Who would have thought that Fredericksburg was the home of a Negro Leagues Baseball player—not a barnstormer—the original leagues. Admittedly, a lot of attention goes to the ones who “made it,” but for those who didn’t grab major headlines or break the color lines, they returned home and lived in the shadows of the great athletes whom we all fawn over today. Well, we had one, and his name was Charlie Lewis.
Charlie was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on January 3, 1907. His parents, James and Lula (nee Crutchfield), had the following children together: John, Elmira V., Robert L., Luana, Harry, Jarrell, Madison, and of course, Charlie.
He was fortunate enough to have had an elementary school education in his formative years during an era when the literacy rate for African Americans was 80%. The city cooperated in providing an elementary school for its tax-paying Black citizens after War Against the States, but a secondary school was entirely off the table. City leadership, then, viewed higher education for African Americans through the same prism as the Virginia Department of Education, which vigorously advocated for training African American students and all women, in meaningful vocations that would make their lives useful, such as farming and sewing rather than science or trigonometry. Suffice it to say, Charlie had an elementary school experience and moved on with his life without attempting an advanced education at Fredericksburg Normal and Industrial Institute.
When he was old enough, he left home with high hopes of earning a spot on somebody’s bench in professional baseball. It was an ambitious goal, but the self-determined 19-year-old did the unimaginable: he made the New York Lincoln Giants roster as a short stop in 1926. Being the youngest player on the team had some advantages, as evidenced by his .299 batting average. In the nine games he played, he was at bat 37 times, with 11 hits (including 3 RBIs) and 1 stolen base. It’s a decent record for a 19-year-old who found himself competing with or against legends like John Henry Lloyd, Cool Papa Bell, and Satchel Paige. How intimidating it must have been to walk to the home plate knowing that the strike-out king Satchel Paige was waiting for you on the mound.
Charlie was on the road for all 266 games. The team traveled thousands of miles in buses with hard seats and no air conditioning, occasionally stopping only at Black-owned businesses long before the Green Book was born. The scenery of a new city and the excitement of seeing parts of America never seen before must have been one of the biggest thrills of Charlie’s young life. His experiences, unfortunately, were short-lived, lasting only a year and at no fault of his own. The New York Lincoln Giants suffered from poor team management that led to its dissolution in 1930. With his prospects vanished, Charlie (21) returned home to marry Nettie Robinson (14) on September 12, 1928. They were the parents of Theodore, Richard, Donald, and Elizabeth. Charlie found work in the tie yard—tying down railroad tracks.
In 1942, he was drafted to serve in World War II. He was assigned to the Quartermaster Service Corps, which supplied warfighters with equipment, food, and other essential supplies. It was hardly uncommon for African American men to be assigned to the service corps because military policy suggested that these particular men were predominately of inferior intelligence or deficient education, or both. Parenthetically, the U.S. Army policy expressed no regrets for the legal and social conditions that prevented full access to primary and secondary education. The men were also faulted because of the hasty “training” they received on how to use weapons of war. The conclusion was that because they did not know how to use the weapons properly, they were somehow less intelligent than other soldiers. So the record is clear: African American men were unceremoniously conscripted into both world wars, neither of which they started, to defend the human rights of others to live while being denied the same human rights at home, segregated as though they were contagions, and then demonized because they lacked the technical and educational skill sets they were forbidden from accessing as a matter of American public policy.
While he was away in the war theater, Nettie and their children moved in with her father at 1407 Charles Street. After Charlie returned to Fredericksburg in 1945, he worked as the houseman for the Jackson Pool Room at 419 Palmer Street in Mayfield. He later moved to what used to be 512 Princess Anne Street until he died in 1972.
Charlie was born into an environment that threw high balls and low strikes every time at bat, but he did not let that stop him from achieving his dream of playing professional baseball; and he did it with no fanfare. This ordinary man served in World War II with no fanfare. Just as it was in his life, he was buried at Culpeper National Cemetery with no fanfare.
In 2021, Major League Baseball (MLB) atoned for excluding the accomplishments of professional ball players like Charlie Lewis. Insofar as the records are concerned, from 1926-1945, Charlie was the only professional baseball player from Fredericksburg to play in either league. Now that the FredNats are here, it might be worth exploring some fanfare in honor of a Giant.
“Charlie Lewis Stats, Height, Weight, Position, Rookie Status & More.” Baseball Reference. Accessed February 16, 2023. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/lewisch01.shtml.
Ross, William F., and Charles F. Romanus. The quartermaster corps: Operations in the war against Germany. Vol. 2. Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1965.
About the Author: Paula D. Royster, PhD
Dr. Royster is the CEO and Founder of The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. (CAAGRI). She is a published author, and a two-time Fulbright Scholar grantee. She earned her interdisciplinary doctorate degree in Humanities and Culture with a secondary major in Public Policy and Social Justice. Her publication, African Abolitionist T. J. Alexander on the Ohio and Indiana Underground Railroads, examines the life of her ancestors who assisted thousands of self-emancipating Africans in their quest for liberty.