Quick, name any championship team of the semi-professional Colorado Springs City Baseball League.
Didn’t know we even had a league?
We did, and it was popular a couple generations ago, fading away after the 1950 launch of the minor league Sky Sox.
Today, the city league and most of its champions are long forgotten.
But not the team that won back-to-back championships in 1949-50.
The team was the Brown Bombers and it is celebrated still today for its historic role in the struggle for racial equality in Colorado Springs.
The Bombers were an all-black team competing against teams that were all-white and wouldn’t accept black players. These were men who learned to play on their own with makeshift balls and gloves and equipment, not in organized leagues taught by experienced coaches using new equipment and uniforms as the whites enjoyed.
They were men who had to swallow hard as opponents and fans yelled racial slurs. They faced the indignity of being refused service in restaurants. And they endured road games that became marathon round trips because no motel would let them stay the night.
Many Bombers went on to become leading citizens and several survive today. Four Brown Bombers recently reunited to tell me of their lives and the lasting impact of the Brown Bombers. I was thrilled to meet these elder statesmen of Colorado Springs and hear their stories.
I was warmly greeted by first baseman Joe Morgan, 87, and his 85-year-old brother, the Rev. Justus Morgan, who pitched for the team. There was second baseman Sam Dunlap, the youngest Bomber at 80. And then there was 90-year-old the Rev. Jesse Vaughan Sr., who played catcher.
The four men sat around a table at the Hillside Community Center and swapped stories.
“Job-wise, it was not very good in Colorado Springs then,” Joe Morgan recalled. “Opportunities were very limited. You could shine shoes or be a custodian or a waiter or a dishwasher.”
Joe and Justus Morgan told of going to Woolworths after seeing a movie.
“They wouldn’t serve us,” Joe Morgan said.
They returned with friends the next day and demanded to be served.
“They served us but they poured salt in our milkshakes and on our sandwiches,” he said. “We refused to pay and they called the police.”
Cops tasted the food and said they wouldn’t pay for it either and they were free to go.
Justus Morgan recalled being turned away from the YMCA.
“We just wanted to participate in sports and be like any other boys,” he said.
As for sports, blacks were not welcome on little league teams and certainly not on varsity high school football or basketball teams. Typically, only one or two blacks, if any, made those teams. Instead they were shunted off to track and field. If they wanted to play contact sports, they played on neighborhood teams, Vaughan said.
“We didn’t have uniforms or anything,” he said. “If a ball went in the creek, we fished it out. We took broken bats home and nailed them together.”
Their stories of discrimination and racism were shocking and sad and vivid a half-century later.
You can hear more if you attend an upcoming class: “The Black Community in Colorado Springs 1869-1949.” The class is taught by Lucy Bell and is sponsored by Pillar, the non-profit group that offers adult enrichment classes.
It’s scheduled in two parts, Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, because Lucy has a lot of history to cover starting with the first black citizen of Colorado Springs, George Motley, and his relationship to founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer.
Side Streets readers will recall Lucy as a retired Colorado Springs School District 11 teacher and writer. She is compiling stories of growing up black in segregated Colorado Springs in the early 20th century, as experienced by her late husband, Oliver Bell.
Oliver grew up in the Hillside neighborhood and was a star athlete at the University of Northern Colorado before returning to a career teaching physical education in District 11. He was also a member of the Brown Bombers and he told fascinating stories of the lives of blacks in Colorado Springs and the racism they faced.
Lucy’s class will trace the history of segregation and oppression of blacks. She pinpoints its origins to 1909 with the death of Gen. Palmer, a passionate opponent of slavery who set aside his Quaker pacifist upbringing to volunteer and fight for the Union in the Civil War.
He was a war hero who rose to general, then pursued railroading and in 1871 founded Colorado Springs where, Lucy said, he tried to create a community in which blacks would not be second-class citizens.
“Palmer walked the talk,” Lucy said, giving me a preview of her class. “There were black businesses, two newspapers, a publishing company, livery stables, grocery stores, a dairy. The racial climate was great. There were middle-class opportunities for blacks.”
Everything changed, she said, after Palmer died. Within a couple years, blacks found themselves relegated to service positions such as shining shoes, washing dishes, shoveling coal, waiting tables and similar menial labor.
Lucy’s class will describe the treatment by Colorado Springs of national black leaders including educator, author and presidential adviser Booker T. Washington and historian, author and civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois.
She will touch on the frightening rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado and how Gazette publisher Clarence Hamlin courageously campaigned in his paper to prevent the KKK from taking control of the City Council and District 11 school board.
Lucy also will delve into the role of Camp Carson soldiers in ending segregation in the area with the arrival in 1942 of 78 black troops and then an all-black tank destroyer battalion, providing an injection of diversity into the predominantly white resort town of 45,000 or so.
Most interesting to me is the story of the Brown Bombers, whose history would make an inspiring movie as did the life of Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Maybe it’s because we can vividly trace the impact of the Bombers on the community:
• Dunlap was the first black baseball coach for School District 11, was a youth mentor and was honored by the Sports Corps.
• Joe Morgan was inducted in 2004 in the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame. In 1970 he became the first black umpire invited to officiate a state high school baseball championship.
• Justus Morgan was elected to the Palmer High School Hall of Fame and became pastor of Morgan Memorial Chapel Church of God in Christ, which his father started.
• Vaughan helped found Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church and was chaplain for the Colorado Springs Police Department.
A fifth surviving Bomber, Sylvester Smith, is also scheduled to attend the class. He played center field and worked 26 years at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and as a youth mentor for years.
These men were intelligent, motivated and talented athletes denied an opportunity to play organized contact sports in high school or the semi-pros. They united to form their own team and take on white teams and they experienced the sweetest revenge — they won. Twice.
Their first championship in 1949 generated all kinds of headlines. Here’s an excerpt from The Gazette’s story of the game:
“A wild and rugged evening which saw two members of the losing team tossed out of the ballgame marked the Brown Bombers 9-6 victory over the Still Bros.-Jackson Gas team for the championship of the city league. Major popoff session of the evening occasioned action by members of the Police Department to quell an incipient riot.”
There was a near riot when they won? And then they came back and did it again the next year? What a great story. To hear more, get yourself to the Pillar class. Anyone interested in attending should call Pillar at 633-4991 for reservations, which are required to attend.
I’m just glad I got to meet these Bombers and learn of their amazing lives. And I have to wonder, why isn’t this team, as a whole, enshrined in our Sports Hall of Fame?