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When Nashville native Bruce Petway passed away in the Windy City on the fourth of July in 1941—75 years ago—the Chicago Defender newspaper eulogized the popular baseball catcher by reflecting on his 20 year-plus career plying his trade and playing the game he loved in the Negro Leagues.
Several decades before Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues, Petway and his peers toiled in the shadows of the national pastime in the all-black leagues that existed parallel to so-called “Organized Baseball.” From roughly 1905 to 1925, there was no better backstop in African-American hardball than Bruce Petway, and the Defender’s article made sure to point out Petway’s genesis.
“Although ball players and friends knew him as Buddy,” the paper stated, “the former catcher of the [Chicago] American Giants was christened Bruce Petway down in Nashville, Tenn., where he was born.”
From his roots on the semipro sandlots of his hometown, Petway blossomed into one of the most sought-after, respected receivers in African-American baseball, due largely to his defensive wizardry and his rifle of an arm that mowed down base runners in their paths. Petway’s most significant contribution to the catcher position was developing a then-astounding—but, eventually, commonplace—method of throwing to second base from the squatting position.
Confident yet quiet, possessing both a fiery competitiveness on the field and a self-effacing carriage off the diamond, Petway was in many ways the antithesis of a flashy superstar athlete. Because of that—and despite his legions of contemporary fans and the universal acclaim of his baseball comrades—Petway remains overlooked and underrated in the annals of the American game.
While other Nashville players—like Sam Bankhead and, more so, National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and home run specialist Turkey Stearnes—have gained fame through time, such historical recognition eludes the unassuming, humble Buddy. He has consistently been denied induction into the Hall of Fame, even though he was a semi-finalist in 2006, when a special Negro Leagues committee selected 17 other blackball figures for admission.
“Petway is considered by many to be one of the best catchers in the Negro Leagues, and yet many have never heard of him,” Leslie Heaphy, a professor at Kent State University-Stark and member of the Society of American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues committee, says.
The same sentiment could perhaps be expressed about the Negro Leagues’ tradition in Nashville itself. Cities like Chicago, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Birmingham have garnered much more attention from researchers and scholars than the Athens of the South. Even within the confines of modern baseball fandom in Nashville, the city’s black-ball heritage is frequently, and sadly, neglected.
“I hope that our friends in Nashville appreciate the unique place baseball has in African-American history there,” Raymond Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, says.
“Although the professional black leagues existed [in Nashville] for a brief time compared to other areas, the community was still part of the important fabric of southern sports history. Baseball in the South can be considered among the many avenues by which black people were able to express freedom during difficult times.”
Nashville historian Skip Nipper, author of the 2007 book, Baseball in Nashville, says the African-American baseball tradition in the city stretched back into the late 1880s and burgeoned the first two decades of the 20th century with a wide variety of clubs, including the Baptist Printers, Maroons, Methodist Publishing House, North Nashville Tigers, Greenwood Giants, and Nashville Standard Giants.
In addition, the ball fields of educational institutions, like Fisk University and Pearl High School, hosted contests on a regular basis.
Frequently, out-of-town squads would venture to Nashville to square off against the cream of the local crop. In June 1897, for example, the Rock City Unions hosted the Louisville Brotherhood at Athletic Park, and, six years later, an African-American team from Macon, Georgia, pulled into town to cross bats with the Nashville Unions.
Unfortunately, the Nashville Globe newspaper lamented the appearance that the local “colored” community didn’t appreciate the hotbed of hardball that surrounded them.
“The colored are missing some good baseball by not attending these games,” the paper’s July 29, 1910, issue stated, “and if they are interested in sport they should turn out and witness these games. ... It is the intention of the men managing the various teams of this city to give their patrons the very best article possible. The players are very gentlemanly in their conduct toward each other and toward the spectators.”
The paper’s contentions especially rang true in 1910, when, Nipper noted, the Capital City League had emerged as Nashville’s premier local black-ball circuit. League games were contested at Sulphur Dell and Greenwood Park, and the league’s greatest team was undoubtedly the Standard Giants, whose rise signaled the apex of Nashville Negro League ball.
Founded in February 1907, the powerful Standard Giants were purchased in 1920 by local businessman and numbers runner Tom Wilson, who renamed the squad the Nashville Elite Giants and cultivated them into one of the best professional franchises in the South. For the first decade of existence as the Elite Giants, the club criss-crossed the South as an independent team, embarking on grueling road trips that pitted them against all comers. However, they did also host invaded squads in Nashville.
“New Orleans is here today to meet the Elite Giants in Sulphur Dell this afternoon,” the June 21, 1921, issue of The Tennessean stated. “The Elite Giants are the fastest [or best] colored team that ever represented Nashville. They are much stronger than they were before leaving on the long road trip from which they have just returned.”
The zenith of Nashville African-American baseball came in 1929, when Wilson constructed for the Elites an 8,000-seat stadium dubbed, appropriately, Tom Wilson Park. A year later, the Elites joined the prestigious Negro National League, a stint that lasted two seasons. However, at the peak of the team’s powers and popularity, Wilson shifted the Elites’ home base several times—from Cleveland to Columbus to Washington—before permanently settling them in Baltimore in 1938, breaking away from the decline of Nashville’s black-ball scene. Following that dismal day, the city’s African-American squads existed largely as farm teams, lower-level farm professional clubs or even semipro squads.
But, every once in a while, a Nashville club would put one over on the big boys. That happened in 1947, when the Nashville Cubs turned the tables on their parent club, beating none other than the Baltimore Elite Giants 5-1.
The gradual integration of organized baseball hastened the decline of the Negro Leagues both nationally and in Nashville, and, by the 1960s, black-ball had all but been snuffed out.
Today, the memory of Nashville’s Negro Leagues is kept alive by a hardy band of scholars, historians, and devoted fans. Nipper, for one, hopes awareness of the great tradition can spread, with the creation of a local black baseball museum as a possible solution. Of paramount importance, he says, is helping people realize how vast a role baseball and its segregation have played in Nashville history.
“To this very day,” he says, “baseball has been a parallel to American history since the 19th century, and its impact on our city’s growth and culture should be recognized and placed in full view for present and future generations.”
Which, in many ways, brings the tale full circle to Bruce Petway, backstop extraordinaire and underappreciated Nashville legend. Heaphy attributes history’s lack of attention to Petway to several factors: his relatively light hitting, his focus on defense, his presence on teams with higher-profile superstars, and simply the early era in which he played.
Still, she says, flocks of contemporary fans streamed to ballparks when he was penciled in to play. That adoration was shared by Petway’s colleagues, including longtime pitcher, manager, executive, and journalist Dizzy Dismukes, who, in a March 1930 article, dubbed Petway as the greatest backstop of all time.
“Topping the list is none other than Bruce Petway,” Dismukes penned, “whom I claim to have been the greatest throwing catcher I ever saw. His best days were spent during the base-running craze. ... One could possibly count all the thefts against Petway during a season on one hand and then have a few fingers left.”
And Petway never forgot his roots. Once his tenure as a full-time player was over, the Nashville kid—who, by then, had developed a baseball sagacity that put him in demand as a team pilot—frequently came home to serve as player-manager of a local aggregation or as a skipper of a visiting team.
That happened in May 1934, when Cole’s American Giants of Chicago visited Nashville for a match against a local crew led by Petway. The event drew the attention of Chicago Defender correspondent Al Monroe, who attended the game expressly to elicit some gems of wisdom from Petway, who had given his all to the game and was now returning for a sort of modest victory lap in his hometown.
Monroe climbed down into the dugout, where Petway—“an old-timer and easily the greatest catcher the game has known,” the scribe wrote—and a few of his old pals were commiserating as they eyed the action on the field. As Buddy ambled across the turf, monitoring his youthful charges, Monroe took note of Petway’s proud comportment:
“Your author was particularly interested in watching Petway as he moved about the ball park. Long, lean and healthy as an elephant, we just couldn’t understand why baseball no longer appeals to him, that is as a player. Well, it does. ‘But my legs just refuse to stand up for more than a single inning,’ said the great catcher as he dodged his way through the ... fans, many of whom didn’t even recognize the man [Hall of Fame managers] John McGraw, Rube Foster, and Connie Mack once called the world’s greatest catcher.”