Leagues of Their Own

By | August 10, 2013

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Leagues of Their OwnWhen Sarasota’s black children dreamed of playing professional baseball, before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, their models were players in the state and national Negro leagues. The local teams were the Nine Devils and the Sarasota Tigers.

The above photo from Robert “Bud” Thomas’ collection shows the Nine Devils, a team based in Bradenton. Thomas, kneeling on the left and holding a bat, played shortstop for the team, which played around Florida and often beat teams from larger cities, such as Tampa and St. Petersburg.

In a Sarasota Herald-Tribune interview many years ago, Thomas, now deceased, regretted not having had the opportunity to play professional ball. He recalled that, with limited options for black players, he had joined for a while the Zulu Giants, a “clowning” Miami team that barnstormed the country, wore grass skirts and entertained the audiences, but also played serious baseball. In Newtown since the 1920s, Thomas established Bud’s Barber Shop on (then) 27th Street, and it became the place to have your hair cut.

Thomas was also a golfer. Although he caddied at Sarasota’s Bobby Jones Golf Course, for many years he was denied the chance to play the course. Black golfers in the area were limited to a course in Tampa. Finally, in the 1950s, Thomas and three others who called themselves the “Ex-Caddies Club, were the first black golfers to play at Bobby Jones. In the 1990s, an annual Bud Thomas Golf Tournament was started to raise scholarship money for needy black students.

The Sarasota Tigers were managed by Andrew Brown. That team served as a jumping-off point for John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, a Sarasotan whose fame as a player for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro American League team, gained renewed recognition in 1994 when he helped narrate Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “Baseball.” In 1995, Sarasota honored O’Neil with the naming of the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park and the granting of a diploma from Sarasota High School. (At the time he was high school age, Sarasota’s only high school was closed to African American students.)

When in Sarasota for the events, O’Neil reflected on his baseball experiences in Sarasota. As a teenager, in the spring he watched from a tree beyond the outfield fence while major league teams trained at Payne Park. Occasionally his teacher, Emma E. Booker, would let him leave class to play for the Sarasota Tigers. She saw to it, however, that he advanced in his studies as much as he could in her classes, so that when he entered Edward Waters College in Jacksonville on a baseball scholarship, he tested out for the 11th grade in the school’s high school program. One of O’Neil’s Tigers teammates, Carlos Suarez, recalled for the Herald-Tribune reporter that O’Neil had introduced him to his future wife, Allease Brown Suarez.

Those men who played for the Nine Devils and the Sarasota Tigers began a tradition that has been continued by their children and grandchildren, some of whom have made headlines for their play on local and national teams.

Courtesy of Sarasota History Alive!

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