For the black community in memphis, the return of spring meant the return of baseball at Martin's Stadium, home of the Red Sox from 1923 to 1960. "Ah, man, lotta people and pretty girls," blues legend B.B. King once said of the ballpark, where he used to perform before games.
The photographer Ernest Withers, a North Memphis native who would document the civil rights movement for African-American newspapers and the mainstream press, made countless pictures in the 1940s and '50s of the Sox and their fans: white-gloved women with perfectly coiffed hair and pearls; dapper men in suits and fedoras; smiling kids on the lookout for their favorite athletes. "This was back when Negro Baseball was Negro Baseball," Withers says. "Those games were the place to be." His book of photographs, Negro League Baseball, has just been published by Harry N. Abrams.
Born in 1922, Withers became interested in photography in high school. He enlisted in 1943, trained at the Army School of Photography and was shipped to the South Pacific, where he helped build roads and bridges, and took pictures of fellow soldiers. When the war ended, Withers returned to his hometown as a commercial photographer covering what he calls "the black side of life" at weddings, funerals, parties and concerts.
"My interest was sending my seven boys and one girl to college, which I did, and I appreciate my pictures for that," he says in his homey Beale Street office, which is practically overrun with photographs, negatives, old newspaper clippings and equipment. "It was the time, and I was just recording the time. It was my job." Still is. At 83, Withers photographs press conferences, church socials and the like for the daily Commercial Appeal and other publications.
Baseball was among his earliest subjects. He showed up at Martin's Stadium for games and, with his twin-lens Rolleiflex camera, took pictures of home-team players like the great southpaw Verdell Mathis, not to mention visiting stars such as Satchel Paige and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, who hurled fastballs one day and caught them the next. Withers developed the negatives and prints at home, washing them in the bathtub and drying them in the oven. Occasionally he sold the photographs at the ballpark for $1 apiece. He also produced 8 x 10 glossies of the athletes for the four Martin Brothers, wealthy blacks (two physicians, a dentist and a pharmacist) who owned the Red Sox and the stadium.
Black-only baseball squads had existed since before the Civil War, but there was no organized competition until former pitcher Rube Foster helped form the Negro National League in 1920, which was relaunched in 1933 and joined by the Negro American League in 1937. Clubs such as the Birmingham Black Barons, Indianapolis Clowns and New York Cubans often held games at off times in Major League stadiums or barnstormed across the country to challenge community teams. By the mid-1940s, black baseball was pulling in more than $2 million a year.
Then, on April 15, 1947, former UCLA track and football star Jackie Robinson, who had played one season with the Negro American League's Kansas City Monarchs, suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, integrating Major League Baseball. Others followed, and over the next 12 seasons African-Americans—including Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron—won nine Rookie of the Year and nine Most Valuable Player awards. "These guys had been playing ball all their lives—they were older than typical rookies, they knew the game—and what they had to adjust to was off the field, for the most part," says Raymond Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
In the late 1940s, Withers photographed the National League's Robinson and Larry Doby—the first black player in the American League, with the Cleveland Indians—at Martin's Stadium during an exhibition game. Ernie Banks, then of the Monarchs but soon to be a Chicago Cub, sits off to the side. The picture represents one of the last great moments of the Negro League, before black clubs lost so much talent to the Majors that they had to fold.
Withers' rise to prominence began with a self-published pamphlet documenting the sensational 1955 trial of the accused murderers of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager killed for whistling at a white woman. Withers recorded the integration of Ole Miss in 1962 and the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. He captured the blues movement springing up on Beale Street, photographing B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Tina Turner and others. "The same quality that makes his baseball pictures important also makes his civil rights and other pictures important—the quality of the insider view," says F. Jack Hurley, author of Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties. "His images achieved an intimacy, a level of comfort, that no one else could have reached."
Withers says his work was about getting close to people—literally. "I've never been a super telephoto photographer," he said. "I'm not wrapped up in technology. I'm a photographer that gets in and moves up on the image."