Icons of America’s pastime such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig have laced their cleats up at present day J. P. Small Park on Jacksonville’s Northside. What if we told you they’re not the biggest sports heroes to round the bases, though? Now, the Prime Osborn Convention Center is the birthplace of many of the Bold City’s networking and business dreams. In 1937, the then-railroad-station was the unassuming birthplace of one of the boldest, most influential stories in the First Coast’s extensive sports history. Employed as Pullman porters and tending to sleeper cars for the passengers coming in and out of the Jacksonville Terminal, our heroes sported an infamous red cap. This uniform accessory would go on to be the origin of the Jacksonville Red Caps, the city’s pride of the Negro American League.
Even more impactful than the stint that the porters played in the birth of the Red Caps, is the fact that Pullman porters, nationwide, helped create what is known today as the first African- American labor union. The group was the first African-American labor group to finalize a collective bargaining agreement with a major corporation, according to The Smithsonian.
With that being said — PLAY BALL!
Starting in 1938, the Red Caps took the field in Durkeeville at Barr’s Field for the first time, playing a 7-game season in year one. After their first season in Jacksonville, the Red Caps took a vacation to Cleveland for two years, before returning home to their roots for the 1941 and 1942 seasons.
The team’s brief vacation in Cleveland led to the team finishing with 20 and 18 wins in respective years. The relocated Jacksonville club actually had its two best seasons in Ohio, ironically enough. Monikered as the Bears, they would return to the sunshine, regardless of the wins. We’ve never seen a bear in Cleveland, but perhaps that’s part of the reason the Red Caps returned to Jacksonville so quickly.
After the return, the Red Caps played two full seasons in Jacksonville in the NAL, and as an independent club in 1944. Their franchise record is cemented at 75-100-2 (.423), not counting their four-game season (0-4) after leaving the NAL.
Herbert Barnhill, the last known surviving Red Cap member who passed away in 2004, is believed to have had some strong theories regarding the NAL and their crowds. Barnhill, long after retirement, is on record according to multiple outlets regarding the attendance. Barnhill insisted that NAL games were forbidden from being scheduled on the same day in the same city as MLB games, due to the discrepancy in crowds, in which the NAL venues outpaced those of Major League Baseball.
While the Red Caps are no longer rounding third, their legacy is still palpable in the city. The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp hosted a tribute to the historic club on July 13th at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. Former NAL players James Sanders was present for the ceremonies which also included the current roster honoring those before them with replica ball caps from the 40’s.