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Black Baseball in Davidson

by | Feb 2, 2022

Members of first African-American baseball team in Cornelius-Davidson

1946, Courtesy of the Davidson College Archives
First row, left to right: Clarence Cornelius, equipment manager; Bud Forney, manager; Wilson Black, assistant manager; James Bernard Reid, coach; Jim Mundy, coach.
Second row, left to right: Boots Forney, Narzell Sloan, Vernon Davis, Joe Ed Brice, Hubert Brice, James Davis.
Third row, left to right: Ozon Brice, Muriel M. Reid, Sr., Clifford Caldwell, J.B. Reid, Cravin Davis, Willie Bell Sloan, Will Potts.
Players left from the “old” team: James Davis, James (Nord) Reid, Ozon Brice, Wilson Black, Vernon Davis.

(Editors Note: We are proud to offer our readers this Davidson History column by Nancy Griffith to kick off Black History Month)

Baseball became popular in the United States during the early 19th century, and by the 1870s both the town and the college had teams. It was not, however, exclusively a sport for whites, and over the years small Black semipro, sandlot, and industrial teams developed, and neighborhoods and businesses in Charlotte formed and supported their own teams. Soon, other clubs began to organize throughout the Carolinas. Many of these formed local leagues covering a small region.

There was scant coverage of these teams in the state’s newspapers, but according to the May 12, 1886 edition of the Charlotte Observer, Mecklenburg County had a team dubbed the Charlotte Fearless who had been beaten 9-0 by the Wilmington Mutuals. On March 5, 1887, the Charlotte Messenger noted that “The colored baseball players of the city are organizing a strong team for the coming season. They have some fine players among them. They will build a large inclosure (sic) around their grounds, and propose to beat any team in the state.”

By around 1890, there must have been some sort of Black baseball team in Davidson. In his Memories of Davidson College, Walter Lingle recounts a game played on the college campus between African American teams from Concord and Davidson. The game was played on the college field, located just south of Chambers Building, and Lingle had a good vantage point from a window in Chambers. Apparently, a group of other students had gathered at the field to watch the game. According to Lingle, the game “went beautifully for a while,” but one of the spectators from Concord got in front of a “hot-tempered” Davidson student. When the student ordered him to move, he didn’t get out of the way fast enough, and the student hit him with a riding whip. The Concord spectator then moved, but another Black spectator from Concord took exception and swore at the student. The student then drew a gun, chased the Concord man until he was clear of the crowd, and then fired at him. He missed, but chaos erupted and some of the students grabbed baseball bats and began swinging. The commotion soon died down, and the field was cleared. According to Lingle, “Later the Concord team sent a friendly Davidson Negro to the students asking if they might have their bats and sweaters. The request was speedily granted and the incident was closed.”

According to the Charlotte News, in June 1890 the Charlotte team, now called the Quicksteps, played the Wilmington Mutuals in Wilmington. On August 22, the News reported on another round of games in Wilmington that caused quite a sensation. The Charlotte team had arrived in Wilmington with great fanfare, accompanied by a number of fans, the all-Black Steele Creek Cornet Band, and the Charlotte Light Infantry, a Black military group, “making things hum in Wilmington.”

While there is little information available about other teams in the Charlotte area at the time, newspaper reports indicate that Asheville, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Chapel Hill were fielding teams. On July 20, 1895, Raleigh’s Evening Visitor reported that among these teams, the Charlotte Quicksteps were the champions of North Carolina. By 1910, Wake Forest, Goldsboro, Lumberton, New Bern, and Wilson also had teams. Many of their games were attended by large crowds of White citizens. In June 1919, the Monroe Messenger reported that, “The colored baseball fans of the city are organizing a league for promotion of the great American sport. Already two teams have been organized and a third is expected to be in the swim in a few days.”

Baseball’s Negro League was organized in 1920, increasing interest in Black baseball nationwide. During the 1930s, major North Carolina teams, like the Asheville Royal Giants, the Raleigh Tigers, the Black Star Line, the Raleigh Tar Heels, and Winston-Salem’s Pond Giants got their start. Other smaller teams also sprang up, and by the late 1930s there were teams in Hickory, Lenoir, Tryon, Shelby, and Hendersonville.

Unfortunately, there is no information on teams in Davidson and the surrounding area during this period. There must have been a team of some sort, however, since information on a North Mecklenburg team organized in 1946 indicates that it included some members of an earlier team. The feature photo (above) is a Davidson College Archives photo of this 1946 team which identifies the players.

Information on these men indicates that many, including Muriel Reid, Hubert Leon Brice, James Reid, and Willie Potts were from Cornelius. Narzelle (Norzelle) Sloan and his brother Willie Bell Sloan were living in Lemley Township in 1930, and in 1940 Ozon Brice and James Davis were living there in a separate household.

While there is little more information about the teams for several decades, in 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, several local players reminisced about baseball during that period. Ausie Rivens, Davidson Jets infielder and owner of one of Cornelius’ Black barbershops, noted that it was hard to describe how important baseball was to the community: “They was looking forward to every Saturday being up there. They was all upside the road, lined up, watching the game.”

John “Boochie” Patterson echoed these sentiments, “Friday and Saturday back in the Black community we lived baseball. And we couldn’t wait until Saturday morning to put on that uniform. Couldn’t wait.”

The Jets, who were made up of players from Davidson and Cornelius, were soon part of the Mecklenburg County League, which was formed in the late 1960s. This semipro league was later called the Cross County League and the Triple County League. The league included teams from Charlotte and smaller towns, and eventually drew teams from northern South Carolina. Over the years, the league included the Morris Field Rangers, Hoskins Giants, Kings Mountain A’s, Union County Dodgers, Mecklenburg Orioles, Charlotte Bombers, Northside Bombers, Davidson Jets, Royal Bums, Charlotte Hawks, Charlotte Mets, Charlotte Robins, Lancaster Tigers, Rock Hill O’s, and Clover Hornets.

For these men, baseball was an outlet and an opportunity. For Black communities in the area, it was an event, every weekend, every summer. “They’re cooking, they’re drinking, they’re laughing,” recalled Christopher Hill, who pitched for the Morris Field Rangers and later in the minor leagues. “Just having fun because that was our community.”

Although the Jets were playing during the 1950s and 60s, there is little published information on the team. They were apparently successful, however, because according to the Charlotte Post, by 1974 they had won the Cross County League championship for six of the last eight years. On September 2, 1976, the Post reported that the Jets, with a season record of 15-5, would be playing the Lancaster Tigers at North Mecklenburg High School to decide the league championship. Unfortunately, there is no information on the outcome of that game.

The Jets’ home field was located on property owned by Tom Sadler at the corner of Sloan and Griffith streets in Davidson. By 1978, however, Sadler had decided to sell the property for development.  Despite a petition to the town board by local residents, the development went forward, and the Sadler Square shopping center opened in January of 1980. Sadly, the town lost the field that had hosted black teams from across the region, often in front of enthusiastic crowds.

According to the Charlotte Post, in 1979 the Jets had four representatives on the league’s all-star roster. Marcus“Mack” Rivens was the manager, and was joined by Martin Rivens, Grover Rivens, and Jarvet Wilson. Baseball had become a tradition in the Rivens family. Ausie Rivens was the father of Mack Rivens, and Grover Rivens was Mack’s son.

There is little information on the Jets for the next several years, but they were back in the news in 1987. By this time, Davidson was playing in the northern division of the Triple County League, along with teams from Charlotte, Rock Hill, Clover, and Hoskins. By August 6, 1987, the Jets sported a 12-game winning streak, and had reached the league playoffs. On their roster was pitcher Chris Hill, described by the Charlotte Post as “a very strong right-hander, who is dangerous anytime.”  They were runners-up in the league that season.

During the off season, the Jets lost their manager, Steve Patterson. According to the Post, “Big Steve was a major force in the Jets’ many successes. His friendly way and always willing to help style will be surely missed by everyone in the league.” The Jets, however, expected to have good season in 1988, as many of their star players were returning. In May of that year, the Jets played a 20-hit, 15-run game against the Charlotte Robins. They were the regular season champs in the Triple County Baseball League but were ultimately defeated by the Hoskins Giants in the playoffs.

The Triple County League again fielded teams in 1989, but the Davidson Jets were no longer among them. This seems to mark the end of Black baseball in northern Mecklenburg County. After many years of games that united and delighted fans White and Black, and that were central to the Black community, the tradition had come to an end.

NOTE: There are many gaps in this story, and anyone who can help fill them is welcome to contact me through [email protected]

Partial List of Jets Players in the 1970s and 80s:
Calvin Barringer (manager)
Scotty Barringer
Warren William “Bootie”Brandon.
William Doyle
Michael Forney
Tim Funderburk
Charles Gabriel
Charles Graham (pitcher)
Steve Graham
Fred Grier (pitcher)
Chris Hill (pitcher)
Ivory McGee (pitcher)
Kevin McSwain
C.J. Nelson (outfield)
John Patterson (outfield and first base)
Steve Patterson (manager)
Grover Rivens
Jonathan Rivens
Marcus “Mack” Rivens (manager, player)
Martin Rivens (shortstop)
Emmett Robinson
Quinton Sherrill (pitcher)
Lester Styles
Marcus Velasquez (catcher)
Victor White
Jarvet Wilson (catcher)
Steve Young (outfield)

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.

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