Published Nov. 4, 2014

Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette

Side Streets: Brown Bombers enshrinement a miracle 65 years in making

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Colorado Springs City League baseball champions the Brown Bombers in 1949

By Bill Vogrin

Miracles do happen.

I witnessed one Tuesday night. A miracle 65 years in the making.

That’s certainly the belief of the five surviving members of Colorado Springs’ all-black baseball team, the legendary Brown Bombers.

They were among the honorees Tuesday when the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame inducted its Class of 2014 at The Broadmoor World Arena. The team was honored for winning back-to-back City League championships in 1949-50.

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The five surviving Brown Bombers, from left, Rev. Jesse Vaughan, Joe Morgan, Rev. Justus Morgan, Sylvester Smith and Sam Dunlap. Photo courtesy Rob Miskowitch Photography.

When asked what their enshrinement meant, the survivors talked in terms of dreams coming true.

“It is a miracle, absolutely,” said Sam Dunlap, 81. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

For the oldest surviving Bomber, 91-year-old the Rev. Jesse Vaughan, the honor was almost impossible to fathom.

“If I had 1,000 tongues, I still couldn’t find the words to tell you how happy I am,” he said. “This is a moment I will cherish forever.”

The significance of the event was echoed by brothers Joe and the Rev. Justus Morgan

“It’s a very special honor,” Joe Morgan, 88, said.

“I thought it would never happen,” said Justus Morgan, 86.

Sylvester Smith, 85, always held out hope the Bombers would make the hall.

“I never thought this would come around,” he said. “I hoped it would. But I wasn’t sure it would ever come.”

It was fitting the Brown Bombers were honored on the same night that Major League Baseball was playing its World Series.

“This is bigger than the World Series,” Vaughan said. “I feel so blessed.”

And here’s where it got personal, and incredibly gratifying, for me.

As the official photographer lined up the Bombers for their Hall of Fame portrait, I was standing in the background, watching.

Suddenly, the Bombers demanded I join them.brown-bombers-bill

“Get in this picture,” they said. “You are the reason we’re here.”

It’s true that their induction came only one year after I wrote about the team, asking why it wasn’t part of the hall.

I detailed the Bombers’ historic role in the struggle for racial equality. These were men who learned to play with makeshift balls, gloves and equipment, not in the organized leagues taught by experienced coaches using new equipment and uniforms as whites enjoyed.

They had to endure the indignity of opponents and fans yelling racial slurs. They were refused service in restaurants. Road games were marathon trips because no motel would welcome them.

I thought about how they were treated like second-class citizens and how different their lives were in 1949, only two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. And it occurred to me, this was a team full of Jackie Robinsons.

That was proved in the decades that followed as many Bombers went on to become leading citizens.

The surviving lineup:

  • Dunlap, the first black baseball coach for School District 11, was a youth mentor and was honored by the Colorado Springs Sports Corps.
  • Joe Morgan, inducted in 2004 into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame, became the first black umpire to officiate a state high school baseball championship in 1970.
  • Justus Morgan, a member of the Palmer High School Hall of Fame, became pastor of Morgan Memorial Chapel Church of God in Christ, which his father started.
  • Vaughan helped found Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church and was chaplain for the Colorado Springs Police Department.
  • Smith worked 26 years at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and also served as a youth mentor.

My 2013 column was the result of a suggestion from reader Lucy Bell, a retired teacher, historian and widow of Brown Bomber Oliver Bell.

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Lucy Bell holds a portrait of her late husband, Oliver Bell, on Wednesday, Apil 17, 2013. Lucy, a retired Colorado Springs School District 11 teacher and writer, is compiling stories of growing up black in segregated Colorado Springs in the early 20th century, as experienced by Oliver. She hopes to compile the stories into a book. Several of Oliver’s stories will be included in the book. He grew up in the Hillside neighborhood and was a star athlete at the University of Northern Colorado before returning to a career teaching physical education in District 11. Bill Vogrin, The Gazette

She told me the story of the Bombers and arranged for me to meet them. All I did was tell the story. And the next day, Tom Osborne, chief executive officer of the Sports Corp., which sponsors the Hall of Fame, wrote me and said my column would be used as the nomination for the Bombers.

Their induction is one of the more satisfying milestones in my 35-year career. And to be asked to join their portrait made me immensely proud. I was kind of like the bat boy!

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“This didn’t have to happen,” Vaughan said. “We had been forgotten for 65 years, and we would still be nobodies if not for you.”

During dinner, I told Lucy about what he said. And I asked Lucy, who came to the banquet as a guest of The Gazette, what she thought about it.

“I’m just super thrilled that it all worked out,” she said.

I wondered what her husband, a three-sport star at Colorado State University and gone 12 years now, might think of the attention being showered on the Bombers at long last.

“He would have liked it, and he’d have been happy for all of this,” Lucy said, smiling at the thought. “He joined the team right out of high school for the 1950 season. He’d have liked it. And our kids are really proud.”

They should be. The Bombers were the ultimate underdogs who overcame great adversity, became champions and persevered until their good deeds finally were recognized.

I’m proud to be their bat boy.

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