BISBEE — It wasn’t always all peanuts and cracker jacks at the old ball game.
Every year, the Friends of Warren Ballpark host the Copper Classic Vintage Baseball Tournament to honor the history of Bisbee baseball.
The ninth-annual event, held April 7-8, celebrated the African-American players who made history in Warren Ballpark as part of the teams from the Buffalo Soldiers and the Bisbee-Douglas Copper Kings.
“First of all, the story should have been told a long time ago,” explained Mike Anderson, Friends of Warren Ballpark historian.
African-American baseball in Bisbee started when the black population started to grow due to the mining industry in 1906.
That year, when black residents above Brewery Gulch organized the Cliff Dwellers Baseball Club, the manager, Thomas “Blue” Webster was almost murdered with a knife in front of a Main Street saloon.
The history continued with the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments from Fort Huachuca in 1918. Most notable were the top competitors, Troop L.
These men were known as the Buffalo Soldiers and were part of all-black regiments until their disbanding after the end of military segregation in the 1950s. Native American tribes coined the name because of their fighting style and hair texture reminiscent of the buffalo.
The Buffalo Soldiers were responsible for huge military accomplishments, including guarding the border during the Mexican Revolution. They also received a commendation from President Woodrow Wilson for the Siege of Naco in 1914. They were widely stationed in Cochise County.
“This is just one part of their story,” explained Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers President Charles Hancock, noting how baseball was not all the group was known for.
Hancock and his fellow members have dedicated themselves to telling the story of the Buffalo Soldiers.
“It’s part of American history that was really never explained or told,” said Hancock. He discussed how the Buffalo Soldiers accomplishments were never publicized.
“A lot of the history of minorities has been overlooked,” said Anderson
The history of baseball in Warren Ballpark mirrors the issues that were prevalent around the country.
“Jim Crow was alive and well,” said Anderson.
Even well into the 1950s, baseball fields in Southern Arizona such as Hi Corbett Field still offered segregated drinking fountains.
Anderson argues that athletics were the “first place where the color line was broken.” Sports gave people the opportunity to face off as equals, regardless of race or social standing, he said.
That’s not to say African-American players did not have their fair share of struggles. According to the Friends of Warren Ballpark, “Black Baseball players who took the field at Warren Ballpark and elsewhere in America in the 1850s, up through the 1940s, endured abuse, discrimination and lack of opportunity to reach their greatest potential.”
Even the Buffalo Soldiers were only allowed to play exhibition games at Warren Ballpark until the first game against the Bisbee Bees minor league team in 1937.
Jim Crow ended at Warren Ballpark in 1951, when the Bisbee-Douglas Copper Kings signed their first African-American player, Clifford Prelow.
Prelow didn’t escape prejudice, either. His teammate, Jacques Austin, once recounted how Prelow and another teammate were not able to stay in the same hotels as the rest of the team.
Sixty-seven years later, all the African-American players who played in Warren Ballpark were commemorated at the Copper Classic Vintage Baseball Tournament.
Warren Ballpark has been in continuous use since 1909. Throughout the weekend, nine teams played in period clothes while crowds enjoyed beer and baseball.
The teams played according to original rules, which included no helmets or gloves.
During the tournament, the African-American teams that played in Warren Ballpark were honored with first pitches and five pages’ worth of African-American baseball history in the programs.
Proceeds from the event went toward renovations to improve Warren Ballpark for use by Bisbee Unified School District. The Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers also raised money to renovate the Mountain View Officers’ Club in Fort Huachuca, which was the only club built for black officers in the history of the U.S. Army.
Miranda Rodriguez is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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