In 1949, the Brooklyn Dodgers had Jackie Robinson. Colorado Springs had the Brown Bombers.
Just two years after the Dodgers’ star broke Major League baseball’s color barrier, the Bombers achieved their own historic diamond breakthrough — one equally fraught with racism, but also marked by achievement and celebration.
Seventy-two years ago, no one outside of the Rocky Mountains had ever heard of the Brown Bombers, a team of Black men who surged into a previously all-white city league and won back-to-back championships.
“They hated it real bad when we beat them, and we hated it real bad when they beat us,” James “Sonny” Bell Jr., the Bombers’ star pitcher and shortstop, told an interviewer 22 years ago of the racial subtext infused in those games. “We were underdogs, but we showed them that we could play a little bit, too.”
Only two survivors of the Brown Bombers remain, but some of the players still speak of the groundbreaking team through oral histories recorded for the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in 1999. Those interviews, which recount an era of segregation and humiliation, also offer a glimpse into how long-ingrained racial attitudes played out at a time when sports had just barely attempted to bridge the chasm.
The museum granted The Colorado Sun access to the audio archives for this story, marking the first time the recordings have been released outside of its research system, as the small staff works to digitize the entire collection. Quotes in this story from players other than outfielder Sylvester “Smitty” Smith, who still lives in Colorado Springs, were transcribed from those interviews. Surviving left-handed pitcher Justus Morgan declined an interview, citing poor health.
The Bombers came together right after World War II, and within a couple of years were challenging the old guard — the white-only teams that had always dominated the city league. Their solid advance to the title game in 1949 brought larger-than-usual crowds out of their homes and into the stands.
On Aug. 18, the Bombers toppled a powerful Fort Carson team behind the lefty Morgan, who honed his pitching craft in an alley behind the Colorado Springs Recreation Center, a hangout for Black soldiers. He baffled hitters who found his “curve and slow stuff too difficult to fathom,” the Colorado Springs Gazette wrote at the time.
That victory ignited the Bombers’ run toward the City League title.
“We were scrappy and most of us were fast,” Morgan recalled in one of the 1999 recordings. “That’s the type of ball we played.”
Two weeks after the win over Fort Carson, on a warm and clear Saturday night, the Bombers showed they were for real by winning the City League championship game at Memorial Park over a team called Still Bros.-Jackson. The victory sparked anger among the losers even before the game ended, when a frustrated player charged an umpire in the ninth inning and triggered what the Colorado Springs Gazette sports page described as a “rhubarb.”
The next morning’s headline: “Near-Riot Hits Memorial As Bombers Cop Title 9-6.”
Colorado Springs historian and author Lucy Bell, a cousin by marriage of Sonny Bell, recalls the dismay in some corners of the community that followed. For years, only all-white teams had claimed the championship.
“They were gonna have this big banquet because everyone was sure one of the white teams would win,” she said. “But the Brown Bombers won, and so they canceled the banquet.”
“We didn’t care about that,” said outfielder Smith, now 91, who remembers the celebrations their neighborhoods threw for them. “We had barbecues for a week.”
But the tensions that sometimes boiled over on the field were never far away. The players who competed in the City League also lived and worked in proximity to each other, and for the newly successful Brown Bombers, that meant that the same animosities that flared in their games could easily spill over into daily life.
“When their games were over, they still lived in this community. They may have seen the guy who threw at their heads or called them names the night before,” said Bill Vogrin, who wrote extensively about the Bombers’ history as a journalist at the Colorado Springs Gazette. “They were a team of Jackie Robinsons.”
The Brown Bombers’ continued success after that first championship year in 1949 was hard for the rest of the competitive City League to swallow. One team, the Demon Elks, reportedly withdrew from the league.
“We started the team because we wanted to be equal or better than the others,” said Smith, a Bomber described as a flash of speed when he rounded the bases. “To be honest” — and here he looked out playfully from over his reading glasses — “I sat on the bench a little bit, too.”
Smith still lives in the Colorado Springs home where he and his wife, Alton, raised their family.
Morgan, the crafty pitcher who eventually became pastor at Colorado Springs’ Morgan Memorial Chapel Springs, declined to speak in person, but his oral history recalls a baseball history predating the Brown Bombers. He spoke of neighborhood ball games with his twin brothers, Joe and John, when they used a tree branch for a bat.
“We made up our own fun … played ball in vacant lots,” he said. “We had to do our work, though, before we could go out.”
Later, the Morgan brothers would constitute one third of the starting nine for the Brown Bombers.
Unlike many of the organized teams they faced, the Black kids couldn’t afford expensive baseball camps, had little formal coaching and practiced on a gravel field. With the price tag for a new wooden bat at $6 or $7, they cobbled together every splintered remnant to extend its life.
“We’d tape and nail (them) up,” Sonny Bell recalled. “New balls were a thing. We never did have a good array of bats and balls. I think that was one of our biggest problems. But as far as being able to perform, we did quite well.”
The birth of the Bombers
In the beginning, they were called “The Clouds of Joy,” at their wives’ request. Not satisfied with a name that might have been better suited to a gospel choir, the team eventually settled on one that honored a legendary boxer, and their own tendency to swing for the fences.
“I, for one, hated that name. So did Justus,” Bell said, referring to the wives’ choice. “Between the two of us we came up with the Brown Bombers after Joe Louis. We were brown and we used to like to bomb.”
Their motivation not only to play, but to win, drew strength from the racist, dehumanizing behavior they encountered daily. Some were turned away from the YMCA pool because they were Black. The server behind the lunch counter at Walgreens served their 75-cent toasted cheese sandwiches and milkshakes laced with enough salt to render them inedible. The last straw may have been the high school football coach who said he wouldn’t let an “n-word” play varsity football.
“We wanted to show the white guys that we were just as good or better,” said first baseman Joe Morgan, “because we weren’t allowed on their teams.”
A string of events needed to unfold before the team could play in the City League. The Colorado Civil Rights Law had been enacted in 1935, and when Black and Hispanic soldiers started coming home to segregation after World War II, the local NAACP became energized.
It led peaceful sit-ins of local businesses that refused to serve Blacks. By 1947, the NAACP filed lawsuits against George’s Hamburgers, which would only allow take-out to African Americans, and the Walgreens that served the salty milkshakes.
The Brown Bombers seized this turbulent atmosphere of change to press for their right to play on the previously all-white City League diamond.
“The city wasn’t perfect and neither were we,” said Joe Morgan, who had his eye on going pro and participated in the sit-ins at Walgreens. “It meant hope. You have those dreams.”
According to Sonny Bell, the team’s pitcher and shortstop, the Brown Bombers’ games were like a track meet.
“Once we got on base we were kind of like Jackie Robinson, we’d worry them to death, getting those runs in there,” Bell said. “We would put on what you would call a show.”
Eventually, a local shoe repair store and an integrated hot spot, the
Cotton Club, agreed to sponsor the Brown Bombers. As their reputation grew, and with real uniforms and a snappy name, the team of childhood friends started getting invitations to play in towns outside of Colorado Springs.
Before long, the Brown Bombers were in demand from LaJunta to Lamar, from Grand Junction to Pueblo and south to Trinidad. And then there was that time in Cañon City.
Baseball behind the wall
During one Colorado Springs game, the players noticed a spectator in a hat and suit playing extra close attention. The man was Roy Best, the warden at Cañon City’s State Penitentiary.
Best had fielded a team of inmates as part of a groundbreaking rehabilitation program and saw potential for a great match-up: his mean prison machine he dubbed “Roy’s Best,” and the scrappy Bombers who were taking the state by storm. (Prison Museum Curator Stacy Cline notes Best’s baseball program was scrapped in the 1950s once inmates began using the bats and balls as weapons.)
As the team prepared for the prison game, Sonny Bell wrote a letter to Best asking if they could bring their wives to watch. Best wrote back: “It is a little hard on women in an institution of this kind. But if you bring them with you, I’m sure the boys will try to take care of them some way.”
Some of the wives went inside the walls out of curiosity.
“That was a treat for us because you couldn’t get in there. Nobody could go in,” Smith recalled. “They were friendlier than the people in the different cities where we played. And the food was good.”
Maybe the noon-time meal they were served was too good.
“They fed us a big lunch,” recalled Justus Morgan. “And we had no idea we’d have to go right out and play.” Morgan laughed that the team was so stuffed “… we could hardly go around the bases!”
Baseball against hardened criminals produced plenty of drama for the Bombers. For instance, prison players in the dugout shouted threats at Morgan when a foul ball floated inside the first base line.
“They said, ‘You better not catch it,’” he said. “And I didn’t.”
The game ended early in a 9-9 tie when Roy’s Best players got into a fistfight — with each other.
But the inmates had respect for the scrappy team with duct-taped equipment who dared to play in their yard. The prisoners made their own bats in the woodworking shop with special care to mill them straight and true. In a scene right out of Shawshank Redemption, the Bombers were loading up the dilapidated team bus to leave when they heard a whistle.
“An old man came over to us and asked us to wait a minute,” Smith said. “When he came back, he was dragging a big bag with him, which he emptied and out came a whole bunch of brand new Louisville Sluggers.”
Candice McKnight, CEO and President of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society, heard the prison stories as a child growing up in the same neighborhood as many of the players.
“They used to laugh about it, because the Bombers’ equipment was raggedy,” McKnight said. “They couldn’t believe down there at the penitentiary they had all new stuff that they had shellacked and varnished.”
Did the bats help the Brown Bombers take the City Crown that year?
“When you see them in 1950 as City Champs … something must have worked,” she said.
The Bombers hit the road
Eventually, the Brown Bombers took their show on the road. Simmy Simpson, an electrical engineer who worked at Fort Carson and proved such a big fan that he became an honorary team member, somehow managed to wrangle a rickety bus to carry them to all corners of the state.
“It was raggedy,” Smith said. “It broke down all the time.”
Smith remembers almost missing a game when the bus sputtered to a stop well short of their destination: the dusty farm town of Calhan. With no way to let anyone know they were delayed, the Bombers sent their best long-distance runner, shortstop and outfielder Larry Moss, to hoof the message to the waiting fans and players.
Moss delivered the message, huffing and puffing. The bus limped in an hour late. But the Bombers won the game.
“We beat them, but then there was hell to pay,” Smith said. “There weren’t Blacks out in Calhan and Peyton and all of those places. They didn’t want you out there cause we were Black. That didn’t bother us. We got over it.”
They got over all of it: eating brown bag lunches because restaurants denied them a hamburger; enduring 10-hour road trips with a game in between because a Black man’s money wouldn’t buy a bed and a pillow at a hotel.
“They had a common enemy of racism,” said Vogrin, the former Gazette journalist. “They reinforced each other and came together to play baseball.”
Gone and almost forgotten
The Bombers’ magical run ended in the late 1950s. Colorado Springs got the Sky Sox, a minor league team, and softball replaced baseball as the favored municipal competition.
As the Korean conflict heated up, some of the players were drafted into military service. Some who returned home used GI Bill money or got athletic scholarships to put themselves through college.
“After 1950, everybody was getting married,” recalled Sonny Bell, who pitched the team to the 1949 title but soon enough started a family and had to work two jobs, including one as an umpire, to make ends meet. “We were all no longer interested in city baseball.”
The Brown Bombers’ glory days may have gone largely unrecognized — at least in the larger Colorado Springs community — if not for Vogrin’s campaign, 65 years after the back-to-back city crowns, to use his city column in the Gazette, titled “Side Streets,” to pressure the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame to induct them. That happened in 2014.
“They would have been enshrined decades earlier had they been white,” Vogrin said. “They didn’t let discrimination jade them. They persevered and went on to have amazing professional careers and lives even after the adversity they endured on the baseball diamond.”
Sam Dunlap, who died in 2019 at the age of 85, was the Bombers’ catcher. The city honored the youth mentor with a mural in John Adams Park. He is most remembered as the first Black baseball coach for Colorado Springs District 11 schools.
In 1970, Joe Morgan became the first Black umpire to officiate a state high school baseball championship. Morgan, who died two years ago, lived to be 93.
Sonny Bell, the first Black kid to be accepted into the Colorado Springs chapter of the Boys Club, worked as an umpire with Joe Morgan and also had a career with the Post Office. Bell died in 2000 at the age of 75, not long after he made the recordings highlighted in this story.
Sylvester Smith worked a government job and gave tours at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in retirement. On the “Wall of Fame” in his basement hangs a commemorative, unscarred Louisville Slugger in no need of duct tape. On a nearby shelf, tiny figures of Black baseball players stand in various poses of play, like miniature Brown Bombers stuck in time.
Besides his 30-year career in a Civil Service job at Fort Carson, Justus Morgan, whose pitching anchored the Bombers’ championships, took over his dad’s church as a pastor, and remains a foundation in his faith community.
“It was a great group,” he said of his lifetime friends. “Most of them went on to excel in life. Maybe not always on the higher things as people think. But they became men.”
Leah Davis Witherow, Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Curator of History, assisted with access to the 1999 Brown Bombers oral history. Candice McNight, President and CEO of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs, also provided background information.