Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

In Sarasota, Memoriues from One of the Last Men Standing

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

In Sarasota, Memoriues from One of the Last Men Standing

Article excerpt

SARASOTA -- James "Son" Copeland is just about the last man standing from the original Bradenton Nine Devils. At a spry 90 years old, he has outlived the old Negro Leagues and many of the friends who played baseball with him.

In the 1940s, they were big names: Red Hughes, the ace pitcher, Elijah "Big Chief" Barber and Bob "Peachhead" Martin. Copeland and the Nine Devils were a sensation in Florida, speeding around the state in a tour bus painted fire-engine red with a devil on the side.

They're all gone now, but Copeland, visiting friends at a Newtown barber shop, remembers them all. Even John "Buck" O'Neil, who had moved up in the world when Copeland took the field, but never stopped coming back to visit after he made the big time.

Copeland and O'Neil had a lot in common. They both started out on some of the same diamonds playing Negro League baseball, lived to see the color line broken and had the longevity to keep their history alive through decades of obscurity. They both played at a time when baseball wasn't a billion-dollar business, but rather an escape.

For black fans of the Negro Leagues, that meant escape from the daily grind of oppression and hard labor of the Jim Crow era.

For the players, it could mean escape to a better life.

Now O'Neil, who played for the Sarasota Tigers in the 1920s, is gone. And Copeland is one of the oldest remaining players.

Copeland started playing serious baseball at the age of 15, when the Bradenton Aces found him in a neighborhood sandlot. They could see he was fast -- so speedy he played the outfield and infield at once, pulling down fly balls near the fence and racing in to make plays at shortstop.

The Aces gave him a chance to play with the grown-ups, and he hit a double and triple.

They asked him to come back, and he kept playing for 15 years.

In Bradenton, they played at McKechnie Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates held spring training. The Aces were allowed to use the field when the Pirates were away, Copeland said, as long as they cleaned up afterward.

Scraping by

Later Copeland joined the Nine Devils, who were stars here and on the road in Daytona, Miami, West Palm Beach and St. …

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