SAN ANTONIO – Before blacks were welcomed in Major League Baseball, many talented athletes resorted to playing in the Negro Leagues, and on neighborhood teams.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, the east side of San Antonio was an area where a lot of skills were honed, and baseball kept youth occupied.
“I feel we really got started because we couldn’t go play in other leagues,” said former minor/major league baseball player Odie Davis III.
In the 1960s, baseball was a segregated sport and minority players in San Antonio did not have an even playing field.
Its why Nathaniel and Odie Davis III’s father, Odie Davis Jr., who helped found the YMCA on Commerce Street in the 1940s, would go on to create a baseball team known as the Denver Heights Bears, and attract a pool of East Side talent.
“We needed to have a place to go and we never really wanted you to give us anything. We just wanted to be included,” Nathaniel Davis said.
“(It) was so important that everyone had a way out on the weekends, you know, to go practice… and loosen up and play a game on Sundays,” Odie Davis said.
“You had good coaches. And they were teaching us sportsmanship, and responsibility,” said former Denver Heights Bears baseball player, James Napper.
But the efforts to offer black youth opportunities in baseball was often met with challenges. In addition to playing against teams in the South Texas Negro League, the bears also faced white teams that didn’t show sportsman-like conduct.
“They would tell you in the beginning, ‘We don’t want you here.’ And say, ‘We’ll do everything in our power to make sure you lose.’ And they did,” Nathaniel Davis said.
But the players fought back.
“They would cheat… And we would just come together and that would make us stronger and would just come together and we would just beat them with our bats. We just we would just beat them,” Nathaniel Davis said.
Nathaniel Davis took over as manager of the Bears when their father died in 1975 and kept the team going until 2005. Odie Davis III got the chance to play in the major leagues for the Texas Rangers and the Cleveland Indians. Opportunities forged years earlier at Pittman-Sullivan Park.
“It (Pittman-Sullivan) really gave kids something to look forward to,” Napper said.
Many say Davis Jr.'s legacy is a big part of the reason why children and adults from all walks of life have that recreational space that’s still serving the community today.