THE TUGERSON BROTHERS

In 1953, the Cotton State League consisted of four Mississippi teams, three teams from Arkansas, and one from Louisiana. The towns represented were Meridian, Jackson, Greenville, Natchez, Monroe, El Dorado, Pine Bluff, and Hot Springs. Lewis Goltz, the soon to be co-owner of the Bathers, set his sight on producing a enhanced game on the field, which resulted in a higher attendance and higher gate receipts. It was the year before that, in 1952, the management of the Hot Springs Bathers decided to introduce a talented black player to the league. “The Bathers front office personnel, at that time, of Crawford and Britt presented the proposal to Haraway, the league president, as early as January 1953, (Duren).”

 

It is well known that in 1953, Jackie Robinson established himself as a fantastic ball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At this time, it still was not fully acceptable in society to have a black player in any all-white league. Although Robinson tried to dissolve the color line, there were still slanderous words being said before, during, and after games. It was especially frowned upon in the southern states. “The Cotton State League, a Class C, minor league, had been in existence for over 50 years and no black player had shown up on any of the teams rosters, (Duren).”

 

It was time for a change. The Bathers decided to be the first one’s to take a step toward a different game. Goltz and several other officials, decided to move forward in desegregating the Cotton State League. They signed two black players, but little did they know what was in store for them. Jim and Leander Tugerson, both pitchers, signed contracts with the Bathers in the spring of 1953. “Jim, 30, was a 6’4” 194-pound right-handed thrower. Leander, two years younger, also possessed an adequate gift on the mound, but not as talented as his brother, (Duren).” The Tugerson brothers were a part of the Negro American League, where they played for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951. The team was a legitimate baseball team, contrary to their name, but also dabbled as a comedy team. They are comparable to today’s Harlem Globetrotters. The team was decent. They won the Negro American League pennant in 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1954. Both of the brothers were assets to the team’s victories.

 

In 1952, they briefly left the clowns in search of something greater. Jim ended his summer playing in the Dominican summer league and Leander signed with Colorado Springs, a White Sox affiliate; but both soon returned to the clowns. “That same year the Clowns included a young, 18-year-old, cross-handed batter from Moblie who later became a great major league hitter. The Tugerson’s new teammate, Hank Aaron, played shortstop and lead the league in batting with a .467 mark. Midway through the season, the Boston Braves bought out Aaron’s contract from the Clowns for $10,000 and the skinny shortstop headed for the minor leagues, (Duren).” 

It was decided on April 6, that the Class C league would terminate the Hot Springs franchise. They were terminated “…under article 5, paragraph 13 of the League Constitution which states in part ‘any cause which prevents the League from functioning properly with such clubs holding membership.’ And paragraph 14, which says in part ‘by a 2-3 vote of all the clubs that for business reasons the membership of any club is no longer desired.’ (Sentinel-Record).” It did not take long for attorney Leslie O’Connor, legal counsel for the Pacific Coast League, and numerous citizens to get involved. Many people did not agree with the organization’s decision. Protests began pouring in from across the nation as several newspapers from New York to Phoenix, Arizona began running issues of the story. In order to keep the two pitchers, the team was willing to play the Tugersons only at home and other cities that would allow them to play. “Vernon “Moose” Shetler, manager of the Bathers, related the tone of the team and that was ‘I’ll see the boys at the park at 11 a.m. today.’ The team continued to practice for opening day. He noted that the Bathers planned to play their opening game at Pine Bluff on April 21, just as scheduled, (Duren).”

 

On April 11, the minor league association stopped the disbandment from the organization. George Trautman, President of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, halted the Hot Springs Bathers pending an appeal. Annual season ticket sales began the week of April 12. The Bathers were still on track to play regardless of the efforts that several people made to stop them. Businesses all over the city were selling season tickets. “The companies included Lewis Jewelers, Goddard Hotel, Art Kraft Camera Shop, Crawford Drug Stores, Citizen’s, Spenser’s and Sim’s Cigar Stores, Ohio Club, Kentucky Club, Southern Grill, Douglas Flower Shop, Yellow Cab Company, National Café, National Baptist Sanitarium, Copa Cabana Club, Wes Curry Taxi Stand, and Town-Talk Barbecue, (Duren).” The city was in support of the Bathers new found players regardless of their skin tone. The fire grew larger and larger as several boards didn’t back down from either side.

 

On April 14, a secret meeting of the Cotton State League was held. The League of directors would’ve been fined $1,000 if the meeting was made public. This fine would be equivalent to around $9,454.64 today. An announcement was then made that the Cotton State League would open on April 21 with the present eight clubs. People began hoping that this would change the course of baseball in the south. The Cotton States League and the Southern Association were the only two groups in the south that did not allow black players at the time. April 15, the President of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues sent his decision to the Cotton State League officials. The telegram stated, “The employment of Negro players has never been, nor is now, prohibited by any provision in the major-minor league agreement. Whether a National Association club chooses to employ a player of any race, color, or creed is a decision for the club itself to make, (The Sentinel Record).” Unfortunately, not all of this telegram was true. Major and minor league teams did not allow any player of color in the white leagues for several years. It might not have been written in the bylaws, but it was known that blacks do not play in the all-white leagues. It was unacceptable.

 

The Bathers continued to practice for their opening game against Pine Bluff.  On April 17, the Bathers played an exhibition game at home against Millington Naval Air Station from Memphis. Jim Tugerson was on the starting line up. Hot Springs ended up winning the game 17-5. Jack Bales, former Bathers catcher said, “We didn’t have any problem having the Tugersons playing on the team.” On April 20, before the season opener, the Bathers decided to send the pitcher to Knoxville with an option to recall them. The very next day they realized they didn’t have too many choices for the mound. They landed on Ed Baski, a veteran pitcher, to toss the opener against Pine Bluff. The rest of the lineup included Jackie Bales (catcher), “Moose” Shetler (first), Bob Passarella (second), Babe Tuckey (third), Charles Ekas (shortstop), Hal Martin (center), John Greenway (left field), and John Trucks (right field). The team was on fire for a while, but after a month they returned to their losing way. Jim Tugerson was recalled on May 18. It didn’t take two days for the Bathers to put Tugerson on their starting lineup.

 

On May 20, he was set to pitch against the Jackson Senators of Mississippi at Jaycee Park. There was over 1,800 fans in the stands and bleachers that night. Catcher Jack Bales was warming up with Tugerson on the sidelines. Regrettably, the Bathers knew that they weren’t going to get to play that night. Management told manager “Moose” Shetler early in the morning to pitch Tugerson. By the end of the day, they asked him to put someone else on the starting lineup. He wasn’t willing to do that. The two managers met on the mound and exchanged lineups. Umpires Thomas McDermott of Baltimore, Maryland and base umpire Charles Baherns of Miami, Florida accepted the line ups. “Umpire McDermott turned toward the grandstand shortly after 8 p.m. and announced the game had been ordered forfeited by the league president for Hot Springs’ use of an ineligible player.” The crowd booed as Jackson won automatically. Tugerson said, “It’s possible that I may sue (Haraway), I’m not bitter, but I think he did the wrong thing in making Hot Springs forfeit that game. I hope I land in the majors some day. I want to be in a league where they will let me play ball.”

 

The Tugerson brothers returned to Knoxville, with the possibility that they could return to Hot Springs. Jim Tugerson was on his way to becoming the best minor league pitcher in 1953. Tugerson continued to pitch for the minor league for six more years. He retired at the end of the 1959 season and moved back home to Florida. His brother Leander Tugerson, developed a sore arm during midseason of 1953 and retired from baseball. Both brother died in their home state Florida. Leander, at 37 years of age, passed away in 1965, while Jim died in 1983 at 60 years old.