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Posted: April 15, 2014 6:24 p.m.

Porterdale Blue Caps gave 'hope'

Submitted photo/The African-American Historical Association of Newton County/

The Porterdale Blue Caps baseball team gave black Newton County baseball players an opportunity to play the game they loved in front of friends, family and fans in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, Newton County baseball fans wouldn’t find the best baseball being played under bright lights or inside of a huge stadium.

They’d find it alongside the bank of a river, as the crack of the bat and chatter from the dugout competed with the swirling rapids of the Yellow River in Porterdale.

That’s where the Blue Caps made their home. Sponsored by the Bibb Manufacturing Company and managed by Carl McKnight, the Porterdale Blue Caps played the game the way baseball’s founders envisioned it — with passion.

“There would be some nights that the mosquitoes were so bad, they’d almost tote you off,” former Blue Caps second baseman John Wesley Smith said. “We didn’t care — we loved the game.”

Smith, who joined the Blue Caps at the young age of 13, said his start with the Blue Caps came out of necessity.

“I was the youngest out there,” Smith said. “Everyone else was probably seven or eight years older than I was. My uncle, John Lee Avery, talked me into it.”

Smith said that he played with children his age, but he wanted to prove himself against the best the county had to offer. He wanted more of a challenge.

“I tried out and made the team,” he said. “My uncle played shortstop and I played second base. We made a pretty good duo and I got to prove I could play.”

The team played in a handful of different leagues during its existence in Porterdale Park, drawing in hundreds for its Monday games and Saturday doubleheaders. Bibb provided the uniforms, equipment and game balls while Smith and his teammates provided the excitement.

“Bibb really kept the league afloat,” Smith said. “We didn’t have a lot of money and they kept us on the field.

“We played in a lot of different leagues, including the Middle Georgia League,” he said. “We played a lot of baseball and some of our guys got a lot of exposure.”

The Blue Caps even captured a Middle Georgia League title during their run in the league, traveling to different towns like Athens, Macon, Madison and Springhill.

To Smith and his teammates, the game of baseball was just that, a game, but they understood and recognized the significance of the local Negro and Textile Leagues and integration in baseball.

“Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947,” Smith said. “I was born three years later. We certainly read up on it and I think the biggest

thing we took away from it was that it gave us a chance.

“We had our own league and we were happy to play, but he gave everybody hope,” he said. “Everyone thought they had a chance to go on and play. Being down here, you didn’t always get the exposure you wanted, but we still had a chance. We just continued to play and have fun.”

Local historian Flemmie Pitts remembers the Blue Caps and the weekends he and friends enjoyed watching the team play.

“They had some great, great players,” Pitts said. “They’d travel to Birmingham and Atlanta and play some really good teams. A lot of times games would have to be stopped because they’d run out of balls that went into the river.

“They were a lot of fun to watch play and I believe the league gave them dreams of reaching the majors,” he said. “I believe if it was today, a lot of them would have made it.”

Smith reflected on some of the Blue Caps greats including pitcher Willie Roy Grier, first baseman George Petty and the McKnight family, including coach Carl McKnight and outfielder Carl McKnight, Jr., as well as local Negro League greats like Bill White, Junior Freeman and Norman Freeman.

“I hope that players today recognize the work that these guys, both locally and nationally, did to get to where we are today,” Smith said. I think kids today really still love baseball, but it’s getting fewer and fewer in numbers.

“They’re migrating to other sports and a lot tell me that baseball is boring,” he said. “I don’t know if they understand the game like we do or appreciate it.”

With full integration in Major League Baseball beginning in 1959, the Negro and Textile Leagues were soon left without a reason to stay intact. Black players began playing professionally and in high school programs, but Smith hopes people recognize the importance of the team to the growth of not only baseball in the region, but to society as a whole.

“It was a fun time to play the game with friends,” Smith said. “I know I enjoyed it. We all just loved the game.”

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