Plaque to honor the Chattanooga Elite Giants

Plaque to honor the Chattanooga Elite Giants

May 6th, 2013 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Herman Prater Sr., right, shows his jersey to Larry "Bear" High, seated left. Van Atkins, center, looks on as former members of the Elite Giants baseball team gathered Tuesday at Bear's Barber Shop in Alton Park.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

When Herman Prater and his friends started playing baseball in the back of McCallie Homes in the early 1960s, the field was so rough and littered with rocks that they called it "Rocky Diamond."

But that didn't stop them.

They cleared the rocks by hand and created an infield by sitting on pieces of wood or old mattresses tied to a truck driven by a friendly neighbor. The man's truck would drag the wood and mattress around the dirt to smooth it out, said Prater.

Eventually it began to look like a baseball field, he said.

But that was just the beginning.

One day as the team was practicing, George Lawson, a player with the Chattanooga Choo Choos and former player in the Negro League, stopped by and asked if the boys wanted some baseball uniforms.

We told him, "yes, sir!" said Prater in a written account of the meeting.

Lawson brought the uniforms the next day.

The uniforms were too big, said Prater, so the boys' mothers and grandmothers took them in so they would fit.

"Elite Giants" was emblazoned on the jerseys in big red letters. It was the name of a onetime semipro team.

From 1961 to 1963, the Chattanooga Elite Giants went on to win every championship game that they played in the Henry Branch YMCA's Knothole League, said Prater, a pitcher and outfielder.

"We were the best thing that ever came through Chattanooga," said Prater. "Nobody could beat us."

Those days are gone now, but Prater and fellow Elite Giant Randall High thought they should be memorialized.

So when the new Alton Place Apartments opened this spring on the spot where they used to practice, they went to co-owner Michael Hedges to share their story.

Hedges was impressed and agreed to name the apartments' clubhouse in honor of the Elite Giants.

"We want to honor what they did, especially in the times in the South. It had to be hard for a bunch of black guys to bring that together," said Hedges.

He said he's only waiting to get information about the team's history before making and hanging a plaque. He hopes to have it up before the end of summer.

The Elite Giants was one of about a dozen teams in the league of at least 100 teenage black boys from South and East Chattanooga.

Other teams in the league include the Bethlehem Center Mets, the Piney Woods Braves and the Citico Cubs.

The local team was named after the semiprofessional Nashville Elite Giants, a team that was part of the Negro Southern League that lasted from the 1920 to the 1950s when players from the teams began to integrate into major league teams.

The Elite Giants started in Nashville in the 1920s and moved to Baltimore in 1938, according to news reports.

That team played in Chattanooga against other Negro League greats like pitcher Satchel Paige, who played with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts in the mid- to late 1920s, and Willie Mays, who played with the Chattanooga Choo Choos in 1947 before finding fame in the major leagues.

Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson also played in Chattanooga in an exhibition game at Engel Stadium against the Boston Braves on April 6, 1952. It was the first baseball game in Chattanooga in which blacks and whites competed against each other, according to news reports.

Larry "Bear" High and Prater, former members of Chattanooga's Elite Giants, later became little league baseball coaches in Chattanooga around 2008.

But they say they'll never forget their days with the Elite Giants.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.