Lebanon Clowns to be honored by Wilson County Black History Committee
It was a different America in many ways in the 1950s.
When it came to amateur baseball in Middle Tennessee, outstanding young black athletes could only play the game against other blacks.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball April 15, 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base. It would be 15 to 20 more years before black and white youngsters played the "great American pastime" side by side.
From the late 1940s until about 1959, young African-American men in Wilson County, who loved baseball, whiled away Sunday summer afternoons hitting, running, catching, and pitching with the Lebanon Clowns.
More than 50 athletes, some who wore nicknames such as Shorty, Bowchicken,
Bigclue, Redeye, Smiley, Boosem, Sunny, Mutt, Zeak, Foots, Pondwater and Rabbit, suited up for the Clowns.
Robert "Bob" McClellan, 87, and Harry Harris Jr., 81, are the only two local surviving teammates of the original Clowns. Two other members of the team, Charley B. Hill and Bobby Joe Jennings, live out of state.
The Clowns will be honored by the Wilson County Black History Committee, and Negro League Baseball will be celebrated during at 3 p.m. Sunday at Pickett-Rucker United Methodist Church (633 Glover St.) in Lebanon. During the program, the annual Chris Price Memorial Award winner will be announced, and Gail Cordell Hassell, a former basketball star for Lebanon High and Belmont University, will speak.
"We will recognize the families of the Lebanon Clowns and will be recognizing youth ballplayers and teams," said committee member Mary Harris.
"We will be remembering from where we came to now where the young players play together.
There has been quite an advancement in race relations from what the Negro League had to deal with because they couldn't get a room in hotels but had to sleep in cars."
Professional Negro League Baseball thrived during the 1920s, peaked in the 1940s and was losing steam by the early 1960s. Among several of the well-known teams were the Kansas City Monarchs, the St. Louis Stars, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays, the Baltimore Elite Giants, the Birmingham Black Barons and the Newark Eagles.
Star players included Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and Buck O'Neill.
The Lebanon Clowns, an amateur team, typically had 14 or 15 players on their squad. Their home field was a lot behind the WCOR Radio station off Trousdale Ferry Pike. Their opponents included teams from Gallatin, Chattanooga, Nashville, Murfreesboro, Old Hickory and Hartsville. On rare occasion, they took road trips to compete against teams in Birmingham, Ala., and Pontiac, Mich.
Mary Harris's father, Thelma "Slick" McAdoo, was the Clowns team president from about 1949 until 1956. Her husband, Harry Harris Jr. played center field for the team, and her brother, Charlie McAdoo, also played on the team.
"Our best players were Lewis 'L.E.' Ward and two brothers, Kenney and James Andrews, who played catcher and pitcher. We played 20 to 25 games a season," said Harry, whose nickname was "Hammerhead."
"We had a good team. We practiced every afternoon for about an hour. We were so disciplined, no disagreements. We had respect for each other. We just enjoyed playing together and knowing we had a good team."
Harry, a fleet of foot outfielder, and another star player, John Griffith, went to Nashville's Sulphur Dell Ballpark one day to try out for the Kansas City Monarchs. Even though they were not offered a pro contract, it remains a good memory.
He shares another, saying, "We played at the state penitentiary in Nashville. That was an exciting trip, and they came up here. We beat 'em here and we lost there.
"We rooted for the Dodgers because of Jackie Robinson. All you had was radio to listen to the World Series," he recalled of the era when television was in its infancy.
Mary said of the grand old game, "It gave us something to do on Sunday afternoon," and then confessed, "I was not a baseball lover, but we were courting."
Mary and Harry have been married 60 years, so it looks like they hit a grand slam.
"My dad and some of the others constructed some bleachers for spectators," she recollected of their ballpark. "He also ran the concession stand. He was a one-man stand."
As for souvenirs related to the Lebanon Clowns, all that survives is a 1953 team photograph with individual portraits of the players, one baseball jacket, a pair of cleats and a smudged baseball signed by Robert McClellan and dated 1956.
The team furnished the equipment for the athletes, and Mary remembers that the late Jimmy Nokes, who owned a sporting goods store in town, allowed her father to purchase what he needed on credit. They bought their uniforms from him.
McClellan, who had a long career at Ross-Gear as a toolmaker, enjoyed every minute of his time as a Lebanon Clown.
"I played shortstop. I threw more people out going to first base," he boasted mildly. "I'd be there every Sunday and played and played until I had to retire. But that was my thing. I loved to play baseball.
"I always tried to hit the ball every time. Ever now and then I might luck up into a home run," said the octogenarian, who played with a Carthage team before moving to the Cedar City. "I loved to hit that ball and run around those bases. We wasn't no babies. We moved around a little bit. We knew what we was doing. We weren't no pushovers."
McClellan continued to play baseball into his 50s.
Sporting a smile that would make Willie Mays proud, he concludes, "They were good ole days. I was young and playing ball."
Salute to the Lebanon Clowns
The Wilson County Black History Committee will honor the Lebanon Clowns and celebrate Negro League baseball during a 3 p.m. Sunday program at Pickett-Rucker United Methodist Church (633 Glover St.) in Lebanon. The annual Chris Price Memorial Award winner will be announced. Guest speaker will be Gail Cordell Hassell, a former basketball star for Lebanon High and Belmont University.