Clark-Atlanta University and Morehouse College have been playing baseball longer than the Black community has been observing Black History Month, which began as a week-long celebration during the second week in February in 1926.
Baseball or a game similar to it was popular among Blacks before the Civil War. It was played on plantations for the amusement of slave-holders and their families.
According to researcher Jay Sokol in his unpublished manuscript on Black College Baseball, enslaved Blacks were documented as having played baseball as far back as 1773. The first Black college known to organize a baseball team was the Institute for Colored Youth, which is today named Cheney State University. It was founded in 1837, which makes it the oldest HBCU. In 1867, Octavius Catto, an instructor at the Institute, organized an amateur baseball team made up of current and former students.
Fleetwood Walker is the first Black person to play collegiate baseball. In 1881, he was the catcher on the Oberlin (Ohio) College team. To add perspective, both Spelman College and Tuskegee Institute were founded in 1881.
Seven years later, in 1888, Clark College and Atlanta University organized a game of baseball against each other and became the first Black colleges to compete on the baseball diamond. They played a three-game series during the 1887–1888 school year. It can be argued that the first Black College National Championship was won by Atlanta University as they won two of the three games.
According to Sokol, by 1896 Morris Brown College and Morehouse College had organized baseball programs and the four Atlanta area schools formed the first Black College athletic conference, the Intercollegiate Baseball League. This league eventually became the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“In 1897, the Intercollegiate Baseball League pennant was shared by Atlanta University, Clark College and Morris Brown College. The following year, Clark claimed the pennant outright. And in 1899, a three-way tie was resolved with Morris Brown winning a playoff for the championship,” Sokol’s research notes.
In 1988, Clark College and Atlanta University merged to form Clark-Atlanta University. There have been periods since 1888 when Clark-Atlanta University and Morehouse College did not field baseball teams, but it is indisputable that no HBCUs have been competing against each other as long as these two schools.
One hundred years ago, what is now known as the Atlanta University Center schools, won 11 of the first 12 SIAC baseball championships. Morehouse College won in 1916, 1917, and 1918. They lost the 1919 championship to Talladega College. Atlanta University picked up the title in 1921and 1922 before Morehouse College went on a tear winning conference titles from 1923 through 1926.
Those were the heydays of Black college baseball for the cluster of schools educating Negroes in the early years of the 20th century in Atlanta. Today, Morris Brown College with less than 100 students is a shell of the school it was in 1919. It no longer fields a baseball team. In 1988 Clark College and Atlanta University were faced with mounting financial problems. Their governing boards elected to merge the two schools so they could continue to serve their students, who yearn for the best in the HBCU experience.
With the advent of integration in the 1980s, the best Black baseball players were recruited to play at predominately white universities; and in 1990, the better Black athletes opted to play basketball and football.
The impact of these two social factors has been especially felt in the baseball programs at Clark-Atlanta University and Morehouse College.
This year during the 93rd observance of Black History Month, the two schools faced-off on the baseball diamond on a sunny day on February 24, 2019.
None of the student-athletes on either team knew of the historical nature of their match-up. All the Morehouse players knew is “They (Clark-Atlanta University) think they are better than us and they play us like they are better,” one Morehouse player muttered in the dugout when seeing a CAU player take a lackadaisical approach to a fly ball hit to left field while his team was six runs down to the CAU Panthers.
In the other dugout a CAU player shouted to his teammates, “When you have a weak team down, you have to keep them down,” as Morehouse began to mount a rally in the second game of the doubleheader played by the two schools.
This historical match-up ended in nearly identical scores, CAU winning the first game 9–3 and Morehouse winning the second game 9–4.
Both coaches blistered their teams after the double-hitter. Tony Grissom, a former college and minor league player and professional scout said:
“Honestly, I am not pleased with what I saw from my team today. They made a lot of mistakes. They are young and young players make mistake. We will have to continue to teach this game.”
Most of the mistakes made by the Grissom’s Maroon Tigers were made on the basepath. He had four base runners either picked off or throw out at third or home on balls hit to the left side of the infield. There is a long-standing rule in baseball that a runner at second or third does not attempt to advance if a ground ball is hit to the left side of the infield. This is not heady stuff for a “Morehouse Man” to grasp.
Grissom saw two rallies go down the drain in the first game as a runner on second tried to advance from second to third and a runner attempted to advance from third to home on ground balls hit to the shortstop.
Kentaus “K. C.” Carter, CAU’s equally talented baseball coach was perplexed at his team’s performance in the second game. After a strong performance in the first game in which his team dominated all phases of the game, the Panthers fell flat in the second game. After the 9–4 loss in the second game, Carter gave his team a tongue lashing for engaging in non-baseball related conversations in the dugout during the game.
“This may not be serious business to you, but it is serious to me. Talk about that other stuff on the bus, or in the dorm, but don’t bring it into the dugout when we are playing baseball. Now if anybody doesn’t want to take this game seriously, then you can hand in your uniform right now. It’s okay. I will still be your friend, your coach, your father figure or whatever I am to you,” Carter said.
The poor overall play overshadowed outstanding individual performances from Morehouse Left Fielder Derrick Odom. He had four hits in five plate appearances during the two contests. He homered in both games and drove in a total of four runs on the day. Odom, an Albany, Georgia native was a late round draftee in the 2017 Major League Baseball draft.
While CAU’s right-handed pitcher, Victor Brown relied on his fastball to keep Morehouse off balance in the first contest. Calvin Butler had three hits and Jordan Johnson hit a home run driving in two runs.
Fortunately, the two games were non-conference games and will not count in the conference schedule. The two schools will next square off in late April during Easter weekend in a four-game series. The April battles in past years have determined which school will earn a berth to the conference tournament.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium, and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org