Inside Pebble Hill
by Whitney White
Baseball as it is known today dates back to the mid 1800s. Once introduced, the sport quickly grew in popularity, and by 1860 journalists were calling the game “America’s pastime.” As the sport became more widespread, teams developed across the country, and interest in the game expanded even further. Always on the cutting edge, Thomasville found itself in the thick of the baseball frenzy that was sweeping the nation.
In the early 1900s, most of the plantations in the Thomasville, Georgia and Tallahassee, Florida area had baseball teams that competed against each other. The players were plantation employees who proudly played in uniforms that displayed the plantation names. The games were taken very seriously, and recruitment of good ball players was often a major factor in hiring help on the plantations. Tradition has it that Elisabeth Ireland Poe, mistress of Pebble Hill Plantation, personally went to the local schools to hire some of her staff based on their ball-playing abilities.
The quantity of photos in the Pebble Hill archives numbers well into the thousands. The Hanna family documented virtually everything with pictures, and today these images prove a wonderful resource in looking at what life was like at Pebble Hill years ago. A few of the baseball images from the late 1910’s through the early 1920’s have identifications written in Mrs. Poe’s hand. Based on these identifications, some of the players included Arnold Austin, Jesse Austin, Lloyd Austin, Rhett Dickey, Wally Diggs, Joe Hill, Harry James, Mack (Bull) McQueen, Robert Mitchell, and Harry Reid.
Arthur Massey, one of Pebble Hill’s dog handlers, was considered the best pitcher in the area. He dated Alice Hatcher, who was employed by Springhill Plantation. When Arthur and Alice decided to get married, the owners of Pebble Hill and Springhill argued over where the couple would work, and therefore, on which team Arthur would play. In the end, Arthur stayed at Pebble Hill, and Alice came to work there as well. This information came from Bill Walden, a former Pebble Hill employee, whose father, Josh Walden, also worked at Pebble Hill and was a member of the Pebble Hill team.
According to Emmett Bush, long-time employee at Springwood Plantation and a player for that team, games were regulation nine innings. Typically the managers of the teams served as the umpires. The plantation owners supplied the uniforms and other equipment necessary for playing the games. Each of the plantations had its own baseball field.
In order to play for one of the plantation teams, each employee had to try out, and the manager of the team decided whether or not that person made the team. Mr. Bush remembers playing against the Pebble Hill team, which was one of the top contenders. At that time, some of the Pebble Hill players included: Arthur Massey (star pitcher), Freddy Massey (pitcher and third baseman), Arthur Gilmore (right field), Joe Reid (pitcher), and Henry Reid (catcher). Lloyd Hadley served as the manager of the Pebble Hill team.
The baseball games were big events that were attended by all of the plantation employees and their families, as well as the plantation owners, their families, and guests. Games were usually played on Saturdays. Louise Ireland Humphrey, president emerita of the Pebble Hill Foundation, remembered when her grandmother, Kate Hanna Ireland Harvey, owned Pebble Hill that, “simply everybody went to the games.” There was loud rooting for the home team and much excitement. Mrs. Humphrey said that, “the games were great fun for all who attended.”
In 2012, home movie films from Pebble Hill’s archives were donated to the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Brown Media Archives for preservation and digitization. At the end of one of these reels is 26 seconds of rare footage showing one of these baseball games being played between Pebble Hill and Chinquapin Plantation. Based on photographs, uniform design, and the other films on the reel, the footage is believed to be from around 1919. According to Margie Compton, moving image archivist at UGA, “[the footage] may be the earliest film of African-American baseball players.” The discovery and announcement of this early baseball footage received media attention nation-wide and was covered in the New York Times, NBC Nightly News, and other media outlets.
Times change, and many things are not the way they once were. The plantations no longer have their baseball teams. However, the record stands. Those teams and the games they played were historically significant. They were an integral part of life on the plantations in the early years of the 20th century, and the story of their contributions is one for the history books.