Class of 2009
Before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball in 1947, many Americans were deprived of watching some of the sport's all-time greats. Players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gipson, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Larry Doby, Buck Leonard and others were legendary players in the Negro Leagues who didn't receive the national publicity their counterparts in Major League Baseball did.
But there was one Tanner native who got a regular up close look at these great players and his name was William "Sou" Bridgeforth.
The late Bridgeforth owned multiple teams in the Negro Leagues. He purchased the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1950 for $11,000. That included the team as well as the bus. He moved the Elites to Nashville where the team dissolved. He later bought the Birmingham Black Barons.
In an interview with the Tennessean prior to his death in 2004, Mr. Bridgeforth said it was his love for the game that led him to buy the teams.
"The old owners in the Negro Leagues were the smart ones. They knew what the Jackie Robinson signing would mean and sold their teams. I just loved baseball," said Bridgeforth.
Bridgeforth's daughter Gail Jordan says that once her dad got too old to play, he decided the next best thing to do was to own a team. "Oh, how my Daddy loved baseball," said Jordan. "He loved baseball better than eating. When I was little we had one television and when the World Series was on, Daddy would pull the drapes, lie on the sofa and watch the games. No one could turn the channel as long as the game was on. Of course, my Mom and I found other things to do in the house."
His love for the sport came naturally. His father, Ike Bridgeforth, attended Tuskegee Institute on a baseball scholarship. He once told young Sou that he would walk miles to play in a baseball game and that he would walk nearly as far to see one. Like a scene out of the movie Field of Dreams, Ike Bridgeforth and others would carve a baseball field out of farmland and the community would gather there on afternoons after church.
While Sou Bridgeforth earned notoriety as a baseball owner, he was quite a baseball player himself. He starred for Trinity High School as a pitcher. In 1925, Trinity played 24 games and he was the winning pitcher in all the contests. He later moved to Nashville and worked with an uncle in the bricklaying business.
For many years he worked in the bricklaying business before the opportunity came along for him to buy a professional baseball team. The Baltimore Elite Giants had been a team that had done well over the years often battling the Homestead Grays for the Negro League championship. However, the Elites had fallen on bad times by the time Bridgeforth purchased the team and moved them to Nashville. A short time later Bridgeforth purchased the Birmingham Black Barons.
The Black Barons were a team that helped launch the careers of Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Willie Mays. The two legendary players had already left Birmingham by the time Bridgeforth purchased the team. The franchise however, didn't lack in star power even though it might not have been displayed on the diamond. One of Bridgeforth's most famous players was the legendary country music singer Charley Pride. Jordan recalls why her father released Pride from his playing contract. "I remember one time daddy took me to Ryman Auditorium (old Grand Ole Opry) to see Charley Pride receive a country music award for his hit song Kiss an Angel Good Morning. He later told me that he had to release Charley from the team not because of his playing ability but because he kept everyone up all night on those long bus rides with his singing. His players were always too tired to play the next day," remarked Jordan.
Bridgeforth was a popular owner with his players. According to one of his former players Jim Zapp, Bridgeforth looked out for his players. "Sou Bridgeforth was like a second daddy to me," said Zapp. "He was a great friend who loved baseball dearly. Whenever one of his former players would travel through Nashville and was down on their luck a little bit, Sou would help them out. He was by far the best owner I ever played for."
After he sold the Black Barons, Bridgeforth would spend the next five decades following the game just as intensely as a fan as he did as an owner. "Whenever my dad and Uncle Sou would get together, no conversation would be complete without them talking about baseball," said Kirby. "Uncle Sou could talk baseball for hours at a time."