On April 7, 1954, an overflow crowd of some 8,000 sports fans made sports and civil rights history as they streamed into the old Myers Field minor league baseball stadium and then took their seats to watch the exhibition game between the Norfolk Tars and the New York Yankees.
The fans – mostly a mix of African Americans and whites – had entered the same tickets gates for the first time in Norfolk Tars’ history and then sat together in the same sections, also a breakthrough in local civil rights.
That wasn’t all. The crowd witnessed the debuts of the first three players of color the Yankees had assigned to the Tars – pitcher Ed Andrews, third baseman Pablo Rivera and outfielder Serota Ortiz. Working in the dugout, meanwhile, was Fred “Zip” Brooks, the first African American to serve as a trainer for the Tars.
All this was the fruit of Norfolk’s determined African American baseball fans, who boycotted the Tars for the entire 1953 season after getting fed up with years of Jim Crow practices of the Yankees’ Class B Piedmont League farm team.
As Journal and Guide sportswriter Cal Jacox proclaimed in his “From the Press Box” column on April 17, 1954, “Democracy in action was the keynote” on April 7, 1954.
And the African American boycott of the Norfolk Tars began and ended more than a year before the Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 20, 1956, bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which elevated Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to national fame.
In either case, long-simmering resentment among African American citizens had reached the boiling point against Jim Crow treatment by local entities. At Myers Field, the public humiliation had included being forced to enter the stadium through a separate ticket gate and then sit “in the ‘colored grandstand,’ a small, poorly covered bleacher section near third base or the ‘colored bleachers’ along left field,” local baseball historians Thomas R. Garrett and Clay Shampoe wrote in their book, “Baseball in Norfolk, Virginia.”
It was an understatement when Jacox, who cheered the boycott in his Journal and Guide sports column, wrote in 1953: “Norfolk‘s colored fans have been among the league’s most faithful home club boosters and they deserve better treatment.”
Similar insulting conditions were plentiful across the South, author Bruce Adelson reports in his book, “Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South.” Adelson writes, “The Jim Crow entrance forced blacks to wait at their designated gate, sometimes as late as a game’s fourth inning, to gain admittance to the ballpark, while the whites-only entrances stood empty.”
While Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, many minor league teams had continued to resist. But some farm teams were changing, even in the South, including other Piedmont League franchises that brought integrated squads to play at Myers Field.
The contrast – black players playing for rivals of the home teams – further “emboldened local residents to demand reforms of the ballpark’s Jim Crow facilities,” according to Adelson.
The 1953 boycott of the Norfolk Tars quickly showed its impact. On June 6, 1953, Jacox wrote that attendance at Tars games had shrunk by 2,000 one month into the season because African Americans were staying away. But they still loved professional baseball, so instead of going to Myers Field, many of Norfolk’s black fans headed across the Elizabeth River to watch the rival Portsmouth Merrimacs or across the James River to see the Newport News Dodgers.
Both the Merrimacs and the Dodgers already had integrated on the field and in the stands, and black fans appreciated the efforts. On Oct. 24, 1953, Jacox wrote that African Americans helped boost Newport News Dodgers’ attendance to 121,438, more than quadrupling the previous year’s total of 28,180.
Over the 1953-54 winter, the Yankees sold the Tars to a local entrepreneurs, who then met with representatives of the angry African American fans. Journal and Guide began noting that changes were coming. On Feb. 6, 1954, a Jacox sports story included this quote from new general manager Roy Dissinger: “The 1954 Tars are an independent organization that will depend on the civic pride of the community for support and we want the colored fan to feel that he is a part of the movement to develop a ball club that will be owned and operated by Norfolk citizens.”
Another Dissinger quote adds: “We understand that the colored fans of Norfolk are staunch supporters of the Norfolk Tars and we will do everything we can to keep their patronage.”
The excitement from the April 7, 1954, exhibition game – and the new policies – carried into the season. Some years ago, Matthew Austin, the longtime historian of Norfolk’s Berkley neighborhood, recalled his experience as a fan. “The changes allowed us to come in through the front gate and sit wherever we wanted,” Austin told me. “It was a great feeling.”
While Norfolk fans succeeded against the Tars, pockets of deep resistance continued in some localities. “Louisiana even enacted a law in 1956 banning integrated sports,” Adelson told me. A battle for another day.
Adelson, however, believes that the integration of minor league teams and stadium seating had an overall broader impact beyond baseball. He quotes U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a veteran civil rights leader, as saying that baseball created “the climate, the environment, and set the stage for other walls to come tumbling down.”