BRADENTON -- Waymon Armstead. James “Son” Copeland. Morris Paskell. Al Swilley.
They’re in their 70s and 80s, the autumn and winter of their lives, but once upon a time they were Bradenton’s stars of summer.
They were the Bradenton Nine Devils.
It was the city’s black baseball club, comprised of players from Sarasota and Manatee County, who enjoyed prolonged success during segregation in the independent Florida State Negro League from 1937 to 1956.
“It was a good time and we went through a lot to get there,” said Copeland, who played shortstop. “Been so long since it happened.”
That’s why that era and those memories will be recalled and regaled at “Innings Ago,” a celebration of the Bradenton Nine Devils 6 p.m. Oct. 22 at the 13th Av Dream Center.
“This banquet is to honor these men, show our appreciation and recognize those of them who are living,” said Robert Dunlap, one of the event organizers and a member of Rogers Project Hope Inc. “Nothing like this has ever been done for them before and we want to do so before it’s too late.
“They are a source of pride for this community.”
Most of the Nine Devils have passed away.
Names like Elijah Barber, Red Hughes, Jewel Lee, Snow Riley and Buck Walter are the ghosts of a proud legacy.
“It won’t be that way ever again,” Copeland said.
Originally the Aces, they were renamed Nine Devils after winning their first nine games one season.
The players were dry cleaning owners, field workers, golf course groundskeepers and sanitation workers who excelled on the baseball diamond.
“When we knocked off work, we’d go behind the projects and practice,” said Copeland, a McKechnie Field caretaker. “Sundays we’d play ball.”
The Nine Devils played 70 to 75 games a year against ballclubs from Daytona, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach.
They also played Negro League ballclubs like the Cleveland Buckeyes, Homestead Grays and Indianapolis Clowns.
Road games were grueling trips.
There was no Interstate 75 or I-4, just dusty two-lane roads.
“Those bus rides’d kill you, especially going to Miami,” said Waymon Armstead, an outfielder. “It took about six hours. You’d leave two or three Sunday morning, you’d be sleepy, tired when you got there. Then you’d play, shower, eat, get back on the bus and be back at work the next day.
“You had to love it.”
Nine Devils fans sure did.
Home games at McKechnie and long gone Roush Field were festive affairs, usually drawing big crowds.
“Women wearing their Sunday hats, people laughing,” said Morris Paskell, a second baseman. “Everybody knew each other. It was beautiful.”
Segregation didn’t inhibit that enjoyment.
The Nine Devils were their team.
“I used to live there on Sunday afternoons,” said Joe Grissett Jr., a retired educator, whose father was a Nine Devils pitcher. “For a poor kid from the projects, this was our closest connection to big league baseball.”
The Innings Ago banquet is being co-sponsored by St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and Rogers Project Hope Inc., a 501c3 community organization, whose goal is to educate people on health issues specific to African Americans and participate in outreach programs at youth centers, beauty salons, barbershops and churches.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.