Like any minor league team, the Chattanooga Lookouts fill their home schedule with promotions intended to offer added value to a trip to the ballpark. Those take the form of everything from merchandise giveaways to guest entertainers to chances to get closer to the game.
This weekend at AT&T Field, they’re offering fans a history lesson — along with the opportunity to honor those who made it.
The Lookouts are in the midst of a six-game series with the Birmingham Barons, and the matchups on Friday and Saturday have been designated for Chattanooga’s Negro League Appreciation Weekend. The event, which is being presented by the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and Food City, is on the Lookouts’ calendar for the second year in a row.
The Lookouts will wear Chattanooga Choo-Choos jerseys to honor the minor league Negro League team that played at Engel Stadium from 1940-46. Meanwhile, the visitors will dress in jerseys for the Birmingham Black Barons, a team that was a member of the inaugural Negro Southern League in 1920 along with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts.
(Speaking of history, how about this: The Choo-Choos and the Black Barons can both lay claim to having future Major League Baseball star Willie Mays play for them.)
The weekend is also intended to celebrate the players who remain from the Negro Leagues, with some of those teams continuing even after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the major leagues when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. The games were set to feature appearances from former Negro Leaguers, including Russell “Crazy Legs” Patterson.
He got the nickname “Crazy Legs” for his speed on the basepaths along and the passion he showed while playing as he would jump and dance during games. His time on the diamond now over, he remains busy trying to help share his love of the game with younger players — or potential players.
According to MLB.com, of the 945 players on opening day rosters in the majors this year, 59 were Black, or 6.2%. In 1991, Black players made up 18% of MLB rosters on opening day.
“I hope kids growing up in the African-American community here continue to get out there on the ballfields and share the same passion for the game that I had when growing up,” Patterson said. “Baseball to me was a very natural sport. I just enjoyed being out there and playing.
“I remember I was 16 years old and some guy seen me playing ball and wanted me to play for their all-Black baseball team. He told me to keep playing hard and if I stayed disciplined, I would be a hell of a ballplayer.”
Patterson, a South Carolina native, maintained a positive attitude despite experiencing racial prejudice.
He began playing with the Savannah Bears in Georgia and then went on to join the Indianapolis Clowns, a club that counts Hank Aaron, who would later break Babe Ruth’s MLB record for career home runs, among its alumni. Patterson’s baseball career detoured when he served in the Army for three years, but he returned to the U.S. in 1965 to join the Paterson Black Sox in New Jersey and later played for a league in Syracuse, New York, where he set a record for innings played at 51 years old.
Patterson hit better than .300 in more than 20 seasons of his career and was also able to play a game in Cooperstown, New York, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“What was sad back then was there were so many Black ballplayers who were better than the players in the major leagues. But because of the color of our skin, they said we weren’t good enough,” said Patterson, who stood out as a pitcher, first baseman and outfielder. “Even after Jackie made it to the majors, they would only want two or three of us on an entire team’s roster.”
MLB’s efforts over the years to honor Black pioneers of the game have included retiring Robinson’s No. 42 across the majors in 1997 and having every player wear his number annually on April 15, designated Jackie Robinson Day. And in 2020, seven professional Negro Leagues that existed from 1920 to 1948 were given major league status by MLB, retroactively incorporating those teams’ and players’ statistics and records into the majors’ official history.
Chattanooga’s own Charles White III is also a legend in the baseball world.
At the age of 15, he was the opposing pitcher when Satchel Paige took the mound for the Indianapolis Clowns as that barnstorming team passed through the Scenic City and played at Engel Stadium against the Chattanooga Stars.
The Stars were owned by White’s father, Charles Jr., whose grandson Reggie became Howard’s first high school All-American before dominating on the football field for the Tennessee Volunteers and going on to an NFL career that led him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Charles III, a 1960 Howard graduate, was the school’s first athlete to earn 12 letters. As a baseball player, he was known for his pitching, with his fastball believed to be consistently above 90 mph. He spent time in training camp with the Kansas City Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Back in the day when we were coming up, Tom Smith always told us, ‘As you grow up, don’t ever forget the Black league that you played in,’” White recalled. “Those were the guys who helped make us who we are. I loved playing the game. Some of my favorite players were Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and I can’t leave Jackie Robinson out.
“I still remember winning a league championship when we traveled from Chattanooga to go play for the Athens Stars down in Georgia. Nobody thought we could even win a game, but we won the league. We proved people wrong.”
Eight decades ago, in an era when many still believed in integration on the baseball field and beyond, so did Robinson and all who followed.
Contact Patrick MacCoon at [email protected].