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In doing research ahead of Major League Baseball’s opening week — and Jackie Robinson Day coming up next week — I stumbled upon this forgotten local icon and set out to peel back the layers best I could to tell his story and give him the due credit he deserves as the best Tuscaloosa-area ballplayer you’ve never heard of.

Birth Of ‘The Big Train’

Alabama Citizen archives
According to a copy of his World War II draft card, Lavender was born on New Year’s Eve 1923 to George and Charlotte Lavender.

Census records from 1920 show the Lavender family, like many, moved around from rental property to rental property, spending time in nearby Greene County before eventually settling in Buhl on 27th Avenue. Those same records also show that George Sr. worked as a railroad laborer to support his family.

By multiple accounts, George Sr. seemed to want better for his numerous children and, in an instance rare for any race living below the poverty line at that time, George Jr. attended three years of high school at Tuscaloosa’s Industrial High School — a segregated school for Black students that was at the present location of Central Elementary School on 15th Street.

George Jr. was apparently a stellar athlete, too, excelling in both football and baseball during his high school years. But an ambitious love of sports would have to be put on hold when Uncle Sam came calling for Lavender and so many other young men with the onset of World War II.

He was 19 when he was drafted and listed his occupation as “unemployed/student,” due to enrolling at Tuskegee University. Despite having more formal education than most of his peers, he listed his skills as “warehousing, storekeeping, handling, loading, unloading, and related occupations.”

Little can be found about his service in the U.S. Army after being drafted in 1942, although the only clear picture found of Lavender, appearing in the Alabama Citizen newspaper, shows him in his dress uniform and hat sometime during his service, with the caption:

“Cpl. George Otis Lavender, son of Mr. and Mrs. George Lavender, 17th Street, 27th Ave., is on duty somewheres with the U. S. Army overseas. Cpl. Lavender is a former student of Industrial High School and is well known in this city.”

Despite coming home alive and victorious from the war, Lavender was welcomed back not with a ticker-tape parade, but with segregation.

Still, this obviously didn’t stop the young man from returning to college, with one account in a local newspaper saying he was a three-year letterman at Tuskegee University in baseball and football. And on the side, like so many college athletes of the day, he made extra money playing on semipro, in

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