By Jennifer Graham
Although they were in a minor league, the Jacksonville Red Caps made a dent in baseball history in the late 1930s. They played seven games for the Negro American League in the first season.
The Red Caps got their name because most of the players lived in Jacksonville and worked at the Jacksonville Terminal Station, now the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
Their team name originated from the place most of the players worked – the local train stations. At the station in Jacksonville most worked as Pullman Porters, a group that consisted mainly of black men who tended to the sleeping cars.
The porters wore uniforms that were similar at the different train stations. The only thing that was different was the color of their caps.
When the team formed in Jacksonville in 1938, porters wore red caps and that became the name of their local team.
The Red Caps had a supportive following in the community but only played here for a single season. Not only did crowds attend their games, but the team also mounted a show after most games that would include some of Jacksonville’s best musicians.
“Since black athletes could not play in white leagues, the Negro Leagues offered players and fans the opportunity to play and compete in an environment free of racism and harassment,” said Ennis Davis, an urban planner and local historian.
The team’s home games were played at Barr’s Field, 1701 Myrtle Ave. in Jacksonville, which is now known as J.P. Small Memorial Park.
In 1939 the team left Jacksonville, moved north and became the Cleveland Bears, still a part of the Negro American League.
“The Red Caps moved most likely for financial reasons,” Davis said.
As a team in Jacksonville, the Red Caps had struggled financially before being purchased by new owners. The new owners moved the team to Cleveland, which had a larger population.
The Red Caps played under the name of the Cleveland Bears in 1939 at Cleveland Stadium. The team honed members’ baseball skills, raising the bar for the Negro American League.
As the Cleveland Bears, the team won 20 games and lost 21.
At the end of the second season for the Bears the team had won 16 games and lost 13.
However, after a disastrous season in 1940, the team returned to Jacksonville. By this time the ballfield had been renovated after a fire, and the team played as the Jacksonville Red Caps for two more seasons.
But a changing environment in professional baseball eventually spelled the end for the Negro leagues.
“Integration of the best black players into formerly all-white leagues hurt the quality of play,” Davis said.
In 1941, the Red Caps won 12 games and lost 19 and in 1942 the team won seven games and lost 22.
“The issue was that they were not winners,” said Lloyd Washington, president of the Durkeeville Historical Society. Although the team played well in Cleveland, it lost too many games in Jacksonville.
The Jacksonville Red Caps dropped out of the Negro League in July 1942.
The team continued to play with no affiliation at Durkee Field after World War II. It is unknown the actual year the team quit playing.
The Red Caps and other teams that played in Jacksonville are now memorialized in a small museum within the stadium in J.P. Small Memorial Park.