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    By Ryan Whirty

    Illustration by Rachel Sinclair

    In early 1886, Charles W. Hines — who was well known in Louisville’s burgeoning post-war African-American community as a political canvasser, education activist, newspaper correspondent and saloon keeper — purchased the Falls Citys, a “colored” semi-pro club founded three years prior. The team had emerged as a powerhouse among a large handful of other local black clubs by traveling extensively, from the lower South to the upper Midwest, according to historian, author and Society for American Baseball Research member James Brunson.

    Under Hines’ direction, the Falls Citys amassed some of the best hardball talent in the region. While attracting crowds numbering in the hundreds (that was substantial back then) and cultivating vigorous rivalries with other black teams like the Claytons and Old Honestys, the Falls Citys also crossed bats with local white teams. From its headquarters on 10th Street, the club, quite simply, took on all comers.

    “The Falls City champions added another victory to their long list yesterday afternoon,” the Courier-Journal reported in September 1886 after the squad beat a team known as the Sterlings. “The club is composed of the very best colored talent in the country and if the players could be kept together a season or two, the nine would certainly develop into a formidable rival to almost any aggregation.”

    Anchoring the Falls Citys was pitcher James Combs, a steamer in a tobacco factory. From the mound, Combs frequently stared down the best baseball squads the region had to offer. When the Gordons of Chicago came to Louisville for a three-game series in July 1886, Combs took the hill one day after the Windy City squad had clobbered the local nine 25-10. Combs mowed down the Gordons, and the Falls Citys notched a 31-7 plastering of the Chicago squad.

    While the club burnished its reputation, Hines and his squad embarked on one of their most pioneering endeavors — the construction of an 8,000-seat grandstand and ballpark at the intersection of 16th and Magnolia. The stadium, according to Brunson, “was the only recognized black ballpark owned by blacks, as far as we know, in the country.”

    The prospective 1887 season brought what Hines hoped would be his, and his franchise’s, crowning achievement — membership in the nascent National Colored Base Ball League, whose eight teams would include the Pittsburgh Keystones, Philadelphia Pythians, Lord Baltimores, Boston Resolutes, Cincinnati Browns, Washington Capital Citys and New York Gothams. Hines and the other organizers of the venture hoped their creation would become the first long-lasting national black professional baseball league.

    Brunson says local saloon keepers and gamblers bankrolled the Falls Citys, which might have given the venture a somewhat hinky appearance. But it didn’t matter to the Louisville faithful. The C-J reported: “Manager Hines…says that his men are undergoing daily practice…batting at swift and curved balls, both high and low. They are also practicing throwing and baserunning. Mr. Hines predicts a successful season for his team.”

    The players looked resplendent in their home uniforms of navy blue trimmed with maroon, while their road duds would be white-and-black plaid, with black trim.

    But just like the few previous attempts at interstate colored leagues, this one fizzled out as well, with only a few scheduled games actually being played (three on Louisville’s part) before the venture disappeared from local newspaper columns and evaporated into history’s haze.

    A struggling economy, a financially strapped populace and broken promises on the part of regional railroad magnates spelled quick doom for the NCBBL, Brunson says. For the record, the Falls Citys, which finished with one win in three tries, batted .435 as a team, led by Fred Mayfield’s .727 on eight hits in 11 at-bats.

    The Falls Citys soldiered on as an independent barnstorming club well into the 1890s, gradually taking different forms and monikers but nonetheless continuing to lay the foundation for African-American Louisville’s love for the new American pastime.

    The same rosy fate escaped the man who had shaped the Falls Citys into a juggernaut on the national stage. In 1889, Hines shot and killed his brother-in-law in front of a Main Street store after some serious fisticuffs. Hines was convicted of murder in January 1890 and sentenced to seven years in the state penitentiary.

    This originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find you very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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