and in Panama, but made a dazzling comeback back with Dallas in 1958, using a new sidearm delivery. Sadly, AAA Dallas was as close as he got to the majors, and Jim Tugerson finally retired for good in 1959. His brother Leander had worn out his arm back in Knoxville and never recovered his form. The Cotton States League finally integrated in 1954, when the same Hot Springs Bathers signed local outfielder Uvoyd Reynolds and first baseman Howard Scott. The league folded for good in 1955.

We are offering both the Jim Tugerson Hot Springs Bathers flannel and Knoxville Smokies flannel for $99 each for a limited time.

Research used in this post came from the SABR bio project and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.