Sports

Karl Lindholm: The Pride of Memphis: Larry, Lefty, and Charley

VERDELL “LEFTY” MATHIS was a star pitcher for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues from 1940-50, comparable to the very best pitchers in Major League Baseball. This painting by Graig Kreindler is from the archives of NegroLeaguesHistory.com.

The latest in a series of columns inspired by the centennial of baseball’s Negro Leagues.
In any discussion of race and baseball, Red Sox don’t fare very well — that is, the Boston Red Sox.
We all know by now that the Red Sox were the last Major League team to integrate, in 1959, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the 20th century color barrier.
We also know, alas, that they had the first crack at Willie Mays, who was playing as a teenager for the Birmingham Black Barons when the Red Sox’ top farm team was the Birmingham Barons, and the two teams played their games in the same park, venerable Rickwood Field.
Do you think the Red Sox, so mediocre in the 1950s despite having the game’s best hitter, would have fared better with Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, alongside Ted Williams? Such is the sad mythology of race and the Red Sox.
And it’s not like the stain was lifted by Pumpsie Green and Earl Wilson in 1959. Subsequent decades hardly brought racial comity to the Red Sox. Missteps followed by halting steps in the right direction have marked the Red Sox history and the racial drama in Boston.
At this point, gentle readers, I will introduce you to a Red Sox team whose history was also marked by the intolerable racism of segregation, but had no shortage of black players. In fact, all the players on this Red Sox team were Black: the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues.
The Memphis Red Sox were not one of the “Goliaths” of the Negro Leagues, like the Kansas City Monarchs, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Chicago American Giants, Newark Eagles, New York Cubans, the Baltimore Elite Giants, and others.
Not one of the Goliaths perhaps, but one of the most stable franchises in all of Black baseball during segregation, operating continuously from 1920 to 1960, and most of that time under the same ownership group, three Martin brothers, two dentists and a barber, who had a shop right there on Beale Street. The Memphis Red Sox for almost all their years even had their own ballpark, Martin Stadium, unusual in Negro League circles, thereby avoiding the exorbitant rental fees at white venues.
The Memphis Red Sox were among the strongest of the Black teams in the South, along with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Atlanta Black Crackers. In the 1920s, they played a regular schedule against the powerhouse teams of the Negro National League, and in the 1930s they joined as charter members the Negro American League, and won the NAL pennant in 1938.
After Jackie Robinson’s entry into white baseball, and the signing of other great young Black League stars (Doby, Campanella, Mays, Aaron, Banks, Irvin et al.), interest in the Negro Leagues among Black Americans plummeted. The Negro National League, the stronger of the two Black major leagues, folded right away in 1948, while the Negro American League, much reduced in talent and fans, played for another decade or so.
Four members of the Red Sox are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, three in Cooperstown — Willie Wells, Turkey Stearnes, and Willie Foster — but they only played briefly in Memphis. The fourth, Charley Pride, who died at 86 just last Saturday from COVID-19 complications, is in the Country Music Hall of Fame down the road in Nashville.
Baseball was Pride’s first love, and enduring passion. He played parts of three seasons with the Red Sox of Memphis in the 1950s, before he gave up the baseball dream to focus on music. He was a pitcher mainly, a pretty good one, and an outfielder who could hit, until arm troubles derailed the dream.
The two players most closely identified with the Red Sox of Memphis were catcher Larry Brown and pitcher Verdell “Lefty” Mathis. Brown played for 10 different Black teams in his 30-year career (1919-49), playing on three Negro League championship teams and in six East-West (all-star) games. Ten of those years were with the Red Sox, a number as their player-manager.
With a “cannonlike arm,” Brown was known for his defensive prowess and nicknamed “Iron-man” for his durability. Because he was so light-skinned, the story goes that he was encouraged by Ty Cobb (and others) to pass as a Cuban and play in the major leagues. In Cuba in the winter of 1926, he caught the legendary Cobb stealing a base five consecutive times.
Verdell “Lefty” Mathis was arguably the best left-handed pitcher in all of Black baseball in the 1940s. Aside from a brief dalliance with the Philadelphia Stars in 1943, he played all 10 of his years in baseball with Memphis. He was the starter for the West squad in the 1944 and ’45 East-West games, winning both games, holding the powerful East team (Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Dandridge, and other Hall of Famers) to just one run in six innings before 80,000 fans in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in both games combined. Memphis was Lefty’s hometown, growing up and living out his life after baseball there.
The highlights of Lefty’s career were his match-ups with Satchel Paige, which included a 2-1 win on “Satchel Paige Day” in Chicago before 30,000 fans. Though slender (5-foot-11, 150 pounds), Mathis threw hard and had vast repertoire of other pitches, and a great pick-off move. He played every game, playing centerfield when he wasn’t on the mound.
Last week, I exhumed my VCR and watched a video from 1977: “Black Diamonds, Blues City: Community, Race Relations, Power Politics, Music, and Negro League Baseball,” the story of the Memphis Red Sox (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson). Many of the Red Sox players reflected in compelling stories about baseball and life in Memphis, prominent among them Lefty Mathis himself, who lived to age 84, dying in 1998.
Memphis was a fascinating match of culture and sport. Legendary bluesman B.B. King recounted playing music at Red Sox games: “They put me out there on the pitcher’s mound and I’d play before games. The ballpark was right next to Beale Street.”
Makes me want to climb in my car and head South to explore Beale Street and Memphis history (yes, including Graceland!), when it’s safe to do so. Want to come with me?
So, when somebody comments about the lamentable racial history of the Red Sox, ask them, “you talking about the Boston Red Sox — or the Memphis Red Sox?” and then tell them about Larry Brown, Verdell “Lefty” Mathis, and Charley Pride.

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