JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Baseball greats such as Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige and Ty Cobb all once played ball in the River City in a stadium now known as J.P. Small Memorial Park, in Durkeeville. Photos of members of the Negro League are now proudly displayed outside of Jacksonville City Hall in downtown. But there was a time when those men were not welcomed in the same field where the greats played.
"When we went to see the white team play we sat over in the bleachers we couldn't sit in the grand stand," said former Negro League player, Harold "Buster" Hair.
Sitting in a rocking chair on his Durkeeville porch, Hair took us back to a time when baseball was king.
"If baseball was going on we were there," said Hair. "To see all of the people, to smell the hot dogs and my grandfather would sit me between his legs and explain to me- he's playing first base. We knew all of the players by name."
Hair fell for the game early on, at age four. By the time he reached nine years old Hair found himself immersed in the swing of things as a bat boy for Jacksonville's negro team named the Red Caps.
"The Red Caps, they were like the Yankees,” said Hair. "The Red Caps was the thing back in that day. "
On display in ballpark museum you’ll see dark skinned men, in white uniforms topped with red caps.
They were named for their jobs off the field.
"A lot of them worked at the train station,” said Lloyd Washington who heads the Durkeeville Historical Society Museum. “They were actually red caps, the people who took your luggage on and off the planes."
Among the greats on the museum walls is Washington’s old coach, "Buster" Hair. He’s the lone Negro League survivor in Jacksonville, one of 14 men in the area who helped to break the color lines.
"They would pay us for something we would do for nothing, you know what I'm saying," said Hair.
About $200 a month and a $2.50 food allowance daily did the trick for Hair back in 1953. That was his pay as a player in the league.
"It was just the greatest geography lesson that anybody could get," said Hair.
With a bat in hand, Hair's talents took him around the nation, playing for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1953 and the Kansas City Monarchs in 1958. But no glove, uniform or name could shield Hair from the bleak realities of that time.
"Playing in Birmingham, I saw the dogs,” said Hair as he reflected on a dark time. "We were in another little town out there right outside the town where Emmett Till was killed. We had gotten all the way back. I think we were in Detroit. I'm reading the paper and I'm like hey we just left there."
He recalls being turned away from hotels and restaurants and not allowed in a baseball field basically in his own backyard.
"Blacks were not allowed to go into the stadium when certain major league teams were playing," said Washington. "And at certain times blacks were not even allowed to play. And when they were allowed to come in the ballpark and watch the game they went way over to the outskirts."
Over the years the Myrtle Avenue field has seen the blurring of color lines, changing the complexion of the game.
Barrs Field, Durkee Field and now J.P. Small Memorial Park Stadium.
Hair never made it to the majors but understands that while stealing bases, pitching perfect and helping to carry his team home he's helped strangers near and far, players whose names and teams he'll never know.
Saturday July 22, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp are going back in the day with throwback jerseys and red caps. Mr. Harold "Buster" Hair will be honored on the field at the baseball grounds of Jacksonville. The first 1,000 fans at the ballpark Saturday will receive a replica Red Caps Jersey. The Jumbo Shrimp will take on the Tennessee Smokies at 6:05 Saturday evening.