Justice  /  Book Excerpt

American Legion Baseball, Episode 1

The story of an incident that may have been the first time the issue of race was ever addressed on a baseball field in the Carolinas.

The atmosphere surrounding the 1934 tournament in Gastonia was festive. A parade was scheduled on August 23 before the opening game at the stadium of Gastonia High School. That evening, a banquet for all teams and Legion officials, including C. M. “Chuck” Wilson from the national headquarters, was planned at Gastonia’s Armington Hotel. Bands played to welcome the teams as they disembarked from their trains. But band members reportedly stopped mid-note when the star pitcher for Springfield Post 21 from Massachusetts, Ernest “Bunny” Taliaferro, stepped off the train.

When the Springfield players went to their hotel, complications immediately arose. Coach Syd Harris was informed that, per local ordinances (in other words, Jim Crow laws), Taliaferro would not be allowed to stay in the hotel with his teammates. The only exception would be if the coach listed Taliaferro as his valet. Then, in a back room, the player could be given a cot—not a bed, however, because those were for white people. When the team protested this arrangement, tournament officials attempted to find a solution. What they proposed was that Taliaferro stay in the home of a local Black doctor while in town. In this scenario, though, not only would the teenager be staying with a stranger in a strange town but he would not be able to dine or even socialize with his teammates.

On that first day in Gastonia, Springfield Post 21 was scheduled to have a practice session.  By that time, word had spread that the team had a Black member. A crowd showed up at the practice and booed Taliaferro when he came up to bat. Soon onlookers began assaulting the team with thrown objects. The situation deteriorated rapidly from that: Coach Harris received a threatening phone call at the hotel, and the Cumberland and Tampa teams stated that they refused to play against a Black athlete. Springfield Post 21 was essentially left with the only option of removing Taliaferro from its roster if it wanted to participate in the tournament.

Being first told that Taliaferro was not allowed to stay with them and now that he couldn’t play was too much for the rest of the Springfield squad. Team captain Tony King refused to take the field without Taliaferro, and the rest of the team agreed. Syd Harris decided it was time to leave Gastonia. He sent a telegram back to his Legion post: “Situation too dangerous. Boys threatened. Bringing team home.” The team boarded a train and headed north. The athletes arrived in Springfield to a very supportive crowd.