Every once in a while, when I start looking for information on a player or team, you come across an article about something entirely different that grabs your attention. Today, I read about how the Palatka Red Legs came about signing their first black baseball player in 1958.
For a little context, I was trying to find information on pitcher/outfielder James Horsford. Horsford was in the Yankees chain – I learned of him through a conversation with Ike Futch, who played with Horsford when both were on the Greensboro Yankees in 1961. Futch recalled that Horsford, a black player from Puerto Rico, was “really screwed by the Yankees” – he had many good seasons but never seemed to get the opportunities other players might have received. (I’ll tell Horsford’s story in another article.) In talking about Horsford, Ike remembered times when they would be driving home from some game and stop at a restaurant to get a meal and Horsford would not be allowed in the restaurants – a problem playing ball in the segregated deep south at the time – and would have to stay on the bus. So, one of the players would take Horsford’s order and bring back his dinner for him. Futch said that he was perhaps the greatest athlete he had seen – a fantastic pitcher with great stuff, a solid outfielder, could hit and run like a deer. He also said that Horsford spoke perfect English, would be used as a translator for other players of Latin descent (Benny De La Cruz was one), and always had a smile and kind things to say about life and people. Futch, having grown up in a very small town in Louisiana and been given by his parents and his maker a remarkable capacity for kindness, remembered that it was one of the first times that he recognized that segregation really bothered him because Horsford was such a good guy and he really liked him having gotten to know him as teammates that season. One figures that two very nice men would easily become friends over the course of 140 games and 70 road trips.
Horsford won his first 13 decisions in 1958 for the St. Petersburg Yankees, helping them to the first half crown of the Florida State League. I don’t know this for certain, but I would guess that Horsford was one of just a few black players in the league – but those who were in the league must have had a great impact on the games as Horsford did. I mean, Horsford came into the league and with one professional season under his belt was now virtually unbeatable.
The team that finished third hailed from Palatka, Florida – a smallish town south and west of Jacksonville – and apparently they had no black players on the team. According to a note in The Sporting News (June 25, 1958 – Pg. 40), the owner actually addressed this problem directly with the fans:
“In a dramatic scene at Azalea Bowl in Palatka, President Fred Hancock told a crowd of 280, June 11, that the club faced the necessity of signing Negro players or perhaps giving up its franchise. When he asked the fans for a rising vote on the proposal, only six were opposed. Palatka took on its first Negro player the next day, signing Outfielder Sam Conton.”
Can you picture that – the owner of a team asking the fans if it would be okay to sign a black player?!?! It just reminds you how different the world was even 55 years ago.
Baseball-Reference.com doesn’t list a Sam Conton on the Palatka Red Legs (Vic Davalillo was on the team very, very briefly), but it does list an Alfredo Conton, who played well enough, but had been in the Reds chain for a couple of years. I’ll have to reach out to the Palatka Historical Society and see if there isn’t something about it in their old newspapers. As for giving up the franchise – Palatka fell the way of several small cities in the south, losing its team after the 1962 season.