Published: April 23, 2014, 6:00 am, by Bill Vogrin
Sylvester Smith seemed stunned and asked me to repeat what I said.
So I told him again: the Brown Bombers, an all-black team he played on 65 years ago that won back-to-back City Baseball League championships in 1949-50, stunning their all-white opponents, had been elected to the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame.
“I’ll be damned,” the 84-year-old Smith exclaimed Monday. “So we finally got in. That is something.”
There was a long pause.
“I got a little tear in my eye,” Smith said as his voice betrayed his emotions. “This is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. We’ve gone through so much over the years. I guess I got a little sobby. It’s a big deal.”
Smith played left field and is one of just five surviving Bombers, who fought for racial equality on the baseball diamond, proving they were the match to white athletes and deserving of respect at a time Colorado Springs was largely segregated and blacks were relegated to menial jobs and treated as second-class citizens.
The Rev. Jesse Vaughan, the catcher on those championship teams, was equally overcome by the news.
“It’s a shock to me,” said Vaughan, 90. “I can’t express. I’m just as happy as I can be to be recognized by the community as a group who did something positive for our race, ourselves and the whole community. I’m really proud. I’m happy I was a part of it.”
For Sam Dunlap, 80, the news was equally powerful.
“It’s a miracle,” said Dunlap, who played third base and outfield. “Here I am, 80 years old, and I’ve got tears in my eyes. It makes me feel wonderful. It’s such a miracle.”
Miracle or not, it is true: the Brown Bombers will be among the honorees when the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame inducts its Class of 2014 at enshrinement ceremonies scheduled for 7 p.m., Oct. 28 at the The Broadmoor World Arena.
“The Colorado Springs Brown Bombers baseball team of the 1940s and 1950s in the city remain one of the most cherished parts of the city’s sports legends and history,” the Hall of Fame said in a news release announcing the new inductees. “The team is celebrated still today for its historic role in the struggle for racial equality in Colorado Springs.”
I first met the Brown Bombers last fall whenLucy Bell, a retired teacher, assembled them for a class she was teaching on the history of the city’s black community. Lucy is drawn to the subject because of the stories her late husband, Oliver Bell, told of growing up black in Colorado Springs.
At the end of my Oct. 13, 2013, column, I asked a simple question: Why aren’t the Brown Bombers enshrined in our Sports Hall of Fame?
I was surprised as anyone when, the next day, Tom Osborne, chief executive officer of the Colorado Springs Sports Corp., which sponsors the hall of fame, wrote me to say that my column would be used as a nomination for the Bombers.
I was flattered and hopeful the team would finally win enshrinement. So I was thrilled when Osborne wrote me again Monday to tell me the good news.
It was overwhelming for the surviving Bombers because of all they overcame to become champions.
As blacks in the 1940s, they grew up with few of the opportunities whites enjoyed.
The black players had organized themselves and largely taught themselves baseball, playing in neighborhood pickup games on gravel lots with makeshift balls, gloves and uniforms, barred from playing in youth leagues or on high school teams.
Meanwhile, their white opponents enjoyed years of high-level coaching, training and top-quality equipment playing in youth leagues.
“I was born here,” Smith said. “In the city, it was biased and prejudiced. You got to high school and you couldn’t play any sports except run track.
“We could only swim at the city pool one afternoon a week . . . the day they cleaned the pool. We’ve gone through so much over the years.”
Again emotion crept into his voice.
“We didn’t have anything to do but play baseball,” Smith said. “We played on rock and gravel lots. We didn’t have a field. We didn’t have equipment. If we had a broken bat, we taped that bat. We’d take a baseball and wrap it with black tape and use them.”
As they got older and started traveling as the Brown Bombers, they had to make roundtrips to away games in Trinidad and Western Slope communities because there were no motels that would accept blacks.
“It was a treat to play at the state penitentiary,” Smith said of trips to Canon City.
“They’d feed us and give us four or five balls and bats. Then we’d save them for our next games.”
The other four Brown Bombers shared similar memories with me last fall when I first wrote about them.
They recalled in vivid detail the indignities they suffered as blacks.
They were denied service at the soda fountain in Woolworths and shunted to the back of the balcony at the movie theaters. They were harassed and endured racial slurs and shocking treatment that was commonplace a half-century ago in America.
So they relished any chance to prove themselves the equals of whites and sports were a great opportunity.
Brothers Joe Morgan, 87, who played first base, and the Rev. Justus Morgan, 86, a pitcher, said the team’s enshrinement has great meaning.
“It’s quite a surprise to me,” Justus Morgan said. “I really never gave any thought to going in to the Hall of Fame. I didn’t think it would happen. It’s quite an honor to be chosen and thought of in such a good way. A great honor. I never dreamed it. It is incredible, considering all of the things that happened in our lifetimes.”
Joe Morgan, who was thefirst black umpireinvited to officiate a state high school championship game in 1970 and was enshrined in the hall in 2004, the news was proof of how much things have changed.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “It means quite a bit. I don’t know what to say. It means we’re making progress in the right direction. I definitely never would have dreamed it in a million years.”
When I met the Bombers last fall, I was impressed at their humility and at how much each man went on to accomplish. They had overcome the indignities to become respect community leaders, pastors, coaches, mentors, husbands and fathers.
Smith is a good example, famous as a youth mentor and well-known as a former 26-year employee of the Fine Arts Center.
While thrilled at the news, Smith also was a bit melancholy, thinking of all his fellow players who didn’t live to enjoy the moment.
“I’m blessed,” he said. “Most of us have passed away.”
But he laughed at the memory of those championships — the first victory in 1949 resulted in two white players being ejected and police called to “quell an incipient riot” as reported in The Gazette’s story of the game.
“I think it did shake up the community,” Smith said. “The black community, I think they were proud of us. We were keeping up our prestige.”
And the Bombers are still prestigious, said Osborne of the Sports Corp.
“It’s an honor,” Osborne said, “to have them in our hall.”