Early Black baseball player speaks on pioneering collegiate baseball and harrowing 1970’s racism

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Salvatore Ambrosino

Reginald “Reggie” Ardis shared his experience at Florida Southern College as one of our first Black baseball players. Experiencing both the racial peril of the early 1970’s and the short-lived fame of an elite college baseball team, Ardis made his debut with the Florida Southern Mocs in the Spring semester of 1971.

Photo courtesy of McKay Archives Center and Florida Southern Athletics.
Greg Pryor slides home to give the Mocs the lead, and the championship over San Diego State in 1972.

Alongside senior outfielder Atlas Jones, Ardis described living through what they had as the first Black players to make the A-team 50 years ago. 

Growing up, Ardis had been a scorekeeper and bat-boy for Florida Southern College baseball. After finishing with Manatee Junior College as their first Black player and the No. 2 junior college baseball program in the nation, he approached late Athletic Director and famed head coach Hal Smeltzly “demanding” a scholarship.

“He looked at me like I was crazy. But he asked me if I could play; he had seen me play for Manatee Junior College,” Ardis said. “He’d watch me that summer, and [said] if I was good I could have a scholarship.”

Ardis played in Lakeland’s All-American Legion baseball during the summer of 1970 as the first Black player in that league. There, he won MVP. 

Smeltzly kept his word, rewarding Ardis’s MVP performance with a scholarship and admission to Florida Southern that fall as one of the earliest Black student-athletes on record. 

“I went to college for one reason, and it was not to get an education. I’ll be honest,” Ardis said. “It was to play ball.” 

After making Florida Southern’s roster, Ardis was one of eight Black student-athletes at Florida Southern. He remembers getting along with his teammates and earning a starting position his freshman year.

“I didn’t have a real good stretch,” Ardis said. “Coach Smeltzly had a place right next to him during the games. In other words, I got to sit on the bench.” 

Ardis soon thrived among his teammates, breaking records, securing a record 5 double-plays in only 5 innings. Earning his position on the All-Tournament roster in 1971, he was not only recognized as a designated hitter; he was Black. His hard-earned recognition in the sport of baseball and from his teammates did not always keep him safe from the racist premonitions of the 1970’s. 

Ardis received a bid from ΦΕΚ (Phi Epsilon Kappa—pronounced “PEKE”), a social fraternity that is no longer on campus. This was a line Ardis claimed to have “crossed.”

“I crossed the line from being an independent to joining a Greek organization,” Ardis said. “I was the first ‘Black’ [person] to be a part of a Greek organization at Florida Southern.”  

ΦΕΚ came in first in academics and  won the athletics trophy during his stint—despite it, Ardis recalls “horror stories” from crossing the line: run-ins with a racist rival fraternity. He remembers Kappa Alpha (KA), an organization that disbanded from Florida Southern’s campus in the 1980s. Ardis was careful in his word-choice.

“They were not real nice,” Ardis said. “We had to have the authorities come out because we had an issue with the way they were wanting to treat me. They were staunchly against the involvement of Blacks in White communities. It was a major problem at the time.” 

A small team within ΦΕΚ took to Ardis’s defense on campus. The KAs were a “serious threat” to Ardis as a fraternity with affiliations to the Ku Klux Klan that had marched in Munn Park in the 70’s. Ardis recalls the shotguns kept in possession of his frat for his protection and that he and his fraternal brothers “were ready to battle if they had to battle.” Thankfully, Ardis said, it never came to that.   

Photo courtesy of McKay Archives Center and Florida Southern Athletics.
Head Coach Hal Smeltzly led the Mocs to
back-to-back championships in 1971 and 1972. Since then the Mocs have won the most D2 championships of all time.

Being number one was a dream to many and reality to only few. The reality struck twice at Florida Southern in 1971 through 1972 when the Mocs cruised to becoming the first school to have ever won back-to-back national championships. Ardis remembers the fame. 

“We traveled to the national championships by charter plane—that was unheard of,” Ardis said. “Everybody else was busing. Gives you a little bit of an idea of the respect we had throughout those years.” 

What Ardis remembered most clearly about his time playing baseball throughout Florida and the U.S. was the treatment of his team because of his race. Despite the team’s fame and despite the records, denials from restaurants, hotels and cities haunted their game.

“The [incident] I remember the most—the one I can’t stand even today was at the University of Florida gates,” Ardis said, recalling taunts and slurs aimed at him and his teammates. “The coach in Gainesville tried to recruit me [afterward]. There was no way I was going back to Gainesville after the insults I heard there.” 

When hate flew high enough to prevent Ardis from competing, he was only thankful to his head coach for looking out for the team. 

“We were near Avon Park. There was a field across the one we were playing at. The night we played, the coach told me I needed to stay in the dugout. Across from the field we played at, they had planned a [KKK] rally. You could see the big bonfire in that field,” Ardis said.

Smeltzly did a good job keeping him and the rest of Florida Southern’s elite squad safe. Ardis said if they received future threats, the whole team wasn’t showing up. 

“What I learned as President of the [Lakeland] NAACP is patience—you have to be really patient with change,” Ardis said before pausing. Drawing on his six years of leadership with the organization, he believes today we need better leaders. The discipline of a good leader is that like a soldier, he said. 

“[Change] might be alien to your personal beliefs,” Ardis said. But regardless of how we feel, “you have to be a good teammate to be a good leader.”  

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