What do you get when you jam about 15 fresh-faced young men, many barely out of high school, into a rickety bus owned by a skinflint entrepreneur, then drive them from Raleigh to the rugged hills and forests of West Virginia?
The 1958 Raleigh Tigers professional baseball team got stuck in West Virginia with no way home.
The Tigers were a Negro Leagues team at a time when the integration of America’s pastime was well underway, a development that was killing the once-proud ranks of African-American baseball.
The Negro Leagues were, in essence, crumbling. But for Sam Allen, 79, and his Raleigh Tigers teammates, that didn’t matter. They were playing pro baseball, and that was a thrill of a lifetime.
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Until, while on a barnstorming tour northward, that bus broke down in tiny Welch, W. Va., where Tigers owner Arthur Dove – ever the penny-pincher – left the team and headed back to Raleigh while, according to Allen, the players were left to fend for themselves, relying on the generosity of local hotel and restaurant owners until the athletes were able to hitchhike their way back to North Carolina.
“He left the whole team in West Virginia,” Allen, a native of Norfolk, Va., remembers. “We were there until the summer.”
Some of those Raleigh Tigers, such as Macon, Ga., native Ernest Fann, gathered recently at the sixth annual Negro Leagues players reunion in Birmingham, Ala., the site of a soon-to-be-unveiled interactive museum dedicated to chronicling and honoring the rich history of African-American baseball.
Members of those late-1950s/early 1960s Raleigh Tigers teams reminisced about a time when just a chance to tie up the spikes and swing the bat was enough for them to leave their hometowns and hit the road with a franchise that had existed, in one form or another, for several decades. The Negro Leagues officially ceased to operate in 1962 after a decade of decline.
Fann, now a Birmingham resident, had memories of his tenure with the Tigers – an ensemble of green youngsters and wizened veterans who persevered despite financial and economic difficulties.
Fann, 71, joined dozens of other surviving Negro Leaguers who attended the Birmingham reunion. Fann, who was signed, along with several of his prep teammates, by the Tigers right out of his Macon high school, said he always enjoyed mingling and reminiscing with his peers at the gathering, partially because it gave them a chance to relive a time that was both tumultuous and thrilling.
The Raleigh players, Fann said, had an opportunity to flash their skills for major league scouts, which somewhat balanced Dove’s tight purse strings.
“We did a lot of touring, a lot of playing,” said Fann, who suited up for the Tigers for a year before being signed to a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1963.
“We didn’t get paid much – we got just $5 a day on the road – but we got a good chance to let baseball scouts see us playing. It was kind of a turning point in my life. It was a chance for me to fulfill my dream of playing professional baseball. We were all just 15- and 16-year-old kids then.”
Allen wrapped up his pro playing career after spending much of the 1959 campaign with the Tigers; he was drafted into the Army a year later. But he still has fond memories of playing in Raleigh.
“It was a pretty good baseball town,” he says. “We had the Raleigh Tigers on one side, the Raleigh Capitals on the other side. We weren’t that bad a team. With us, we really didn’t have (togetherness) when we played other teams, but for the sport of baseball, we got along pretty good.”