Why the Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic Matters
A faint breeze slightly chilled the night air, the sky tinted ocean blue, and patches of small fluffy clouds lingered in the afterglow of dusk, hinted at the artistry of the Divine.
Down below on a baseball diamond where Triple-A professionals dream of getting a call up to the big league are two historic Black universities, Florida A & M University and Grambling State University. Each is seeking their first win since the pandemic derailed their season a year ago, prepared to do battle in the first Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic.
“One thing I can say,” said Jamey Shouppe, head baseball coach at Florida A & M University, “somebody is going to get their first win tonight.”
“It’s a wonderful thing whenever you can do something to help educate Black kids today,” said Ralph Garr, one-half of the namesake that the tournament bears.
“The Braves have always been good to me, and I am so happy they named this Classic after Bill,” said his widow, Rubye Lucas.
The evening was made possible by the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball Franchise and supported by Truist. They own the naming rights to the Braves new ballpark a half-mile west of the Atlanta city limits. The HBCU Classic is one of several programs the Braves are promoting to increase Blacks’ participation in baseball.
Being at the forefront of diversity is nothing new for the Atlanta Braves franchise. The Braves have always been at the forefront of promoting diversity in the game. Boston businessman Ivery Whitney Adams organized the franchise in 1871. Originally known as the Boston Red Stockings the franchise was one of the founding members of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The Braves are the only charter member of the nine-member association to have fielded a team every year since the dawn of organized baseball.
Shortly after forming the association, owners of the professional baseball franchises on Cap Anson’s urging agreed to an unspoken and unwritten agreement known in history as the gentlemen’s agreement not to hire Black men as baseball players. This so-called gentlemen’s agreement forced Fleetwood Walker, the professional game’s first Black player, out of organized baseball in 1888.
One year before Walker’s forced exit from the professional game, two Atlanta schools, Atlanta University and Clark College played the first Black College game of baseball for bragging rights at what would become the Atlanta University Center. In the late 20th century, the two higher educational institutions merged to form Clark-Atlanta University.
In 1905, the Association of Base Ball Players began discussions to suspend the gentlemen’s agreement. The Boston franchise known as the Boston Beaneaters and would later become the Boston Braves, the Milwaukee Braves; and the Atlanta Braves desired to sign a phenom out of Harvard College by way of Tuskegee Institute, William Clarence Matthews.
Matthews, a hard-hitting, fleet base stealer, smooth fielding shortstop, was just what the Braves needed to fend off competition from the Boston Red Sox. Personally tutored by Booker T. Washington, Matthews had the demeanor of an early 20th century Jackie Robinson. But unlike Robinson, Matthews could not control his emotions when he was hounded by the news media, claiming that Black baseball players were not the equal of white men who played the game.
Matthews erupted before he had a signed contract, telling reporters that Black men were just as good as white men. While this is true, it sent the wrong message to the American psyche forty years after the ending of enslavement.
White team owners were reluctant to bring in a troublemaker who thought that not only could Black men compete on the baseball diamond with white players, but they were just as good as anybody on the planet.
Matthews removed the Braves’ pressure and declared, “to hell with baseball,” then enrolled in law school at Boston University. He represented the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and later became a Senior Deputy Attorney General during Herbert Hoover’s presidency.
After Branch Richey broke the gentlemen’s agreement in 1946 by signing Jackie Robinson to a major league contract, the Braves wasted little time signing Sam Jethro in 1950. In 1954, they signed a skinny kid from Mobile, Alabama named Henry Louis Aaron, and the rest, as they say, is baseball royalty.
In 1958, William “Bill” Lucas, a tall, lean young man armed with a degree from Florida A & M University, went to work for the Milwaukee Braves. A member of the transition team that moved with the Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta, Lucas worked in the player development department. In 1967, Lucas was instrumental in signing Ralph Garr to a Braves contract. In 1976, Lucas was named the team’s General Manager. He was the first Black general manager in major league baseball. The Braves exemplify another uncanny act of diversity.
“Bill believed strongly in player development,” Ruby Lucas said, “he believed that the way to build a team was from the ground up.” Lucas died expectantly in 1979 before the minor league system he put in place began to produce top-notch talent in the post-Hank Aaron era.
Garr, a skinny kid, grew up about three miles from the Grambling College campus. His high school coach, Wilbert Ellis, who would later become head baseball coach at Grambling, took Garr to a Grambling tryout. Grambling’s legendary coach and school President, Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, sent Garr through the paces.
After the workout, Dr. Jones, a 2011 inductee in the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, said, “That boy is too little to play baseball. He thinks he can play.”
A couple of weeks later, Coach Ellis put together a crackerjack team of teenagers, a forerunner of what is now known as an elite travel ball team and took them to Grambling for a scrimmage. In that game, Garr went three for three. After the contest, Dr. Jones asked Coach Ellis, “Who is that boy that got all those hits.”
Coach Ellis chuckled, then said, “why that’s the player I brought up here two weeks ago that you said was too small to play college baseball.”
“Well, I got to have him,” Dr. Jones said.
Garr has not picked up much weight, if any since his days at Grambling. For the HBCU Baseball Classic, he dressed in his 1967 gold and black letterman’s sweater bearing a patch proclaiming SWAC Champions. Garr wore the ring received in 2013 from the National College Baseball Hall of Fame during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony on his ring finger. Garr said this ring means more to him than the jewelry received from the Braves.
“I’m not sure what would have happened to me if Coach Ellis had not taken me up to Grambling. My folks didn’t have any money to send me to school. My grades weren’t the best in the house. What little money there was went to the ones with the better grades.”
“What I want people to understand is that nobody gets anywhere without somebody helping them. I appreciate people like Coach Ellis, Dr. Jones, and Bill Lucas. If they had not helped me, I wouldn’t have had this life,” Garr said.
This desire to help young Black people be successful epitomizes the ethos of the HBCU experience.
Since the days, that Lucas played first base at FAMU and Garr roamed the outfield at Grambling, Black College Baseball’s face has changed, especially at the state-supported schools like Grambling and FAMU.
Both ball clubs feature several white American and Latino student-athletes. A peek inside the dugout on the FAMU side of the field, and one could not tell if the team represented the University of Florida or Florida State University. There are no Black Americans on the coaching staff. Coach Shouppe, a generous white American, played baseball at Florida State during the same period that this writer played at Tuskegee, which was the only option the writer had available to him.
In many instances, Black baseball coaches do not have any options but HBCU baseball programs. These positions go to white coaches who hire and recruit the people they know, other white coaches and student-athletes.
Those scholarships that once were available for disadvantaged Black kids like Garr are now going to white kids who may or may not be poor and Latinos who seek scouting attention as NCAA Division I school players.
The racial dichotomy of HBCU baseball is the irony of this historic moment: While it “is a wonderful thing,” as Garr posits, to celebrate Black College baseball, it’s a bittersweet historical moment because Black college baseball today is not the haven for the Black student-athlete that it was in the days when Lucas, Garr, and this writer pursued HBCU athletics as a pathway to education and if blessed, a professional baseball career.
Black college baseball’s changing complexion makes moot the historical past, and in future years it will beg the question, which came first, the chicken or the egg, and like that old conundrum, no one can be sure of the correct answer.
What, then, does it mean to have the opportunity to play in the first Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic?
For Coach Shouppe, it comes down to preparing his team to compete in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) schedule.
“First and foremost, we are appreciative of the Atlanta Braves for giving us this opportunity. We came in here with the big stadium; it is a great place to play ball. Growing up, Ralph Garr was one of my idols. My dad and I would drive four hours up to Atlanta to watch the Braves play. We are two weeks from conference play. Everyone we have played has a winning record. This game is a big test for us to see where we stand before starting conference play in two weeks,” Shouppe offered.
A commendable early season objective for any college coach about any college sporting event. But this is not just any university. The HBCU Baseball Classic is not just any weekend baseball series. The Garr-Lucas Classic is a baseball classic conceived to bring honor to schools in a sport where Black baseball players’ contributions historically receive no attention. The weekend series is a classic to honor two men from stalwart Black college baseball programs back “in the days when hope unborn had died. Yet with a steady beat,” Garr and Lucas persevered and reached the pinnacle of professional success.
Grambling’s coach James Cooper played collegiate baseball at Grambling. Also, Cooper played several years in minor league baseball before returning to Grambling to coach baseball and in the spirit of his Coaches Jones, Ellis, and James Randall, who shepherded young men into adulthood.
Cooper said, “The Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic means a lot. It also shows the growth, the rich history that both universities have, and the great relationship with the Atlanta Braves. We have been in Atlanta for a day and a half, and the guys are eager to get on the field and represent HBCU baseball and Grambling University.”
Cooper’s thoughts are noble respect for HBCU baseball, which only an HBCU alum, player, and coach can portray. The head baseball coaches’ diverse comments point out the history lost as HBCU baseball transitions to the era of white and Latino student athletics. Cherise this historic moment in the closing days of winter 2021, as we are not likely to remember the hyphen between the 1887 Atlanta University versus Clark College game and the inaugural Garr-Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic.
By the way, after falling behind 3–1 in the early stages of the game, FAMU stormed back to defeat Grambling 7–4.
Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is the author of a book on Negro Leagues Baseball, The Duke of 18th & Vine: Bob Kendrick Pitches Negro Leagues Baseball. He writes feature stories for Black College Nines. Com. Harvey is a member of the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and a member of the Legends Committee for the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. Harvey is an engaging speaker. Contacted Harvey at firstname.lastname@example.org