ELIZABETHTON — They are all gone now, those young black men who made up the semiprofessional Elizabethton Blue Grays baseball team that played its games in the days before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers.
They are gone but not forgotten, said Jacey Augustus, director of the Cedar Grove Foundation, an organization that works to preserve local history. She said the exploits of the team are better known in the community now than 10 years ago.
The reason they have become better known is the work of the foundation, especially in getting the community ball field named for the team. She also said a story published in the Johnson City Press on Jan. 28, 2001, helped introduce a new generation to the team and remind others of their past.
Augustus learned about the team by visiting with one of the last surviving members of the team, James “Chick” Forney.
“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.”
In the Johnson City Press story from 10 years ago, Forney talked about the challenges of traveling to play games. “You couldn’t get in a hotel,” Forney said in the story. Most of the time the players slept on the team bus. “That got old,” Forney said.
Eating was also a problem. The only way the team could get food from a restaurant was to go around to the back door for an order of beans and corn bread.
Although Forney didn’t discuss it in the newspaper story, Augustus said traveling through the South was also dangerous. “They would travel a lot at night so they couldn’t see their skin color,” Augustus said.
Despite the difficulties, the team members thrived, going on to play for teams like the Nashville Cats, the Alabama Black Barons and the Indianapolis Zulu Clowns. Forney spent part of his military service during World War II playing on the post team at Fort Benning, Ga.
Although Blue Gray team members like Forney, Columbus Ted Hartsaw, Garland Norwood, James Napier, Nathaniel Duffield, Pat McGee, Slim Avery, Ed Thomas, Frank Landers, Gordon Jackson and Charlie McGrath displayed great talent, they never knew if they were good enough to make the major leagues. Forney said he was not bitter even though players of modest talent make millions in baseball today.
“It just wasn’t my time,” Forney said. “No, I don’t feel bad.”
Augustus said most of the team lived their lives in relative obscurity until the Cedar Grove Foundation began telling their stories about 10 years ago. The stories resonated with the community where the men had lived and raised their families.
“People found out they remembered more than they thought they did,” Augustus said.
They remembered how the community used to come out to the Blue Grays home games on Sundays, bringing picnic baskets and making the game a pleasant social event. The names of more and more players were remembered.
As the distant memories became sharper, the community worked to have the field named for the Blue Grays, complete with a large sign. Although the players are gone, their field still holds the community’s memories of them.
The time for Forney and his teammates has finally arrived.
“I hope the memories of this team never fade,” Augustus said.