Salt Lake Bees to honor ‘hidden gem of a history story’ with alternate team name

Utah has a rich baseball history, and the Salt Lake Bees often dial back the clock to honor the professional teams many residents grew up watching.

For instance, the team played as the Salt Lake Gulls earlier this month, a team that existed from 1975 through 1984. They’ve also played as the Angels, Trappers and Buzz in recent years, three other team names Utahns are familiar with.

These only scratch the surface of the state’s vast baseball history, and as Kraig Williams, the team’s communication director, sifted through other Utah baseball stories, he ran across a team he had never really heard of before: the Salt Lake Occidentals, an all-Black team that formed in the early 1900s and dominated its competition during its short existence.

The more Williams dove into the team’s story, the more interesting he found it. One thing led to another and now the Bees are primed to bring the team name back for a game Saturday. The team will wear uniforms similar to the ones the original team wore as it became “colored world champions” so many years ago.

“It’s such a hidden gem of a history story in Salt Lake (and) I just don’t think a lot of people know about it,” he said. “Baseball history is American history, so we wanted to be able to tell the story of that team.”

Who were the Salt Lake Occidentals?

There are some examples of integrated professional baseball teams in the U.S. during the 1800s; however, most professional Black players were “limited to playing in exhibition games on ‘colored’ teams on the barnstorming circuit” by the 1890s as a result of newly formed color barriers, U.S. Library of Congress historians wrote.

This essentially sums up the story of the Salt Lake Occidentals, although they also participated in the loosely organized and previously all-white Utah State League at points in their existence. Utah newspaper archives indicate that manager W.J. McKenzie formed the team in 1906, playing as the only all-Black team in the league that summer.

They weren’t Utah’s first Black baseball team. The late historian Miriam Murphy, who wrote in an article about the Occidentals for a 1981 edition of the Utah Historical Quarterly, wrote that Black troops stationed at Fort Douglas and Fort Duchesne also formed teams at one point during the late 1800s.

But the new team quickly made a good impression on Utah’s competitive baseball scene. The Occidentals defeated a “top-notch” amateur team in a 12-10 barnburner, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on July 2, 1906, seemingly putting the team on the map right away. Newspapers billed these clubs as amateurs but they were more like semipro teams, Murphy wrote.

The Vincent-Notts ultimately won a rematch 4-2 in “one of the best games played on the local field in some time” a week later, the Salt Lake Telegram reported. By August, newspapers like the Eureka Reporter wrote that the Occidentals had become “the strongest amateur nine in the state.”

Becoming champions

A man named Frank Black eventually became the team’s manager by 1908 and that’s where most of what’s known about the Occidentals is documented. As Williams found in his own deep dive, at least one team threatened to quit the state league if an all-Black team was included, and the team was often subject to slurs.

That said, the Occidentals appeared to have been respected by many fans and baseball writers at the time.

Baseball History Daily, which compiled its own history of the team, found a report in a 1908 edition of the Deseret News, which wrote that the team “played good, earnest ball and provide the fans with their money’s worth every time they play.” The newspaper added that the Occidentals made more money barnstorming across the region, playing all sorts of teams across the Intermountain West.

The Occidentals went on to take the state’s baseball scene by storm a year later. The team opened to a bit of a rocky start, losing 15 of its first 20 contests, Murphy notes. Then new talent came in, like “Old War Horse” Harrison and Louis Lankford, who helped turn the team’s fortunes around.

The team won so much that players claimed themselves to be the champions of the state by the end of the season, which other clubs disagreed with. This led to an impromptu playoff, in which the Occidentals dominated the field. They defeated the Yampa smelter team in October of that year, settling the debate once and for all. The Salt Lake Telegram wrote that they had claimed the “undisputed title of Utah champions.”

Their season didn’t end there, though. The Occidentals went on to play similar teams of color in California, sweeping the Los Angeles Giants in a best-of-five series, which helped them become known as the “colored world champions,” Baseball History Daily wrote. They ended up with a 14-4-2 record against major California teams that winter, even facing future Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson along the way.

The club remained quite popular even after the season but newspaper reports of the team dwindle in 1911. Some historians say the team disbanded that year, while others say they ended play in 1913. Either way, they left having made a mark in state history.

“The success of this Black baseball team and its popularity show one of the roles of sports in American society. In many cases, successful athletes became heroes despite their race or national origin,” Murphy wrote in 1981. “Over the years, sports like baseball and boxing have given Irish, Italians, Blacks and Hispanics a means of achieving economic status when other doors were closed to them.”

Some members of the team ended up playing on other Black teams in the 1910s and 1920s. It wasn’t until 1947, more than three decades after the Occidentals disbanded, that Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

Honoring the Occidentals over a century later

The Occidentals are now set to return to Salt Lake City for the first time in over a century Saturday night, something that has been a few years in the making.

Others in the Salt Lake Bees organization liked the idea of honoring the team but coming up with a uniform was the first challenge. First, there aren’t any known uniforms around to demonstrate exactly what they wore in the 1900s. Second, there aren’t many photos of the team, and all of the existing photos are in black and white.

The Salt Lake Bees’ recreation of the Salt Lake Occidentals uniform, which the team will wear for the first time on Saturday. The all-Black team existed for a few years in the early 20th century. (Photo: Salt Lake Bees)

Williams combed through various newspaper descriptions to piece together an idea of what the uniforms looked like, at least at one time. They featured white ballcaps with no logos, along with a white uniform with black lettering and orange trim. The Bees’ updated uniform tacks on the team’s S.L. initials on the cap, as well as the current Bees logo on the sleeve, to add a bit of flare to the design.

The team planned to wear the uniforms last year but ran into a regulatory issue from above. Major League Baseball, which operates the minor leagues, requires all teams to provide enough advanced notice about any specific changes to team names or uniforms, even in one-night promotions, so they clear legal review. That pushed the promotion back to this season.

By then, the Bees contacted the Utah Black Chamber of Commerce in an effort to help the team tell the story of the Occidentals as best as possible, Williams explained. That’s when Wynter Storm, a member of the chamber’s board and founder of the Utah Black Artists Collective, was brought in to plan additional events scheduled for Saturday.

We want to bring more awareness to some of these amazing moments in history that have gone untold, and really allow them to shine and be what they are — because they are already amazing.

– Wynter Storm, founder of the Utah Black Artists Collective

Storm had already compiled events for the Utah Grizzlies hockey team, so she knew how to find ways to connect Black history and sports. She had never heard of the Occidentals before but was eager to help, especially as she learned more about the team’s unique history. She felt that it was a perfect opportunity to celebrate especially around the Juneteenth holiday.

She helped coordinate having the Utah Black History Museum mobile bus arrive at the ballpark, while Black-owned food trucks and vendors will also be on hand. That’s on top of the arts, poetry and history lessons featured throughout the night. The evening will be capped off with fireworks after the game.

“It’s going to be really awesome. It’s going to be something folks can learn from — enjoy the game as well as learn,” she said.

The Bees intend to bring the Occidentals jerseys back for at least one night as a “somewhat permanent throwback feature” from here on out, Williams said. He said the team may also expand its historic jersey collection again to feature other teams from the state’s baseball past.

But both he and Storm agree that telling the story about the Occidentals and their legacy is especially important in teaching forgotten components of Utah history.

“It means the absolute world to me,” Winter says. “(We want to bring) more awareness to some of these amazing moments in history that have gone untold, and really allow them to shine and be what they are — because they are already amazing.”

This article by Carter Williams, an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for, is part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for’s Historic section.

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