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Class D trailblazer turned to teaching

Jones was first African American in the Georgia-Florida League
Lew Jones batted .182 in six games for Waycross before making a life-altering decision. (Alabama-Florida League)
December 5, 2019

Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, will attempt to fill that gap

Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in our feature, "Cracked Bats."

Lew Jones has no regrets when looking back at what he's accomplished over the last five decades. He's spent much of his adult life as an educator, working with youngsters to make the kind of impact he might not have made if he stayed in Waycross, Georgia in the summer of 1954.

It was during that summer that Jones broke down one of the many remaining racial baseball barriers in the Deep South, becoming the first African American to ever play in the Class D Georgia-Florida League. Jones' experience during the short time he spent in Waycross certainly wasn't positive, but it was lasting. So much so that he abandoned one dream in favor of another, but never really wondered what might have been.

Jones appeared in only six games for Waycross, hitting a meager .182, before the racial tension in southern Georgia forced him to make what would be a life-altering decision. Rather than continue to wage a fight he knew he wouldn't win, Jones left Waycross for a teaching job in northern Florida and embarked on a career where he could make an impact in a different way.

"It was a short-lived career [in baseball]," Jones, 78, said. "Overall, it was only one year and, of course, I was the first African American to play in the Georgia-Florida League, so that was pretty positive. But I've never looked back. I'm happy with the decision I made."

Jones' story actually began five years earlier when he was starring at Florida A&M University. The Braves, the Dodgers, the Pirates and the Cubs all expressed interest in the flashy young infielder, who was hitting well over .400 as a sophomore. The Dodgers actually approached him with a contract offer at the time but his mother opposed the move, hoping her son would finish school and earn a degree.

Though Jones wanted to play pro ball, he knew his mother was right. He finished college and joined the Air Force, but continued to play. The Braves didn't lose interest and towards the end of his hitch, Jones signed with Milwaukee. He was discharged from the service near the end of the 1953 season, too late to begin playing, so he accepted a teaching position in Florida.

"Come February, though, I started smelling baseball and I told my principal that I was going to honor my contract with the Braves," Jones said. "So I reported to Waycross, which was their headquarters for all the A teams and under. From there they sent me to Eau Claire [of the Class A Northern League]. But it was cold as heck and I injured my back.

"I didn't play for several weeks because of the back. After that, they sent me to Paris, Illinois [of the Class D Mississippi-Ohio Valley League]. The climate was much warmer and I burned up that league, hitting over .500 for a few weeks. That's when they sent me to Waycross."

It had been more than seven years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues. Most big league clubs had integrated to some extent and some of the prejudices that had existed were slowly beginning to fade. The Braves, having signed Hank Aaron and pushed him through their system, were one of the teams that didn't back away from signing minorities. But such progressive thinking had yet to reach Waycross.

Paul Eames was the 27-year-old catcher at Waycross in 1954, but also doubled as the team's manager. He tells of an early road trip to Thomasville that season, one that paved the way for Jones' arrival in Waycross.

A black semi-pro team had played a series at Memorial Stadium while the Bears were on the road. Team ownership watched the series and decided to give several of the players tryouts. So Eames conducted a tryout upon his return but said, "they couldn't play if we paid them 10 cents." He told management that if they wanted a minority to play, the Braves would have to send one. Jones arrived two days later.

It became apparent early on, however, that Jones would have trouble. For starters, the Bears already had a first baseman in Bill McColley, so Eames shifted him to left field. Jones, who went 1-for-4 in his debut, also struggled at the plate, so when he did play, it was sparingly. Finally, there were cities on the circuit that wouldn't host an opponent if one of the team members was black, so Jones was left behind on several road trips.

The situation finally boiled over one afternoon during the first game of a doubleheader at Waycross. Jones, according to Eames, underhanded a ball back to the infield with runners in scoring position. The poor throw allowed the winning run to score. When Jones returned to the dugout after the inning, he and Eames had words.

"When he came back to the dugout, I asked, 'What's wrong with you?'" Eames said. "He told me 'Coach, if you're going to get on my butt and listen to the whites then I'm not going to pay attention.' He said he didn't want to play for me anymore and I ran him out of the dugout and never did see him again."

What Jones didn't know, however, was that Eames was one of his few supporters. The skipper had been getting late-night phone calls issuing death threats if he continued to play Jones. One heckler even accused him of having an improper relationship with Jones' wife. But Eames kept this all to himself, choosing to shield Jones from as much abuse as possible.

Jones, unaware of his manager's support, had had enough. It wouldn't be until decades later that he would learn of Eames' attempt to protect him.

"I was making $400 a month and that was a lot for Class D ball," Jones said. "But I was promised a teaching and coaching job back in Florida so I went home and got ready for that. I was married and had two children and half my paycheck was going to a phone bill. I was grateful for the decision I made because I was older than most of the players.

"I was 24 or 25 and that's too old to get started in the lower Minor Leagues. So I stayed in education and I made good progress. I became a principal, I taught in college, got a Masters and a Ph.D. Baseball was a stepping stone for a great life."

There was a Class D reunion in Moultrie, Georgia in 2003, and both Eames and Jones were in attendance. Neither had seen each other since Jones left the dugout that day in Waycross. Eames approached Jones' wife Barbara and explained what had really gone on. Jones eventually came over and the two had a long talk, finally shedding some light on a decades-old problem.

"It's possible that things might have been different had I told him back then [in 1954]," Eames said. "I treated this guy well until that one throw and that got me teed off. When you lose a game, you don't want it to be like that whether the person is black, white or in between.

"He wasn't hitting though, and they were knocking him down quite a bit. I guess he came a little too early down there. We had Hank Aaron playing in Jacksonville and he was drawing good crowds. If we had [Jones] get hot with the bat, it might have changed."

Jones never gave up his love for the game. He followed the Braves through their pennant-winning years and kept in touch with Aaron, Felix Mantilla and Mudcat Grant when the Braves came to Philadelphia to play the Phillies. Jones was getting a degree at Temple at the time and the players would leave tickets for him.

He still plays softball four times a week and last year presented a paper at the Hall of Fame about black families that housed and fed black ballplayers until segregation was no longer an issue. Mostly, he has no regrets.

"For the most part [1954] was positive," he said. "I met a lot of nice guys and played with some who would play and manage in the Major Leagues. That's the way I choose to think about it."

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for