Hall-of-Famer Hank Aaron waves to the crowd during the State Farm Home Run Derby at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The Gulf Coast city of Mobile, Alabama has a rich baseball history dating to the 1880s. Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that five ballplayers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame were born in Mobile, more than any city other than New York and Los Angeles.
Alabama has slightly less than five million residents, making it the 23rd-most-populous state. Mobile is the third largest city in Alabama. The Mobile metropolitan area is home to a bit more than 400,000 people. Mobile sits at the southwest corner of the state, hugging the Gulf of Mexico, and is closer to Pensacola in the Florida panhandle than it is to Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama's two largest cities. Mardi Gras in the United States was born in Mobile during the City's French Colonial period. The films Driving Miss Daisy and Forrest Gump had scenes set in Mobile.
And Mobile is the birthplace of more players in the National Baseball Hall of Fame than any city in the world other than Los Angeles and New York. More than Chicago. More than Philadelphia. More than San Francisco. Thirteen states have no native sons in the Hall of Fame. And yet Mobile, Alabama is the boyhood home of five Hall of Fame players.
Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige, Ozzie Smith and Billy Williams all grew up playing baseball on the fields of Mobile. So did outfielders Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee, who played baseball and football together at Mobile's County High; and pitcher/catcher Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, who was born a year before Paige and played with him in the Negro Leagues for decades.
All these great baseball men. All from one small southern city. It's a story worth exploring.
According to Baseball in Mobile, a book written by Joe Cuhaj and Tamra Carraway-Hinckle, professional baseball debuted in Mobile in the 1880s with the creation of the Gulf Baseball League, which featured two teams from Mobile and two from New Orleans. That league was short-lived but replaced in the early 1900s by the Southern Interstate League. The Mobile Sea Gulls -- later re-named the Mobile Bears -- played in the Southern Interstate League, and then the Southern Association.
By the 1920s, several major-league teams, including the Orioles, Indians, and White Sox, held their spring training in Mobile. Games were played at Monroe Park, which was called "the Coney Island of the South." Mobile was such a population destination for baseball that when the Alabama legislature outlawed the playing of baseball on Sundays (gasp!), the mayor of Mobile successfully lobbied for an exemption for his city. Some historians have suggested that Mobile produced such high quality ballplayers because it was the one city in South where baseball was played every day of the week.
Leroy Paige was born in Mobile in 1906. He gained the nickname "Satchel" when he worked part-time at the local train depot. Paige wasn't much of a ballplayer in his early years. Those skills came later, when Paige spent five years at a reform school after he was arrested for shoplifting. In his autobiography Maybe I'll Pitch Forever, Paige credits coaches at the Industrial School for Negro Children with teaching him how to pitch. After his release, he returned to Mobile and played in several semi-pro leagues. His brother Wilson, also a pitcher, played with Satchel on the Mobile . In 1926, Satchel was "discovered" by an old friend from Mobile, Alex Herman, who'd become the player/manager for the Chattanooga White Sox of a minor-league Negro league. Satchel played with the White Sox for a season and a half, when his contract was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. Satchel Paige's professional baseball career was launched.
Henry Aaron was born in Mobile in 1934. He loved baseball from an early age, so much so that he often skipped school to play around and listen to games on the radio at a local pool hall. While playing in Mobile's recreational baseball leagues, Aaron was "discovered" by Ed Scott, the manager of a semi-pro team called the Mobile Black Bears. Most of the Black Bears players were grown men with regular week-day jobs who played ball on the weekends. It took a long time for Aaron's mother to warm to the idea of him playing in a semi-pro league. And despite Mobile's openness to baseball on Sundays, his mother didn't approve his playing on the holy day. But eventually she relented, and allowed Aaron, at all of 17 years old, to play with the Black Bears. He was an immediate hit, smacking balls all around the yard. It turned out that Ed Scott was also working as a scout for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. Scott signed Aaron for the Clowns, and at the age of 18, his professional baseball career began.
Willie McCovey was born in Mobile in 1938. Like Aaron, he was drawn to baseball at an early age and played well beyond his years. Although McCovey was only four years younger than Aaron, he had many more opportunities to play organized baseball than Aaron did. When Aaron attended high school, there was no baseball team, only one for softball. McCovey was a star on the Mobile Central High School baseball team. After graduation, he signed with the New York Giants. He debuted in the major leagues in July, 1959, going 4-for-4 off eventual Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts.
Billy Williams was born in Whistler, Alabama, a suburb of Mobile, in 1938. Whistler was integrated, so unlike Paige, Aaron, and McCovey, Williams grew up playing baseball with and against white kids. He also played football, and was offered a scholarship to play at Grambling State University, the historically black college in Grambling, Louisiana. But Williams wanted to play baseball, like his older brother Franklin, who was already in the Pirates' minor league system. Williams signed with the Cubs in 1956. When assigned to a minor-league club in San Antonio, Williams experienced overt racism for the first time. He left the team and returned to Mobile. Buck O'Neil, then a scout with the Cubs, traveled to Alabama and persuaded Williams to return. He did, and made his major-league debut in 1959.
Ozzie Smith was born in Mobile in 1954. But Smith didn't grow up on Mobile's baseball fields, as Paige, Aaron, McCovey, and Williams had before him. That's because Smith's family moved from Mobile to the Watts section of Los Angeles when he was six years old. But Smith is part of Mobile's rich baseball history, and counts as the fifth Mobile-born ballplayer in the Hall of Fame.
After baseball fully integrated, and the Negro Leagues petered out, so, too, did professional baseball in Mobile. The Southern Association disbanded in 1961, as did the Mobile Bears. But the team and its traditions were revived in 1997, when Henry Aaron Stadium built as the home ballpark of the Mobile BayBears, a Double-A team in the Southern League, a successor to the Southern Association. After ten years in the San Diego Padres minor-league family, the BayBears are now the Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Mobile, Alabama: a baseball town since the 1880s, and the birthplace of five ballplayers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.