Questions plague Peeples' trailblazing story
Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap
Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in our feature, "Cracked Bats."
Nat Peeples attempted to blaze a trail through the old Southern Association, one of the more bigoted Minor League circuits that existed for decades in the Deep South. While he was successful in knocking down a monumental racial barrier, albeit only temporarily, questions persist as to the true motive behind his departure from the Atlanta Crackers.
Whether he was forced out of the Double-A league because of bigotry or because he simply wasn't good enough remains a viable debate. What is certain is that Peeples became the first and only African-American to take the field in a Southern Association game on April 9, 1954 in the season opener at Mobile.
Peeples pinch-hit in the fifth inning and played left field the next evening. He went 0-for-4 with a walk in two games, hardly a big enough sample to make a fair judgment as to whether he was capable of competing in the all-white league. Still, Peeples was gone a week later, demoted to Class A Jacksonville. He never returned to Atlanta, ultimately finishing out his career in the Minor Leagues.
Not much has been written about Peeples or his experience with Atlanta. He certainly doesn't garner the attention of some of the other minorities who broke down racial barriers in the late '40s and '50s. And had Atlanta owner Earl Mann had his way, Hank Aaron would have been playing for the Crackers that spring, not Peeples.
But the Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta's parent club, had planned for Aaron to jump directly from Jacksonville to Triple-A Toledo. Ultimately, Aaron wound up in Milwaukee when starting left fielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle in the middle of March. The Braves also considered having Felix Mantilla break the color barrier in Atlanta. But according to Nine, a magazine published by the University of Nebraska Press, Mantilla had already helped break the color barrier in two lower leagues and did not want to go through the headache of doing it again in the Southern Association.
Mann, however, was not about to give up on integrating his team. The Ku Klux Klan had harassed him when the Crackers hosted Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers for a 1949 exhibition game. But the exhibitions were played and Mann was lauded in the media as a progressive thinker. It was that progressive thinking that helped land Peeples in Atlanta.
Through the early part of Spring Training, it appeared as though Mann had made a good move. Peeples was hitting .440 with four home runs, a triple and a double in 12 exhibition games. The Panama City News ran several stories about Peeples, with headlines like "Cracks Depending on Negro Rookie." It seemed as though Peeples was ready to make the leap.
"He looks like a pretty good boy," Atlanta manager Whitlow Wyatt said in a United Press International story dated March 22. "He runs good, he throws good and he hit a mighty long ball. Of course, he might be one of those boys who won't hit so well when the pitchers start mixing them up on him. But I think he's got as much ability as anybody we've got."
Whitlow's thought, though expressed in a derogatory manner consistent with the mores of the time, proved prophetic. As Spring Training wore on, Peeples began to slump, hitting .240 in his final 25 at-bats. He appeared overmatched whenever he faced a pitcher of quality or experience.
So, from a purely baseball perspective, it wasn't a shock that he was shipped out when the team returned to Atlanta from its opening road trip. But subsequent reports have stated that the league was putting pressure on Mann to end the experiment. Bruce Adelson authored a book, Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South, and devotes nearly an entire chapter to the Peeples saga.
"While his demotion may indeed have come about because the Braves changed their mind and now believed he was not ready to make the jump from Class B Evansville (where he played in 1953) to Double-A Atlanta, it is also true that the league had been putting pressure on Earl Mann to end his foray into Southern Association racial matters. Although he denied it at the time, he was nevertheless advised to dispatch Peeples and avoid a confrontation over his presence in the league," Adelson wrote.
So Peeples was shipped to Jacksonville -- he batted .288 with seven homers and 47 RBIs there -- taking with him the legacy of being the only African-American ever to play in the Southern Association.
A month-long effort to locate Peeples proved fruitless. Most people interviewed for this story believe he is still alive and living in a nursing home, possibly in Memphis or Louisville. MiLB.com did speak with Chuck Tanner, one of Peeples' teammates in Atlanta. Tanner went on to play and manage in the Major Leagues, winning a World Series with the Pirates in 1979, but has never forgotten his friend.
"He was there one day and gone the next, it seems," Tanner recalled. "They didn't want any blacks in the Southern Association, but I always hung out with him [during Spring Training] and played catch. I felt we were good friends, and I don't think he was treated fairly. But at the time, everyone was just trying to do his own thing.
"We didn't know all the details of what happened. But from what I saw, he was a good player, good enough to play with Atlanta. But Earl Mann's hands were tied. That was what happened down south. The league told him we couldn't have black players in the Southern Association. Mann was a good guy. It wasn't his fault."
As for Peeples, the former Negro League star's career sputtered after his experience with Atlanta. But he remains a true trailblazer, someone to be celebrated in the same breath as Jackie Robinson, Lew Jones, Percy Miller, Dave Hoskins and every other player who shattered a league's color barrier.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com.