For Ernest “Big Dog” Fann, baseball is life. Now in his late 70s, Fann, a Birmingham resident, spent his entire life playing the sport, and at times fighting for his place in it.
For the retired engineer, who was born in the segregated Southern city of Macon, Georgia, in the late 1930s, the chance to play baseball involved sacrifice, suffering, and determination. It isn’t just about sport, he says, but equality.
“To go far in baseball, you have to really have the love of the game in your heart,” Ernest says. “And for black players coming of age in the segregated South — we had to work hard to survive.” Since baseball was not integrated until 1947, and even then not fully integrated for decades later, Ernest and his fellow black players fought to get their chance on the mound. That included playing in the Negro Southern League, a minor league ball club that operated from the 1920s to 1940s, and produced some of the most outstanding ball players in the sport.
It’s a story many have overlooked. But if it’s up to the Negro Southern League Museum, that will change. Opened in 2015, the Birmingham museum’s mission is to educate visitors about the importance of the Negro Southern League to the history of baseball, as well as the long and deep connection between African-Americans and the sport.
The museum, located adjacent to Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons, is located in Birmingham because the city has a storied history in producing legendary baseball players, says Natasha Rogers, executive director.
Birmingham sent more players to Negro League teams across the country than any other city because of the numbers and quality of players that came from the industrial leagues run by the town’s steel companies. Industrial businesses like American Cast Iron Pipe Company sponsored these teams, and baseball was one of the only pastimes for hard working steel workers and their families alike. “People all over Birmingham dressed up to come to the games — it was an event,” Natasha says.
In addition to the industrial leagues, they also had two minor league teams: The Barons (which, during segregation, was the white team) and The Black Barons (who played from 1920-1963). They both played at Rickwood Field, the oldest professional ballpark in America. The Black Barons played as part of the Negro Southern League. Operating between the 1920s and 1940s, the league provided an opportunity for black baseball players to play during a time when they weren’t allowed to play on integrated professional teams.
The museum captures the history of the Negro Southern League teams and players that until recently, was often overlooked. With a collection on loan from historian Dr. Layton Revel, the space takes visitors on an up-close look at artifacts and stories preserved by Dr. Revel. Here visitors can learn about players like Satchel Paige, regarded as the best pitcher in the Negro League; Alonzo Perry, one of the biggest stars of the Mexican League and Dominican League; Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, the first African-American player signed by the Boston Red Sox (though he never played for the team); and Artie Wilson, a famed shortstop who played for the New York Giants.
Visitors can also learn about other players who went to the majors, like Willie Mays, as well as other African-American players like Reggie Jackson, Michael Jordon, and Frank Thomas who began their careers after baseball was integrated.
And, on any given day, visitors might encounter players who are there, speaking to school children or spending time with the artifacts from their past. “Most of the players are up in age,” Natasha says. “It’s wonderful to see them interact with guests, pointing out their baseballs and uniforms, and sharing what it was like during their days in the minors and majors.”
Ernest volunteers several days a week at the museum, where he greets fans and shares stories of his long career. In addition to playing in the Negro Southern League (Raleigh Tigers), he also played for the Brunswick Cardinals (St. Louis Cardinals), Daytona Beach Islanders, and the Burlington Bees, as well as 37 years for the Stockham Valves & Fittings (Birmingham Industrial League).
“When kids come to the museum, to see the look in their eyes as I tell them about my baseball career, it’s really special. For me, this is more than baseball; it’s the story of how we fought for equal rights.”
Ernest grew up learning how to play baseball with a broom and a tennis ball. He describes traveling the South in the team bus in the early 1960s. “We couldn’t stay in many hotels, and we often had to wash our uniforms in rivers by the side of the road because laundromats wouldn’t take us either,” he recalls. And when he joined an integrated team, he was often ridiculed by white players and people in the stands.
“There are so many stories from that time that are heartbreaking, but also so many stories that are heartwarming,” he says. “It’s my job to tell the truth about both now.”
As it is the museum’s. Natasha says that more than 20,000 visitors have walked through its doors since the opening. They come from around the world, as well as from throughout the U.S. And of course, local visitors stream in the doors too, often making a day of it before seeing a Barons game. “During baseball season, we are wall-to-wall with visitors,” Natasha says.
More than two decades in the making, the museum operates thanks to support from the city of Birmingham and its community, and from corporate donations, Natasha says. “Protective Life is one of our biggest community supporters. When we opened we didn’t have an operating budget, and Protective stepped right in and helped out. They were one of the first organizations to see the significance of the museum and to believe in our mission and goals.”
Natasha adds that thanks to Protective’s support, they are able to keep the museum free to the public, making the experience accessible. Plus, they’re able to send speakers like Ernest Fann into the community, including schools throughout Alabama. “We wouldn’t be able to reach the numbers of people we do without the support of Protective Life,” she says.
What’s next? The museum has partnered with UAB for an undergraduate class on the history of baseball and segregation. The museum was recently recommended as a noteworthy Birmingham destination in a Washington Post story. On April 15, the museum will hold their annual Jackie Robinson Day to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the momentous day he integrated baseball. Later in the year, they’ll make available merchandise designed by Birmingham’s Yellowhammer Creative, which will provide visitors another way to show their support. And Phase II of the museum includes a rooftop restaurant and lounge.
“We offer something different for visitors who come to our city center,” Natasha says. “I’m excited that we’re in the Parkside district, offering visitors a chance to celebrate the fact that Birmingham is baseball.”
Ernest agrees. “We never had a place to share our history before, and now we do,” he says. “Black visitors, white visitors, people of all colors and backgrounds — baseball is what brings us together. Now I feel good our story will be remembered.”
The Negro Southern League Museum is located at 120 16th Street South, 35233. For hours of operation, visit their site.