Monday, March 11, 2013

Babe Ruth Taylor, Jesse Owens, Bessie Smith

Oakville Baseball

When I was a small boy in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, most country folks like mine did not have a television, very few had radios, and many were without electricity or could not afford the cost; therefore, community baseball was a local sport that many people enjoyed watching to pass the time.  The baseball teams were not allowed to play on crop land, but many cattle farming folks would allow the teams to play in their pastures. During those years, each small community including the black folks of Oakville had a baseball team; most of the time, the players would play ball in overalls and plow boots or barefooted.  

During most baseball games, big picnics would also be a part of the festivities in order to support the team.  Some folks would donate chickens and garden vegetables for the big stew pot and ice down drinks in number three wash tubs.  The black folks of the Oakville Community would have a fish fry at their baseball games; the fish would be seined from the nearby Oakville Pond.  The baseball picnics were to raise money for their team to travel and to buy necessary equipment.  All the items donated by the families of the Oakville players were used to raise money for the home team.

Babe Ruth Taylor

Oakville was a black community not far from my present-day home of the original Preuit Farm site; the black league played most of their baseball games in P.B. (Bryant) Lowery’s cow pasture or across the road where the church now stands.  Charlie Pointer said he was a first cousin to Babe Ruth Taylor; Taylor was the main player, leader, and coach of the Oakville team.  Charlie Pointer, Buddy Taylor, and many of the other black baseball players from the Oakville team did farm work for John Wiley, John McCay, Tass Jacobs, Clebe Preuit, and Bryant Lowery

I remember Mr. Jimmy Speake, who was an attorney in Moulton for years, telling me about some of the best black baseball players that he had ever seen and coached against were from Oakville; one player in particular that Speake liked was called Babe Ruth Taylor; Jimmy Speake said, “Babe Ruth Taylor could knock a baseball over 500 feet on a regular basis and he should have been a major league baseball player.  The black Babe Ruth from Oakville was one of the best baseball players to ever play the game;” the Babe Ruth of Oakville was James Andrew Taylor, also known as Buddy Taylor

For a long time, Babe Ruth and his family owned and lived in the old J. C. Cannon House which was built in 1890 just a hundred yards west of the West Fork of Flint Creek in the Community of Oakville, Lawrence County, Alabama.  Today, the old house is owned by Mr. Don Alexander who is in the process of saving this historic home.  The Cannon House is just north of Highway 157 and just west of the bridge crossing the West Fork of Flint Creek; if you were heading east toward Cullman and just prior to crossing the bridge on Highway 157, you can see the Cannon House across the farm fields.  Jim Cannon and his wife Minnie McLemore eventually moved to Moulton, and he was elected Sheriff of Lawrence County.

Charlie Pointer who was a team mate of Buddy Taylor said, “Babe Ruth Taylor was definitely one of the best baseball players to ever play the game for Oakville. I do not remember us ever losing a game.” Today, years after his death, everyone in the area of the Warrior Mountains has heard of the baseball exploits of Buddy “Babe Ruth” Taylor.  It was an honor for me as a young boy to watch the legendary Babe Ruth Taylor play baseball at Oakville; to this day, I remember the crack of that bat when Babe Ruth Taylor would hit a homerun.

My Uncle Cadle Wilburn was a member of some of the cow pasture baseball teams; he played for Speake, Wren, and Pin Hook.  He spent most of his amateur baseball playing with the Pin Hook team that, for a long time, had their home field in the pasture of Mr. Ben McMillan of the Pin Hook Community.  He said, “One of the best baseball teams that I ever played against was the black team from Oakville; Babe Ruth (Buddy Taylor) would knock a homerun nearly every time the ball went over home plate.”

In his early days, Babe Ruth Taylor was both a left and right handed pitcher, but after one of his pitches caused a fatality, Babe Ruth chose to played catcher; he had the ability to play any position on the baseball field.  Taylor doubled for many years as a player/coach for the team; he could throw a runner out at second base without even standing up.  His son Rayford Taylor told me if a man was on first base that his dad would say to the pitcher, “Let him run, I got him;” seldom did a runner ever steal second base when Taylor was catcher. 

At the time that Buddy Taylor was catching baseballs, it was legal for the catcher to chatter, and he was constantly chattering to the batter.  Buddy would say, “You can’t hit what you can’t see; the bat must have a hole in it.”  As a young boy, I loved to hear Buddy Taylor chatter at a baseball game.

Also, Buddy Taylor had a feel for the baseball; he would tell the players this ball is dead and we are not going to play with it anymore.  Buddy’s son said that he went up north one time to try out for professional baseball, but did not want to stay away from his family or leave his Oakville home.  From all that people have said about Babe Ruth Taylor, you could tell that he loved the game of baseball.  After he got too old to play baseball, Babe Ruth Taylor coached a girls’ softball team that was also very good.

Babe Ruth Taylor, the grandson of a former slave, and Emma Williams Taylor had 17 children.  Buddy encouraged his kids and grandkids to play ball because he loved the game with all his being.  Many of these children and grandchildren of Babe Ruth and Emma Taylor still live near the Oakville Community.

James Andrew “Babe Ruth” Taylor also had a son that was also a great baseball pitcher; his name was Hosey Lee Taylor.  Besides Hosey Lee Taylor, Babe Ruth Taylor had other sons that played baseball:  Wyman Taylor, Wayne Taylor, and Rayford Taylor.   Hosey would usually start the game pitching left handed and about half way through the game, he would switch to pitching right handed. 

Mr. Rayford Taylor, the son of Babe Ruth Taylor, told me that the Oakville team finally raised enough money to buy uniforms and equipment.  The team would get together and seine Oakville Pond; the fish they caught would be cooked and sold at the baseball game to make enough money for the team’s expenses.  They would fry the fish, and then sell fish sandwiches and cold drinks to the spectators that came to watch the home games.  I feel fortunate to say that I was one of those spectators when my Uncle Cadle Wilburn pitched for the Pin Hook Team; Pin Hook was never able to beat the all black Oakville baseball team with Babe Ruth Taylor behind home plate.  

Jesse Owens

Another famous black Lawrence County family that had ties to the J. C. Cannon place was Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald who were the parents of the Olympic great James Cleveland (Jesse) Owens.  According to the 1847 tax list of Lawrence County, Alabama, Isaac N. Owen owned a black slave known as Henry who was the grandfather of Jesse Owens.  Henry had a son who was named Henry Cleveland Owens; the black Owens took their name from the Owen Estate in Lawrence County.  After the Civil War, several of the slaves of Isaac N. Owen added an “s” to their last name and became Owens. 

The Owen Plantation was the namesake of Owen Chapel Church in the present-day Community of Youngtown some five to seven miles east of Mt. Hope School and some three to four miles south of Landersville Community in Lawrence County, Alabama.  The church and community lies along the north edge of the William B. Bankhead National Forest, and within one mile north of the Indian trail known as High Town Path which follows the Tennessee Divide through Lawrence County.

Youngtown got its name from Reason Young, who according to the 1860 Census of Lawrence County slave schedules owned 20 black slaves; the Young Family owned a vast estate in the area that extended from the edge of the mountain to Landersville.  In addition, Youngtown became one of the largest reconstruction black schools in the area after the Civil War; as I was interviewing folks in the area for my book “Warrior Mountains Folklore,” I heard many stories about long lines of black children walking the dusty country roads every morning and afternoon heading to and from the black school at Youngtown.  Today, the black school has long since been torn down; very few black people remain in the area of Youngtown.  I remember the old two story wooden black school that sit about one mile west of present-day Owen Chapel Church; the school sit in the 90 degree curve just west of the church.

After Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald married, they moved to the J. C. Cannon place just west of the Community of Oakville; they lived in a small wooden house that was located just south and behind the Jim Cannon house.  Since the West Fork of Flint Creek was the line between the Oakville and Pin Hook Precincts, it appears that the Henry Owens Family was living on the J. C. Cannon place at the time Jesse Owens was born on September 12, 1913; during this time, the Henry Owens’ family was listed in the Pin Hook Precinct.  When Jesse Owens was about nine years old, the family moved north to Cleveland, Ohio.  During the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, Jesse Owens won four gold medals; his remarkable wins embarrassed the white supremacy ruler Adolph Hitler.

State Representative Roger Dutton, who was a friend of mine, pursued the placement of a monument to Jesse Owens on the Lawrence County Courthouse Square when he was serving in the State of Alabama House of Representatives.  His intentions was to honor the black Olympic hero who was born in our county, but the white political structure of Lawrence County effectively blocked the placement of the monument for Jesse Owens on the courthouse square.  I remember Roger telling me that he wanted to see the ivory towers of Lawrence County’s political structure crumble and fall; therefore, not to be outdone, Roger got funds provided to buy a small rectangular block of property at the road junction in the Community of Oakville for placement of the Jesse Owens Monument; originally the monument was just west and across the road from the present-day Jesse Owens Park.  Roger Dutton died before seeing his dream come to fruition; he is buried in the Naylor Family Cemetery at Bulah Church near my great, great, great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Welborn Segars Naylor.

Marvin Fitzgerald, a dear departed black friend, along with other black and white leaders worked tirelessly to insure that his cousin Jesse Owens was appropriately honored.  After several years, additional land was purchased on the east side of the road for the Jesse Owens Park; the park was strongly supported by then Lawrence County Commissioner Larry LouAllen.  During his tenure, LouAllen worked with the Lawrence County Commission to insure the Jesse Owens Park and the adjacent Oakville Indian Mounds Park received their fair share of funding.  Today, Jesse Owens Park in Oakville has worldwide recognition; the museum in the park tells the story of one of the most famous native Lawrence County athletes-James Cleveland (Jesse) Owens, the grandson of a former Lawrence County, Alabama slave.    

Bessie Smith

Also on the Lawrence County, Alabama, 1847 tax list of Isaac N. Owen was another famous black slave lady, Laura Owens; Laura became the mother of the famous Blues legend known as Bessie Smith.  In the 1847 tax list, Bessie’s mother, Laura Owens, was only a new born slave baby.  Shortly after the Civil War, Bessie’s father, William Smith and Laura Owens were married; William became a black Baptist parson or preacher in Moulton.  According to the 1870 Census of Lawrence County, Alabama, William Smith was listed as a black minister of the gospel in Moulton, Alabama.

It appears for some reason that William and Laura Owens Smith moved from Moulton, Alabama, to Chattanooga, Tennessee; Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.   By the time Bessie was nine years old, her parents were dead.  Bessie’s older sister Viola took charge of her siblings including Bessie.

From Lawrence County slaves, Bessie Smith eventually became known as “The Empress of the Blues.”  During her time, Bessie became the highest paid black singer and entertainer in the United States.  She had many recordings with Columbia Records; Bessie Smith was considered the first lady of “Blues Music.”  In 1929, Bessie Smith was in a movie based on W. C. Handy’s song known as the “St. Louis Blues;” Handy, who was the Father of the Blues, was born in Florence, Alabama, where he is honored each year for his contributions to Blues music.

Bessie Smith died as a result of terrible car crash on September 26, 1937; she was on United States Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi.  The delay of the arrival of the ambulance contributed to her death.  Some say if Bessie had been carried to the white hospital in Clarksville that she would have survived the car accident; however, the time it took to get her to the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital did not help her chances of survival and she died in the hospital.  She was buried in Philadelphia at the Mount Lawn Cemetery.  Finally, on August 7, 1970, singer Janis Joplin provided money and support to erect a tombstone for Bessie Smith.

Be sure to follow my blog and learn about the plantation owners, slaves, and the survivors of slavery.  This part of Charlie life and other stories will be a part of my book, “Black Folk Tales of Appalachia: Slavery to Survival!”  

1 comment:

  1. That is not Bessie smith picture but that's Billie Holiday.