Posted on Sun, Feb. 18, 2007

THE 'GOOD OL' DAYS' ON THE DIAMOND

Bradenton's Nine Devils recall when they ruled Sunday afternoons


VIN MANNIX
The Herald


The baseball diamond is long gone, but Waymon Armstead can still see it beyond the two- and three-story homes clustered in Bradenton Village.

He can see the barbecue smoke.

He can hear the crowds.

He can smell the outfield grass he patrolled more than 50 years ago.

"I could run like a deer then," said the centerfielder fans called "Stan the Man," as the 80-year-old gazed out his apartment window. "I just can't walk now . . ."

Yet neither age nor a stroke has stilled the pride that wells up within Armstead as another baseball season beckons the memories. Memories shared by Robert "Bubba" Bowden, James "Son" Copeland and Morris Paskell.

Memories of the Bradenton Nine Devils.

Now in the autumn of their lives, these grand old men were truly the boys of summer. Boys who grew up around the game during segregation.

"Yeah, the good ol' days," said Armstead, whose No. 6 jersey and left-handed hitting for power and average reminded fans of St. Louis Cardinals' legend Stan Musial. "Young kids don't know about us, but the old people do."

The Nine Devils were Bradenton's black baseball team that thrived in the independent Florida State Negro League from 1937 to 1956. The team existed another 2 decades, but integration and waning interest ended it.During its halcyon days a half-century ago, the Nine Devils played 70 to 75 games a year against teams from Daytona, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach, as well as against barnstorming all-star teams.

"We used to dominate," said Bowden, 79, a third baseman, leadoff man and base-stealing threat, whose older brother, William, was also a Nine Devil. "We were pretty good back then."

Which is how the team got its name.

They were the Bradenton Aces, but, "One year we started off with nine straight wins and we became the Nine Devils," said Copeland, 82, whose playing career began at 13 and spanned three decades.The wall of his home is like a shrine to the Nine Devils.A faded team photo shows Snow Riley, Elijah Barber, Jewel Lee, Robert Royal, Hugh Yancey, Red Hughes and Buck Walter with Armstead, Bowden, Copeland and then-owner Bish Christopher.

These men weren't professional athletes, either. They were city sanitation workers, dry cleaning owners, field hands and golf course groundskeepers, who donned cotton uniforms, picked up bats, put on fielder's mitts and became baseball stars on the weekends.

Even segregation couldn't stop that. Ask Fredi Brown, whose brother, O.C. Sears, played third base in the 1930s.

"It was a great source of entertainment," said the co-founder of the Family Heritage House Museum at Manatee Community College. "We didn't think a whole lot of segregation in those days. We had our own businesses, our own movie theater - and we had our own baseball team."

That connection resonated for Joe Grissett Jr., whose father, Joe Sr., pitched for the Nine Devils. A retired educator, he remembers running home after Sunday school at Gethsemane BaptistChurch, getting something to eat and going to the ballpark.

"I used to live there on Sunday afternoons," Grissett Jr. said. "For a poor kid from the projects, this was our closest connection to big league baseball. They had some great players, just as good as the majors."

Home games were festive affairs, whether the Nine Devils played at their ballfield or at >McKechnie. They averaged about 1,500 fans.

"Going to see them play was part of our lives," said Norma Marie Tarver Dunwoody, a retired school administrator, and Grissett Sr.'s niece.

Paskell, whose uncle, Buck Walker, was a Nine Devils manager, remembers the packed stands and the good times.

"Women wearing their Sunday hats, people laughing . . . ," said the 68-year-old, a second baseman for two years. "Everybody knew each other. It was beautiful."

While the same might not be said about road games at certain cities, they remember the warm treatment they received despite segregation. Like in Valdosta, Ga., where they'd play a three-game weekend series.

"When we'd beat them, people would be calling us names, but afterward, one black lady would always cook up a big mess of soul food because they knew we couldn't eat at the restaurants," Paskell recalled. "If we won, they'd hardly want to give us gas."

Bus rides could be grueling too.There was no Interstate 75, no I-4, just dusty, two-lane roads.

"Oh, man, those bus rides'd kill you, especially going to Miami," Armstead said. "It took about six hours. You'd leave two or three Sunday morning, you'd be sleepy, tired when you got there. Then you'd play, shower, eat, get back on bus and be at work the next day. You had to love it."

The Nine Devils didn't play for money, that's for sure.Their cut of the gate went anywhere from $6 or $7 to $21 apiece, depending on where they played. They invariably made more on the road, particularly in Orlando.

But that was secondary.

"It was a chance to play," Copeland said.

And play they could.

'We . . . did pretty well.'

According to Bradenton Herald archives, besides the FSNL ballclubs, the Nine Devils would play barnstorming all-star teams with future Hall of Famers such as Josh Gibson and Larry Doby, as well as major leaguers Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Ed Charles and Clarence "Choo Choo" Coleman. They also played Negro League ballclubs like the Cleveland Buckeyes, Homestead Grays and Indianapolis Clowns.

"I would say we were as good as most Triple-A teams, if not better," Bowden said. "We went up against some good players and did pretty well against them."

Paskell had the best seat in the house. Playing alongside Bowden and Copeland and taking cutoff throws from Armstead, he remembers them as big brothers.

"Waymon was a hell of an athlete," he said. "On a ball hit into the gap, he'd run it down and throw you out. Son was small, but he had good wrists. You talk about Hank Aaron's wrists? You should've seen Son's wrists. Bubba was one of the best bunters I've ever seen. You see Jackie Robinson dancing back and forth when he was on base? Bubba could do all that, then steal second and third."

Al Swilley saw it, too. He played outfield for the Nine Devils from 1952 to 1960.

"I thought I was a hot shot, but I found out there were a lot of things I didn't know," the 73-year-old said. "I was good, but they taught me a lot about the game."

Those baseball skills got them a shot, albeit a long one, at the big leagues.

Armstead, Bowden and Copeland had farm-team tryouts in Fredricksburg, Texas, in 1953.

Armstead said it was for the Chicago Cubs, Bowden said it was the Chicago White Sox and Copeland said he can't remember.

Either way, Armstead was assigned to the Borger Gassers, a Class C club high up the Texas Panhandle in the old West Texas-New Mexico League. Bowden and Copeland were assigned to Augusta, Ga., but balked.

They'd heard Augusta was hostile to blacks.

"I said, 'I can't go. I won't go.' If somebody hits me, I can't turn my cheek," Bowden said. "So me and Son came back home."

Armstead would join them a year later.

"We weren't making much money, about $150 a month," he recalled. "I said, 'I can make more than that working for the city.' I'm glad I played, though."

They all are.

Their regrets are few.

"You wish you had a chance to play again like when you were young," Copeland said.

The "good ol' days" with the Bradenton Nine Devils.

"It was a good feeling. I enjoyed it. I really did," Armstead said. "We put a whippin' on 'em."

Vin Mannix is the Bradenton Herald's local columnist. Please call Vin at 745-7055, or write him at the Bradenton Herald, Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206, or send e-mail to vmannix@Bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

 



Tom - Booker Taliaferro "Little Book" Robinson was born July 20, 1918 in Ft. Meade, Florida, and passed away January 29, 1998 in Lakeland, Polk County, Florida. He played 1933-1934 Ft. Meade, Florida, 1935-1936 Conservation Corp BB team, 1939-1940 Pepsi-Cola Giants, Tampa, Florida, 1940-1942 Sarasota Tigers, Florida State Negro League, 1942-1943 Tampa Bay Rockets, Florida State Negro League, 1943 Arcadia, Florida, 1944-1945 Lakeland Tigers, Florida State Negro League, 1944 Jimmy Hill's All-Stars, 1945-1946 Homestead Grays, 1946 Raleigh Grays, Raleigh Tigers, Lakeland Tigers, Florida State Negro League, 1947 Miami Braves, 1947 Palm Beach Rockets, Florida State Negro League, 1948 Lakeland Tigers, Florida State Negro League, 1949-1953 Ft. Meade, Florida, Florida State Negro League. He also played for the Miami Giants, Brandenton Nine Devils and Gadsden.

End of the Negro leagues

Some proposals were floated to bring the Negro leagues into "organized baseball" as developmental leagues for black players but that was recognized as contrary to the goal of full integration. So the Negro leagues, once among the largest and most prosperous black-owned business ventures, were allowed to fade into oblivion.

First a trickle and then a flood of players signed with Major League Baseball teams. Most signed minor league contracts and many languished, shuttled from one bush league team to another despite their success at that level. But they were in Organized Baseball, that part of the industry organized by the major leagues.

The Negro National League folded after the 1948 season when the Grays withdrew to resume barnstorming, the Eagles moved to Houston, Texas, and the New York Black Yankees folded. The Grays folded one year later after losing $30,000 in the barnstorming effort. So the Negro American League was the only "major" Negro League operating in 1949. Within two years it had been reduced to minor league caliber and it played its last game in 1958.



Bradenton's first baseball heroes:
Nine Devils to be honored


Nine Devils to be honored Oct. 22 at 13th Av Center

By VIN MANNIX - vmannix@bradenton.com

BRADENTON -- Waymon Armstead. James "Son" Copeland. Morris Paskell. Al Swilley.

They're in their 70s and 80s, the autumn and winter of their lives, but once upon a time they were Bradenton's stars of summer.

They were the Bradenton Nine Devils.

It was the city's black baseball club, comprised of players from Sarasota and Manatee County, who enjoyed prolonged success during segregation in the independent Florida State Negro League from 1937 to 1956.

"It was a good time and we went through a lot to get there," said Copeland, who played shortstop. "Been so long since it happened."

That's why that era and those memories will be recalled and regaled at "Innings Ago," a celebration of the Bradenton Nine Devils 6 p.m. Oct. 22 at the 13th Av Dream Center.

"This banquet is to honor these men, show our appreciation and recognize those of them who are living," said Robert Dunlap, one of the event organizers and a member of Rogers Project Hope Inc. "Nothing like this has ever been done for them before and we want to do so before it's too late.

"They are a source of pride for this community."

Most of the Nine Devils have passed away.

Names like Elijah Barber, Red Hughes, Jewel Lee, Snow Riley and Buck Walter are the ghosts of a proud legacy.

"It won't be that way ever again," Copeland said.

Originally the Aces, they were renamed Nine Devils after winning their first nine games one season.

The players were dry cleaning owners, field workers, golf course groundskeepers and sanitation workers who excelled on the baseball diamond.

"When we knocked off work, we'd go behind the projects and practice," said Copeland, a McKechnie Field caretaker. "Sundays we'd play ball."

The Nine Devils played 70 to 75 games a year against ballclubs from Daytona, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach.

They also played Negro League ballclubs like the Cleveland Buckeyes, Homestead Grays and Indianapolis Clowns.

Road games were grueling trips.

There was no Interstate 75 or I-4, just dusty two-lane roads.

"Those bus rides'd kill you, especially going to Miami," said Waymon Armstead, an outfielder. "It took about six hours. You'd leave two or three Sunday morning, you'd be sleepy, tired when you got there. Then you'd play, shower, eat, get back on the bus and be back at work the next day.

"You had to love it."

Nine Devils fans sure did.

Home games at McKechnie and long gone Roush Field were festive affairs, usually drawing big crowds.

"Women wearing their Sunday hats, people laughing," said Morris Paskell, a second baseman. "Everybody knew each other. It was beautiful."

Segregation didn't inhibit that enjoyment.

The Nine Devils were their team.

"I used to live there on Sunday afternoons," said Joe Grissett Jr., a retired educator, whose father was a Nine Devils pitcher. "For a poor kid from the projects, this was our closest connection to big league baseball."

The Innings Ago banquet is being co-sponsored by St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and Rogers Project Hope Inc., a 501c3 community organization, whose goal is to educate people on health issues specific to African Americans and participate in outreach programs at youth centers, beauty salons, barbershops and churches.


Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.
Read more: http://www.bradenton.com/2011/10/16/3571613/bradentons-first-baseball-heroes.html#ixzz1b04WWjzf