Nat Peeples (1926-2012)
Nat Peeples, a player on the Atlanta Crackers team, was the only African American to play in the Southern Association, one of the nation's leading minor league baseball organizations.
Nathaniel Peeples was born on June 26, 1926, in Memphis, Tennessee. He studied mathematics at LeMoyne College (later LeMoyne-Owen College) in Memphis before dropping out in 1948 to play catcher for his hometown team, the Memphis Red Sox, in the Negro American League. Over the next few years, Peeples also played for several other teams, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns, as a catcher and outfielder.
In 1953 the Boston Braves (later the Atlanta Braves) picked up Peeples's contract, and he played for a Braves farm team until Earl Mann, the owner and general manager of the Atlanta Crackers, signed him to play for the Crackers in the team's 1954 season. Although the league's stance on integration was neutral (teams could hire black players if they chose), no black players had ever played in a Southern Association game. During the preseason Peeples hit .416, but he was on the Crackers' regular season roster for only two weeks. He played in the first two games of the season, against the Mobile Bears in Mobile, Alabama, before Mann optioned him to the Class A Jacksonville Braves. Mann said that he wanted to give Peeples more playing time than he would have with the competitive Crackers team.
The decision to demote Peeples after only two games was controversial. Some ballplayers and sportswriters at the time felt that Peeples was not ready for the Crackers because his skills were lacking. Others believed that Peeples was ready for the team but that Mann cut him because of pressure not to integrate the league. The debate played out in the local newspapers. Furman Bisher wrote in the Atlanta Constitution that "Peeples . . . got a full trial and lost his job." Marion Jackson wrote in Atlanta Daily World that Peeples was the subject of racial discrimination.
More recent scholarship leans toward the conclusion that Peeples was let go because of his ability and not because of discrimination. The strong-willed Mann was not easily intimidated or persuaded by others, and neither the league itself nor the fans seemed disturbed by the possibility of integration. By 1954 all the minor leagues, with the exception of the Southern Association, had integrated.
After leaving the Atlanta organization, Peeples bounced around the Braves farm system, rising as high as AAA. During the off-seasons he played winter ball in Latin America. His career ended in 1960 because of a severe knee injury.
Peeples died in 2012 in Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of 86.