The Southern League was the first professional minor league baseball association in the South, lasting on and off from 1885 until 1899.
The league was born on February 11, 1885, in Atlanta, under the direction of its first president, legendary Atlanta journalist Henry W. Grady. An avid baseball fan, Grady had insisted on including baseball scores in the Atlanta Constitution, even at his own expense. By then loosely organized teams and leagues were common throughout the South, but there was no uniform organizing body.
The original 1885 season consisted of teams from Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, and Macon; Birmingham, Alabama; and Chattanooga, Memphis, and Nashville, Tennessee. At one time or another, teams were also fielded in several other towns, including Charleston, South Carolina; Montgomery and Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Savannah.
The Southern League was baseball’s first minor league to launch a schedule of 100 games per season. Grady took his duties as league president very seriously, so much so that several teams threatened to withdraw before the inaugural season was over. He was strict in his demands that players refrain from associating with “questionable characters,” and he was determined to keep rowdy behavior by fans to a minimum. He wanted nothing to prevent baseball from becoming a wholesome, family-oriented entertainment medium, which would make the game all the more profitable.
Atlanta narrowly beat Augusta for the first Southern League pennant in 1885. Although Birmingham and Columbus did not return in 1886, the Southern League finished its second season with Atlanta winning another league title.
Southern League–brand baseball was similar to today’s fast-pitch softball. Pitches were underhanded and thrown from a distance of fifty feet. First and third bases were outside the foul lines, until they were moved inside the field in 1886, and bases were ninety feet apart. Catchers wore no protective equipment, and fielders’ gloves were flimsy and unsubstantial. One umpire officiated from forty feet behind home plate, except when there were base runners, at which time he moved behind the pitcher. Only after seven balls was a batter awarded first base.
The Southern League suffered from a tremendous amount of franchise switching and financial instability. In 1887 Atlanta dropped out of the league, leaving Grady’s original Southern League to fold in 1888, after only four cities—Birmingham, Charleston, Memphis, and New Orleans—fielded teams.
In 1889 a newly reorganized Southern League was born, launched by Atlanta, Birmingham, Charleston, Chattanooga, Memphis, and New Orleans. Birmingham dropped out early in the season and was replaced by Mobile. By midseason only three teams were left, and the league dissolved. The “Great Minor League Failure of 1889” was the Southern League’s third collapse, and it wasn’t until 1892 that eight cities, including Atlanta, resumed competition. Every team played at least 120 games that season, the busiest in the Southern League’s history.
The 1893 season was notable for the number of teams turned over to the league by their owners, including Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Nashville. The league president resigned on July 1; the 1893 season subsequently ended prematurely on August 12. The 1894 season proved somewhat more stable, and baseball owners and players were optimistic for 1895. But the Southern League didn’t play a season in 1897, and the 1898 season lasted only a little longer than a month. The league officially disbanded in 1899.
Despite failures, setbacks, and ultimate collapse, the Southern League made baseball hugely popular in the South. In its place would rise the Southern Association, an organization that from 1901 to 1961 was professional baseball’s most stable minor league.