Elizabethton Blue Grays
They were once the heroes of their communities, but now they are forgotten.
There was once a time when athletic young men spent their leisure time playing baseball and many in their community would come out to watch them. It was a time when neighbors knew their neighbors and everyone cheered for the local team.
The Elizabethton Blue Grays were part of that tradition. For decades, the young men played their home games at the field now named Blue Grays Field in the team’s honor. The team of young black men traveled throughout a segregated South to play road games. Only in the past few weeks was it confirmed that some of the Elizabethton stars were from Greeneville.
The community is now beginning to remember the Blue Grays, thanks in great part to the work of the Cedar Grove Foundation and Jacey Augustus.
It did not come about by some master plan, Augustus said.
“I didn’t know anything about baseball when I started,” she said. She was merely hoping to get an oral history of life in the ’40s and ’50s in Elizabethton when she arranged to interview James “Chick” Forney, one of the last surviving members of the Blue Grays.
“I am so thankful I had the chance to sit out on his front porch with him and listen to his stories,” Augustus said.
“They were wonderful, bittersweet stories of a time when young men succeeded in playing the game they loved at a high level even though they faced many obstacles brought about by a segregated society.”
While they played the game at a high level, there were no records kept, and gradually these stars of an earlier era began to fade from the community’s memory. For that reason, it was important to talk with as many surviving members as possible to preserve their stories. Augustus interviewed another Blue Grays player, Ted Hartsaw of Johnson City.
From these players, she got the names of many long-forgotten stars with names like Odell Cox, Knuckles and Dough Belly. Augustus also came to understand the Blue Grays were not all from Elizabethton. In addition to Hartsaw of Johnson City, she discovered there were some Greeneville players on the team.
That was when she came across J.L. Gudger. He was not a player, but like many people at the time, he loved to come out to the ballpark and watch the game and get to know the players. Gudger is now in his 80s, but he remembers those games as if they happened yesterday.
Although Gudger watched the games in Greeneville, he was able to confirm that several Greeneville players were the same ones Augustus had come across in her research of the Blue Grays.
After more than 60 years, Gudger clearly remembers the great Greeneville players who also were well known in Elizabethton. Augustus said the interview helped confirm that Harry “Boots” Anderson, Chess “Dougbelly” Denton and James “Heavy” Knuckles were all players in both towns. There may be more to be discovered.
All of these names are important, as the Cedar Grove Foundation is working to erect a state historical marker that will have the names of players who are known. Thanks to Augustus’ research, those ranks are expanding.
It is not the only way the community is remembering its heroes from an earlier age. On Saturday, June 28, the Elizabethton Twins will once again honor the team with the Second Annual Blue Grays Night. That is not all. At 11 a.m. that Saturday, the Elizabethton Parks and Recreation Department will hold a youth baseball clinic to help a new generation of players.
Augustus’ successful research has also included several more old photographs of the team. But these photographs create even more baseball mysteries. For instance, one shows a pitcher with “Harrell’s Furniture and Appliance” on his jersey. The store has not been found in business directories from the era. Also in the picture are some players in Blue Grays uniforms. Who are these players? What happened to them?
There is another photo showing Calvin “Cal” Taylor, who left the Blue Grays in an attempt to break into the major Negro League. Taylor is wearing a jersey that could be from the Black Sox or the Black Senators, but the rest of the team’s name cannot be seen.
There was another mystery. Despite his great memories of the team, Gudger and other Greenevillians do not recall the team’s name. There are plenty of baseball mysteries left for Cedar Grove to solve.