In the history of American sports team names, few names can match the bizarre quality of the Columbus, Georgia “Confederate Yankees” who played in the AA Southern League from 1964 to 1966. The image of future black major leaguer star Roy White wearing a Confederate flag patch on his minor league uniform sleeve is jarring, even to someone familiar with the uncomfortable history of race and minor league baseball. The Los Angeles-born White played for Columbus in 1964 and 1965, and his photo is set out below:
But was there really a team officially named the Columbus Confederate Yankees? Would the image-conscious New York Yankees really allow one of their affiliates to have the word “Confederate” as part of its team name at the high point of the Civil Rights Movement? Although the Yankees had originally resisted integrating their roster, by 1964, the team included a number of black players like Elston Howard, Hector Lopez, Al Downing, Marshall Bridges, Elvio Jimenez, and Pedro Gonzalez.
It turns out that there was such a team in Columbus, Georgia; the players did wear Confederate flag arm patches; but the team was never officially named the Confederate Yankees or Confederate-anything else.
My research in the Google, Proquest, and NewspaperArchive.com databases leads me to conclude that the team’s official name was always the Columbus Yankees. The vast majority of newspaper references refer to the team simply as the Yankees, as does the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, which is generally careful in such matters. (The Encyclopedia identifies the team name as Yankees for all three of its seasons.)
In 1963, the Yankees’ only AA farm team was the Augusta (Ga.) Yankees of the South Atlantic League. However, in the following off-season, the South Atlantic League was renamed the Southern League, and the Yankees’ AA team was relocated across the state from Augusta to Columbus.
On May 4, 1964, several weeks after the start of the Southern League season, the Rock Hill (S.C.) Herald reprinted an article from the Atlanta Journal which reported: “The new Columbus ball club is called the Columbus Yankees.” All other sources confirm that the team’s name was just the Yankees.
Where then did the name “Columbus Confederate Yankees” come from? The uniforms worn by the new team were identical to those of the New York Yankees, except that a “C” rather than an “N” was inter-locked with a “Y.” The new owners in Columbus apparently decided that adding a Confederate flag patch to their players’ uniform sleeves would work to enhance their local identity and counteract any negative implications that the word “Yankees” might have for the white fans of Columbus, Georgia. It was this patch, along with the fact that a Confederate flag was flown inside the Columbus ballpark on game days, that apparently prompted fans and other observers to start calling the team, the “Confederate Yankees.”
It is not clear who coined this unofficial nickname, but baseball fans both in Columbus, Georgia and elsewhere were apparently amused by the oxymoronic sound of “Confederate Yankees” and enjoyed repeating it. The label caught on with a handful of sportswriters as well. For example, the May 1965 issue of Baseball Digest referred to Columbus player Ike Futch–who struck out only 9 times in two full AA seasons–as a leading hitter for the “Confederate Yankees.” However, an August 1966 entry in the same magazine indicated that the name “Confederate Yankees” had been attached to the team by its southern white fans, who were uncomfortable rooting for a team called the Yankees, even if it was the home team. Subsequent histories of the Southern League have mentioned the name in passing, but none provide any evidence that “Confederate Yankees” was ever adopted as the team’s official nickname.
Concern about the appeal of a team called the Yankees in south-central Georgia during the highpoint of the Civil War Centennial and the African-American Civil Rights Movement may well have motivated the decision to add the Stars and Bars to the Columbus Yankee uniforms. The poor performance of the predecessors of the Columbus team, the Augusta Yankees of 1962 and 1963 South Atlantic League, seems to lend some credibility to this interpretation.
Fans of that Augusta team were notorious for not showing up at the ballpark. In 1962, Augusta drew a league low season total of 39,476 fans (an average of just under 564 per game). It repeated the accomplishment the next year when only 41,813 (606 per game) showed up, even though the Augusta Yankees won the league’s first half championship and triumphed in the post-season championship play-off. Even though the 1963 team also featured ten future major league players on its roster, the citizenry of Augusta, who had been without professional baseball since 1958, seemed indifferent to the team’s presence.
At the end of the season, the disgruntled Yankees cancelled their affiliation with Augusta, causing the team to withdraw from the league. Its place in the newly renamed Southern League was filled by a new franchise awarded to owners from Columbus, Georgia. The new team quickly reached an agreement to be the Yankees AA farm team for the 1964 season.
When the new Columbus team entered into an agreement with the Yankees, it apparently had no choice other than keep using the name Yankees. In the Yankee farm system in 1964, only AAA Richmond used its own distinctive nickname (the Richmond Virginians). All of the other teams, no matter where they were located, were called the Yankees. (To what extent this was forced on the teams by the Yankees is unclear. However, this practice was not unique to the Yankees in the 1960’s, and was consistent with the widely shared belief in that decade that the best way to market minor league baseball was as providing fans in the hinterlands with an opportunity to see the major league stars of tomorrow today.)
If the new owners believed that the name Yankees had adversely affected the appeal of the team when it played in Augusta, they may have thought that the explicit use of Confederate iconography might provide a counter balance for concerned fans.
As it turned out, the Confederate flag patch may have done the trick. Although Columbus was only slightly larger than Augusta (with a county population of 159,000 in 1960, compared to 136,000 for Augusta), the Columbus Yankees drew much better in 1964 than Augusta had in 1963, even though the team was not nearly as good. Columbus finished the 1964 season with a losing record and tied for next to last place in the Southern League, but it nevertheless attracted 67,117 fans, good for third best in the league. In 1965, the team finished in first place by a microscopic .001 percentage points, besting Asheville in one of the closest pennant races in minor league history. It also drew a league-leading 72,732 fans in spite of playing only 138 of 140 scheduled games.
However, the magic began to wear off in 1966, as the team tumbled back to 7th place, and attendance dropped to 48,847, still good enough for 4th place in the 8-team league, but apparently not enough to turn a profit. Shortly after the end of the 1966 season, the Columbus owners withdrew from their working agreement with the Yankees and folded the team.
However, rather than blame their slumping attendance on the unpopularity of the name Yankees, the Columbus owners and their supports in 1966 pointed their fingers at the major league Atlanta Braves, just that year relocated to Atlanta from Milwaukee. Most of the Southern League owners apparently felt that the league’s slumping attendance was the result of minor league fans deciding to stay home and watch their region’s first major league team play on television.
After losing their Columbus affiliate, the Yankees entered into a new agreement for a AA club with Binghamton, New York, which joined an expanded Eastern League in 1967. The Southern League survived, but only as a six-team league with no team in Columbus, Georgia.
The question of whether the “Yankee” name adversely affected minor league baseball attendance in the South in the early 1960’s is an interesting question. In 1964, the Yankees were on their way to their fifth straight American League championship and their 14th title in 16 years. That year their farm system contained seven teams, all of which were located in former Confederate states: Richmond, Va. (AAA); Columbus, Ga. (AA); Greensboro, N.C. (A); Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (A); Shelby, N.C. (A); Johnson City, Tenn. (R); and Sarasota, Fla. (R). That same year, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a continuing stream of anti-segregationist United States Supreme Court decisions had convinced many white southerners that “Yankees” were destroying their way of life. Three years later only the teams in Greensboro, Ft. Lauderdale (hardly a Deep South community), and Johnson City (in the southern mountains) remained part of the Yankee farm system. In the place of Richmond, Columbus, Shelby, and Sarasota were Syracuse, Binghamton, and Oneonta, New York. (The total number of farm teams had been reduced from seven to six.)
In addition to the situation regarding Augusta and Columbus, the Yankee name may have been something of a liability in Shelby, North Carolina. In 1962, Shelby was an independent team in the four-team Class D Western Carolina League. (It did appear to have some connections to the Yankees as its best young player, future major league outfielder Steve Whitaker, was under contract to the Bronx Bombers.) Playing under the name Colonels, it finished last and drew only 14,753 fans in a 100 game regular season, an average of 300 per game.
In 1963, the Western Carolina League was renamed the Western Carolinas (plural) League and as part of the reorganization of minor league baseball was reclassified as a Class A league. The number of teams in the league was doubled to eight; the season was expanded to 126 games; and each team was affiliated to one degree or another with a major league organization. The Colonels became an affiliate of the Yankees, but played under their old name. The team again finished in last place with an even lower winning percentage than the previous year. Even so, attendance figures improved fairly dramatically to 34,324, an average of 563 fans per game, which while still the worst in the league was considerably better than in 1962.
In 1964, Shelby adopted the name Yankees and rose to heights of sixth place. In spite of their improved play, the team’s attendance rose only to 34,620. Apparently convinced that it might do better under a different name, it received permission to change its name for 1965 to Rebels, thus going from Yankees to Rebels in consecutive seasons.
The Shelby Rebels got off to a good start, and on July 7, they were alone in first place. However, the team’s play fell of considerably after that, and it again ended the season in 6th place. Even worse, its attendance dropped to a league worst 22,876, and after the end of the season, the Colonels/Yankees/Rebels disappeared from Organized Baseball. The New York team did not even bother to seek out a replacement for the Shelby club in 1966.
Of course, there were reasons other than the objectionable nature of the team name that might explain why the New York organization may have pulled away from an all-Southern farm system in the mid-1960’s. First of all, the Yankees did not own most of their farm teams, and when the owners of the Richmond Virginians sold their team to a group from Toledo, the Yankees had no way to block the sale. The Yankees did not pull out of Richmond; the Richmond owners did. Toledo became the AAA Yankee affiliate until 1967, when the AAA affiliation was switched to Syracuse.
Also contributing to the dispersion was that fact that the market for minor league baseball in the South had begun to shrink, especially in Georgia, after the arrival of the Braves. The lack of major league teams in the region had, along with the weather, made the South a prime area minor league baseball in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, but that was beginning to change. Moreover, there were obvious savings to be had if a major league team’s minor league affiliates were located closer to the major league team (as were the three New York state affiliates in 1967).
Moreover, the practice of having multiple Southern-based minor league teams called the Yankees really only began after 1960. The first such team was Greensboro of the Carolina League, which had previously been a Boston Red Sox farm team known as the Patriots. When the team switched its affiliation to New York in 1958, it adopted the name “Yankees” (and thus became the first potential “Confederate Yankees”). Playing with the name Yankees did not appear to be a handicap in Greensboro which finished in the top half of Carolina League attendance four times between 1958 and 1964 (and led the league twice). The next two southern Yankee teams were Augusta and Ft. Lauderdale, both of which appeared in 1962. In 1963, they were joined by the Harlan, Ky. Yankees who were replaced the following year by the Johnson City Yankees. In 1964, they were joined by the Shelby, N.C. and Sarasota, Fla. Yankees, bringing the total to six.
Finally, by 1967, the Yankees mystique was considerably tarnished. The major league Yankees had already slumped to last place in the American League in 1966, and there was little reason to believe that would return to the top any time soon. The Bronx Bombers were hardly the symbol of dominant force that they had been a few years earlier, so the appeal of seeing the Yankee minor leaguers was not what it once had been.
Images of the confederate flag on the sleeves of black Yankee farmhands like Roy White and Elvio Jimenez (who played for Columbus after appearing with the Yankees in 1964) are a poignant reminder of the complex history of race and minor league baseball, but the problems that plagued the minor league Yankees in cities like Augusta, Columbus, and Shelby probably had more to do with the shaky economic foundation, and limited appeal, of minor league baseball in the 1960’s than it did with matters of race and regional bias.