Bradenton extends Nine Devils celebration
The Marauders will continue an important tradition that honors the history of Black baseball in their own backyard. “Bradenton Nine Devils Tribute Night,” which honors the team that played at McKechnie Field from 1937 to 1956 in the independent Florida State Negro League, will be celebrated for the second consecutive
The Marauders will continue an important tradition that honors the history of Black baseball in their own backyard.
“Bradenton Nine Devils Tribute Night,” which honors the team that played at McKechnie Field from 1937 to 1956 in the independent Florida State Negro League, will be celebrated for the second consecutive year when the Low-A Marauders host Lakeland Flying Tigers on July 29. The tradition began last season when Bradenton worked in partnership with Black community leaders, former players and their descendants to shine a light on the history of the club.
Last year’s event included an appearance by Morris Paskell -- one of two living former Nine Devils players -- and information tables on the concourse stocked with old newspaper clippings, photographs and artifacts from the team’s run during the segregated era of professional baseball.
Videos from exhibits at the Negro League Museum were shown on the big board at LECOM Park, formerly known as McKechnie Field, where the Pirates have held Spring Training since 1969, not long after the Nine Devils’ final season.
The tribute not only precedes the formation of “The Nine," Minor League Baseball’s new inclusion and engagement initiative, but it was being planned before MLB recognized the Negro Leagues as a Major League in December 2020.
“We're just looking to expand [the celebration] and just take it to the next level and just make it an annual thing that we do every year,” Marauders GM Craig Warzecha said. “It all just kind of came together, and it's really something that's super-important to us moving forward. It ties in perfectly with ‘The Nine.’ … With the team being the Nine Devils, it just ties in really perfectly moving forward.”
Warzecha and the Marauders promoted the event during their online “Building Bridges” series last February, when Warzecha aired interviews with important African-American figures in the Bradenton and Pirates’ baseball community, including Wayman “Fruitcake” Armstead, the other living former Nine Devil player. During the interview, Armstead confirmed that the team’s Nine Devils name, which was originally the Aces, came from a nine-game win streak at the start of a season.
“We did good, we won a few championships with the Devils,” said the former center fielder, who drew comparisons to Stan Musial during his playing days. “We had a good time traveling to all different places. It was the good old days, and we enjoyed ourselves.”
Among the others interviewed during the “Building Bridges” series was Tarnisha Cliatt, the president of the Manasota Black Chamber of Commerce, which reaches both Manatee and Sarasota counties.
The initial idea for a Nine Devils tribute was born from conversations Warzecha and other members of the Marauders and Pirates’ front offices had with Cliatt and other community leaders during the year that was lost to the pandemic, particularly after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
“I wanted to make sure it is very clear that diversity, equity, equality and inclusion was emphasized because we all know that -- especially with the Nine Devils -- you can have the ability to do something, but it's the equity that allows or prevents one from reaching their fullest potential,” Cliatt said. “I believe it's a metaphor and symbolic for the Nine Devils to be in a place of greatness and performing at a high level, but yet not being honored in such a way and could not play with some of their other counterparts.”
The event came together fairly organically, according to Warzecha, and was enhanced by contributions from Lydia Copeland, the daughter of former Nine Devils player James “Son” Copeland.
Copeland, who along with her family wore Nine Devils caps and t-shirts with her father’s name and photo, was involved in the initial planning and responsible for most of the items providing the direct connection to the past. Copeland and Paskell were also able to engage directly with fans to answer questions and provide memories of the Nine Devils.
“For me, it was really magical just to see the African-American league highlighted in such a way that they could not be when they were actually playing,” Cliatt said. “It was really full circle because it was that generation of right now speaking to the past generation to try to get an understanding of why there was so much segregation and why the racism was in place when all they wanted to do was just play baseball.”
The 2022 celebration aims to honor the same history while taking things a step further with a commemorative jersey to be worn by players and coaches during the game against the Flying Tigers. But the basis for the event, displaying Bradenton’s Black baseball history, remains the driving force moving forward.
“We're excited to be a part of this, and we are hoping that it is an annual event that we can take part in and show our support as we move forward in a spirit of togetherness,” Cliatt said. “I think that's the whole idea of this is we come together and we celebrate and we do our due diligence to their ancestors or those individuals of the Nine Devils. The family members. Paying that tribute is well overdue. And I'm excited to continue on and celebrate them as well.”
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.