Rookie Granville Lyons received his first shot in the Negro Leagues in 1931 after Willie Bobo, the starting first baseman for the Nashville Elite Giants, died during winter ball on the West Coast following a night out in Tijuana, Mexico. Three years later, in July 1934, Lyons experienced quite the 11-day stretch in the Negro National League II: going from starting for the Elite Giants to replacing Oscar Charleston at first base for the Pittsburgh Crawfords (for a day anyway) to finally replacing Jud Wilson at first in an exhibition for the Philadelphia Stars.
In theater circles, the phrase “break a leg” is employed to wish a thespian good luck in their debut performance.1 Unfortunately, Lyons, in his Philadelphia Stars debut, literally broke his right leg on July 19, 1934, in his first and only appearance for the team that season. The first baseman and occasional outfielder and pitcher returned to the Stars in 1935 and eventually completed a 17-year Negro League career as a player and manager.
Granville Henry Lyons Jr. was born on July 16, 1908, in Nashville, Tennessee, to Granville Lyons Sr. (1869-1929), a janitor and porter, and Kittie M. Keeble Lyons, a widowed dressmaker. It was the second marriage for both. Granville Sr. was a divorced boarder and farm laborer who could not read or write as of the 1900 census. He had been involved in a serious automobile accident in 1906, nearly losing his life, while driving a passenger car dubbed a “Jim Crow Car” full of bricks, which was slammed into by a double truck.2 The couple had another son, Herbert, in 1914; he died in 1920. Young Granville also had a half-sister, Martha, and two half-brothers, Flowers and Ernest, from Kittie’s first marriage. Granville Jr. attended school only through the sixth grade.3
As a 17-year-old, Granville Jr. married Mable Anderson in September 1925 in Nashville. They welcomed daughter, Seleane, in March 1926, but she died in November 1928. The couple also had a son, named Granville Lyons Jr., born on July 22, 1927, who tragically died a day later. They welcomed a second son, also named Granville Jr., on Christmas Day 1928 and then had two more daughters, Katie Louise, born in 1933 and Myrtle Doris, born in 1934. Granville and Mable divorced later in the decade, and he later married Arkia (Artie) Lyons.
The local Negro League ball team in Lyons’ hometown of Nashville was the Elite Giants, owned by Tom Wilson, a nightclub operator who also owned gas stations and real estate. Wilson had a stadium built for the 1930 season at Trimble Bottom, in the center of Nashville’s largest Black community, which had seating for 4,000 and was named for him.4 After a last-place finish in the Negro National League in 1930, Wilson sent his team, including pitcher Jim “Cannonball” Willis, catcher Poindexter Williams, first baseman Willie Bobo, and outfielder Jack Ridley, out west to play in the California Winter League. After a mid-February 1931 contest against a San Diego squad in which he was hit in the side by a pitch, Bobo and others went across the border to Mexico. While in Tijuana, Bobo “drank some liquor that made him very ill,” and died soon after returning to California.5 The “popular and slugging” Bobo, dubbed the “Black [George] Sisler,” had been the Elite Giants’ starting first baseman for three years.6 This tragedy opened the door for Lyons to earn the first-base spot for the Nashville squad.
For 1931, owner Wilson fielded both a Nashville team in the new minors-level Negro Southern League and one in Cleveland, named the Cubs, in the majors-level Negro National League. Wilson moved most of his talented Nashville players, including Willis and Ridley, to the Cleveland franchise, and even signed Satchel Paige.
The rookie Lyons, playing for his hometown squad, collected four hits from the sixth spot as Nashville lost a doubleheader to the NNL’s Louisville White Sox in late April.7 A couple of weeks later, the Elite Giants swept the Knoxville (Tennessee) Giants at home, with the “fielding and hitting of Lyons and Ewing] Russell of the locals featured [in] Saturday’s tilt.”8 By late June, against the Birmingham Black Barons, Lyons was leading off for Nashville.9
Nashville won the NSL’s first half title, and then beat Birmingham again, on July 27, with “home runs by (Henry) Henderson, a newcomer, and Lyons [being] features of this game.”10 Lyons, a 5-foot-9 lefty thrower and hitter, weighing in at 170 pounds, received the following writeup in the Nashville Banner in mid-August: “Granville Lyons took Bobo’s place at first when the latter died during the California trip last winter. Home is in Nashville. Only twenty years old [actually 23]. Hitting around .310.”11 By the end of August, Nashville, which won both halves of the NSL season, faced the Monroe Monarchs, the Texas-Louisiana Negro League champions, in a seven-game series for the Dixie Negro championship. Nashville captured the Dixie championship, and then the team headed back to the West Coast for another season of winter ball.12
Wilson’s NNL-member Cleveland franchise disbanded after the 1931 season, so in 1932 he focused his efforts on his Nashville franchise. The Elite Giants were still members of the NSL, but that circuit had become strong enough that it is today considered to have been a major league for that one season. Lyons attended Nashville’s spring training in March,13 but began the season with the Louisville Black Caps, another NSL member franchise. On July 2 Lyons took the mound and pitched all 13 innings in an 8-7 home loss to the Chicago American Giants, hindered by five Black Cap errors.14 By late August, Lyons was back with Nashville, and participated in the NSL Championship Series, which was won in seven games by the Chicago American Giants. Lyons went 3-for-6 in the series and, in spite of Nashville’s loss of the series, the press noted that, in Game Four, “the fielding of Hoss] Walker and Lyons for the locals was outstanding.”15
Lyons started 1933 with the Indianapolis ABCs in the new incarnation of the Negro National League, alongside former Nashville teammates James “Black Bottom” Buford and Percy Bailey. Manager Candy Jim Taylor moved his ABCs franchise to Detroit in mid-May due to low attendance, and the team was renamed the Stars.16 Lyons was the primary first baseman of the franchise during the season, both in its Indianapolis and Detroit incarnations. In June a Pittsburgh Courier article observed that “Lyons’ flashy fielding around the first base and timely hitting has established himself.”17 Lyons was Detroit’s third leading hitter as of late June, at .311, behind catcher Clarence Palm and outfielder Jim Williams.18 Lyons is the only player listed as having hit a home run on the season for the team (he had two), and the offensively-challenged Detroit Stars finished in last place.
In 1934 Lyons returned to Tom Wilson’s Nashville Elite Giants, for whom Jim West was now the regular first baseman. However, Lyons did start at first base at Pittsburgh on July 1, batting fifth and collecting three hits and scoring two runs in beating the Crawfords, 10-4, in the opener before losing the nightcap to Satchel Paige, 6-0.19 He also started for Nashville on July 8 in a 7-1 loss to Philadelphia.20
Four days later, Lyons joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and started at first base in place of regular starter and manager Oscar Charleston in a doubleheader split with the Philadelphia Stars at Pittsburgh’s Eagle Park. Lyons collected four hits in nine at-bats as he batted behind leadoff hitter Cool Papa Bell and in front of Leroy Morney and Josh Gibson.21
Obviously impressed by his opponent Lyons’ day, Philadelphia Stars owner Ed Bolden secured Lyons for his squad just days later. Lyons debuted for the Stars on July 19 in place of Jud Wilson in a game at 12th and Bigler Streets Park against the semipro South Phillies. Lyons broke his leg sliding into third base and was treated at St. Agnes Hospital. The Philadelphia Tribune wrote that Lyons, a “star recruit … newly from Nashville, cracks limb sliding into third.”22 Lyons’ popularity had become such that he still finished fourth in voting at first base for the West prior to the annual East-West All Star Game, held in late August at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
Lyons returned to Bolden’s Stars in 1935. The Afro-American, overlooking his one-game stint with the team in the previous season, reported in spring training that “among the new players (are) Granville Lyons, first baseman, once with the Nashville Elites.”23 He reported to camp in late April for manager and starting pitcher Webster McDonald. However, due to Jud Wilson’s incredible season, Lyons also saw time in the outfield. On May 12, Lyons’ three-run homer against a new Brooklyn Eagles hurler, 18-year-old Leon Day, accounted for the Stars’ only runs in an 8-3 loss at Philadelphia’s Passon Field.24 On May 28, in a game against the Pittsburgh Crawfords, “the finest fielding play of the contest came in the eighth frame when Lyons ran near the right field wall and made a one-handed running catch and then doubled up a Pittsburgh player at first base to end the inning.”25 In mid-June in front of 5,000 at Farmer Stadium in Brooklyn against the Farmers, Lyons played left field in the opener then tossed five relief innings in the nightcap.26
Lyons returned home to Nashville for 1936 as the starting first baseman and cleanup hitter for the NSL’s Black Vols, a team managed by Hoss Walker that succeeded the Elite Giants as Nashville’s Negro professional baseball club.27 No statistics are available for the season, but infielders Henry Kimbro, James “Black Bottom” Buford, and Red Longley and pitchers Frank McAllister and Johnny Williams all were teammates on the Black Vols.28 The squad won the first-half championship, which ended on July 4, with one newspaper asserting that “in Lyons, at first base, the Vols have one of the ranking negro players of all times.”29
In July 1937 Lyons moved across Tennessee to ply his trade with the Memphis Red Sox. He received the fifth-most votes for first base for the West squad in the fifth East-West Game.30 On August 22 Lyons played for the South All Stars in a 13-5 loss to the North All Stars at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. He subbed for Felix Manning, and had two errors in the field while going 0-for 2 at the plate. In his last pitching appearance, on August 30, Lyons, coming over from first base (with Buck O’Neil moving from left to first), took the 11-inning loss against the Cincinnati Tigers.31 Just as in 1933, Lyons once again was credited as the only player on his team to hit a home run on the season.
Lyons reunited with the Elite Giants for 1938, for at least one game in right field, although Tom Wilson had moved the franchise to Baltimore. The team now had a young catcher in Roy Campanella, along with Henry Kimbro and Biz Mackey among others. It was also reported in the Louisville Courier Journal that Lyons played for an Atlanta team during the season; however, no game accounts of his time with a team in that city have been discovered.32
The 1940 census listed Granville as a married ballplayer, but he was living in Nashville with his mother, Kittie, his half-sister Martha, and his three children. In April, Lyons re-signed with owner-manager J. Leonard Mitchell’s Louisville Black Colonels.33 By late May, Lyons was nowhere to be found as Mitchell had released several veterans. The next month, Lyons popped up, along with old teammate Ewing Russell, as softball umpires in the Negro Municipal Association in Nashville.34 Lyons was listed in the Nashville city directory in 1941 as a porter and was living with his new wife, Arkia.
Lyons returned yet again to Wilson’s Elite Giants in Baltimore for eight games in 1942, playing left field in a victory on May 11 against the Homestead Grays in which he and Campanella each collected doubles.35 On May 31 Lyons batted eighth and played first base for Baltimore in their 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia Stars, ending the Stars’ nine-game winning streak, in front of 20,000 fans in Yankee Stadium.36 On June 5 he went 0-for-4 against the Philadelphia Stars, again at Yankee Stadium.37 By the end of June, George Scales was playing first base for the Elites against the New York Black Yankees in Belmar, New Jersey.38 Lyons soon was released and was replaced by James “Lefty” Turner.39
In late June 1945, Dr. R.B. Jackson, head of the Nashville Black Vols and the new minor Negro Southern League, appointed Lyons to replace Bill Perkins as manager of his team.40 After less than a month, it was remarked that, in Lyons, the “local man has done an exceptionally fine job handling the team.”41 The Black Vols were leading in the second-half standings as Lyons started Smoky Joe Hall in August against the Atlanta Black Crackers, the first-half winner.42 However, by early September, Lyons became ill, so second baseman Dusty Owens was tasked to take over as manager.43 The Black Crackers ended up winning both halves of the NSL.
In 1950 Lyons played for one final team, manning second base for the Owensboro Braves of the Negro Southern League, under manager Rufus Hatten, but the team disbanded halfway through the season. He was listed as a professional ballplayer and living with Arkia in the 1950 census. By 1951, son Granville Jr. had enlisted in the Army and eventually became a corporal. In 1952 the elder Lyons was granted a federal gambling tax stamp from the Internal Revenue Service,44 acting as an agent for some other professional gambler.
Granville Lyons Jr. died suddenly of unknown causes on April 14, 1953, in Nashville at the age of 4445 and was buried in Nashville’s Greenwood Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Arkia (Artie), his son, Granville Lyons Jr., daughters Katie McNeil and Myrtle Smith, and his sister Selene.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted MyHeritage.com, Seamheads.com, and Baseball-Reference.com
1 Mark Robinson, “8 Rules Every Theatre Must Follow – Do You Know All of Them?” Playbill.com, https://www.playbill.com/article/8-rules-every-theatre-person-must-follow-do-you-know-all-of-them-com-373336, July 1, 2019 (retrieved August 8, 2022).
2 “Street Car Crashes into Transportation Car,” Nashville Banner, October 31, 1906: 11.
3 1940 Census figures: Granville Lyons, Nashville, Tennessee.
4 Euell A. Nielsen, “Nashville/Baltimore Elite Giants (1920-1951),” December 2, 2020, Blackpost.com, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/baltimore-elite-giants-1920-1951.
5 “Bill Bobo, Noted Negro Ball Player, Is Dead,” Sacramento Bee, February 24, 1931: 16.
6 “Elite Giant First Baseman Dies After a Brief Illness,” Nashville Banner, February 26, 1931: 20.
7 “Local Negro Ball Club to Engage Louisville,” Nashville Banner, April 23, 1931: 14.
8 “Elite Giants Play Double Bill Today,” Nashville Tennessean, May 17, 1931: 11.
9 “Elite Giants Lose to Black Barons, 9 to 8,” Nashville Tennessean, June 21, 1931: 14.
10 “Elite Giants to Perform in Dell,” Nashville Banner, July 28, 1931: 11.
11 Tom Anderson, “Nashville’s Baseball Champs,” Nashville Banner, August 14, 1931: 13.
12 “Nashville Negro Ball Team Playing Winter Ball on West Coast,” Nashville Banner, October 7, 1931: 14.
13 “Giants Drill: Nashville Colored Ball Club Begins Spring Training,” Nashville Banner, March 29, 1932: 12.
14 “Giants Tip Black Caps in 13 Innings by 8 to 7,” Louisville Courier Journal, July 3, 1932: 15.
15 “Elites Lose,” Nashville Banner, September 19, 1932: 8.
16 John L. Clark, “Notes on the Negro National Association,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 27, 1933: 15.
17 “Detroit Club Gaining Favor of Ball Fans,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 10, 1933: 14.
18 “‘Texas’ Burnett Leads Hitters, Summary Shows,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 24, 1933: 14.
19 “At Pittsburgh, July 1,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 7, 1934: 17.
20 “Philly Stars Garner Two During Week,” Baltimore Afro American, July 14, 1934: 18.
21 “Crawfords and All-Stars Split,” York (Pennsylvania) Gazette and Daily, July 13, 1934: 11.
22 “Philly Stars Win 5, Drop 2; Player Breaks Leg,” Philadelphia Tribune, July 26, 1934: 12.
23 “Bolden’s Stars Won’t Go South; Prep in Philly,” Baltimore Afro-American, April 13, 1935: 17.
24 “Day Again Ace for Eagles Nine,” Brooklyn Times Union, May 13, 1935: 11; “Brooklyn Eagles Get an Even Break,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 13, 1935: 12.
25 “Philadelphia All-Stars Shut Out Pittsburg Crawfords,” York (Pennsylvania) Gazette and Daily, May 29, 1935: 10.
26 “Farmers Split Twin Bill with Philadelphia Stars,” Brooklyn Times Union, June 17, 1935: 13.
27 “Black Vols Play Twin Bill Today,” Nashville Tennessean, May 3, 1936: 14.
28 Dr. Layton Revel, “Forgotten Heroes: Henry Kimbro,” Center for Negro League Research, 2019, http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Henry_Kimbro%202019-10.pdf
29 “Two Crack Negro Teams to Play,” Moberly (Missouri) Monitor-Index, July 15, 1936: 5.
30 “Interest in Big All-Star Game in Chi Soaring,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 24, 1937: 18.
31 Howard V. Milliard, “Negroes Give Classy Show,” Decatur (Illinois) Daily Review, August 31, 1937: 8.
32 Victor Perry, “Church League Games Again Postponed,” Louisville Courier Journal, April 23, 1939: 52.
33 Victor Perry, “Black Colonels Sign Up New Players,” Louisville Courier Journal, April 8, 1940: 11.
34 “Morocco, Goldblumes Set Softball Pace,” Nashville Banner, June 5, 1940: 11.
35 Os Figard, “Homestead Grays Weak at Bat as Baltimore Takes Nod, 8-2,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Tribune, May 12, 1942: 10.
36 “Phila. Stars Lose, Win Streak Halted,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 1, 1942: 22.
37 William E. Clark,” New York Age, June 6, 1942: 11.
38 “Black Yankees Play Baltimore,” Asbury Park (New Jersey) Press, June 29, 1942: 10.
39 “Play Grays in Night Contest,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 4, 1942: 23.
40 “Black Vols Play Mobile Shippers Here on Fourth,” Nashville Tennessean, July 1, 1945: 39.
41 “Black Crackers in Dell Friday,” Nashville Tennessean, July 29, 1945: 42.
42 “Black Vols Host to Crax Tonight,” Nashville Tennessean, August 3, 1945: 29.
43 “Dusky Dellers and Louisville Tangle Today,” Nashville Tennessean, September 9, 1945: 52.
44 Davis Gets Gaming Stamp,” Chattanooga Daily Times, February 1, 1952: 18; “39th Nashvillian on Gaming List,” Nashville Tennessean, January 31, 1952: 1.
45 “Obituaries: Lyons,” Nashville Tennessean, April 15, 1953: 25.