Fred McDuffie salutes the crowd during Thursday’s ceremony (photo by Allen Wallace)
Men and women who were denied opportunities to play baseball in their younger days simply because of the color of their skin stood in the spotlight Thursday night at Spirit Communications Park, and were greeted not with prejudice but with loud applause. The Columbia Fireflies and Columbia SC 63 took time to honor Columbia’s history of black baseball teams and their contribution to the sport known as America’s national pastime.
Before the Fireflies game against Hagerstown, a ceremony on the field recognized some of the great local black players and coaches from the days of segregation, with family members representing those who have passed away. Professional baseball was segregated until 1947, and remnants of the color barrier remained for decades after that. Columbia’s minority community was represented by clubs and leagues including the Columbia All Stars, Columbia Red Caps, Columbia Clippers, Columbia Whips, Hurricanes and the Negro Little League. The teams represented neighborhoods like Ward One, Arsenal Hill, Ridgewood, and Edgewood. Star players also emerged from Benedict College, Allen University, Booker T. Washington High School, and C. A. Johnson High School and went on to play professionally in the Negro Leagues and, after integration, in the majors and minors.
“Every block had a team,” said Fred McDuffie. “Where the University [of South Carolina] is playing now, we played out there also. Then it was a cow pasture.” McDuffie, 90, gave the Columbia Clippers their name when playing for the team in the 1940s, inspired by Joe DiMaggio, who was known as the “Yankee Clipper.”
McDuffie, an Army veteran who served in Korea and Vietnam, said he remembers each player on one of his early teams chipping in a dime to buy a single baseball from Todd & Moore, and recalls watching the building of the Blossom Street Bridge as he played in the pastures near the river. He said a great deal has changed in Columbia, and for the better. “I grew up in the Vista, but then they called it the hood,” he said. Asked about the feeling of being honored by the Fireflies, he said “I can’t explain it, I’ll be frank with you. It’s amazing to see a lot of guys I haven’t seen in years.”
C.B. Benson, who starred for Benedict in the early 1960s and then in the minor leagues with the Cubs’ and Twins’ organizations, said the experience Thursday was a nostalgic one. “I think about the times that I played on some of these same fields,” he said. “It brings memories back, and sometimes you want to be out there playing again.”
“It was really beautiful. I had most of my family here,” said James “Cowboy” Atterbury, who played locally with the Columbia All Stars and James Brown’s All Stars, for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, and in the Cubs’ and Angels’ organizations. Atterbury said while he still enjoys watching baseball, “I liked my era better. That’s as far as I’m going… In our era, you had to get out there and do it. You had to get busy and you had to stay busy.”
Atterbury and Benson were both signed to professional contracts by Baseball Hall of Fame member Buck O’Neil. The Negro League legend became a scout for the Cubs after the color barrier fell. O’Neil’s name was mentioned when the players honored Thursday were asked to name the best players they ever saw, along with Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Pete Rose. Despite the barriers they faced, many local players had a firsthand look at those Hall of Famers. “We played against and with some of the greats,” Benson said.
The Fireflies also honored the River Bluff High School soccer team for their AAAA state championship. The Gators went 21-1 for the season, defeating Clover 5-0 in the championship game.and giving Coach Phil Savitz his 700th career win and 15th state title.
The game ended unhappily for the home team, as Hagerstown won 6-3. The Suns took a 5-0 lead before Columbia battled back in the fifth inning. Jeff Diehl tripled, then after a Jose Garcia walk, Ivan Wilson doubled to bring Diehl home. David Thompson singled in a second run. Wilson had another RBI in the sixth with a double, but the Fireflies could not add any more runs.
The Fireflies host Hagerstown again Friday and Saturday, with both games starting at 7:05. Friday will be Shout Out to Tom Hanks night at the ballpark, and fireworks will follow the game. Saturday’s game will include a Park Ranger jersey auction to benefit Congaree National Park, and another postgame fireworks show.