Wissot: Only the ball was white
He sat at the table honoring former players in the Negro Baseball League annual reunion held each year in Birmingham, Alabama. His name was Humphrey Cole and he was 84 years old.
His taut wrinkle-free black skin shone brightly in the afternoon light. He looked years younger than his age. We should all look that good at 84.
We talked about his years playing for teams like the Lindale Dragons of Rome, Georgia. He described having to deal with the long rides on dilapidated buses, the “Colored Only” rooming houses, and the indignity of going to the back door of segregated restaurants in order to get food.
But it was when he told me about the time he struck out a young batter for the Indianapolis Clowns named Hank Aaron that my eyes lit up. Aaron was just a kid, two years away from making his major league debut with the Milwaukee Braves. But I didn’t care. Are you kidding me, you struck out Hammerin’ Hank Aaron? He even remembered the pitch that he threw in 1952 to strike Aaron out, a curveball that caught the outside of the plate. Aaron didn’t like the call.
Humphrey was one of several old African-American ballplayers (most in their 80s and early 90s) I met last month in Birmingham. They played in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the years after Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in Major League Baseball in 1947 and as the Negro Leagues were drawing to a close.
The long overdue correcting of racial injustice in baseball, while a cause for celebration, also hastened the end of segregated Negro League baseball. Fate dealt these players a bad hand. They were either not good enough or too old to make major league rosters and their playing careers were about to be cut short when the teams they played for in the Negro League folded in the early 1960s.
Some of the black ballplayers of that era were expected to do more than just play ball. They were expected to be entertainers as well. Russell “Crazy Legs” Patterson — his nickname was a reflection of his prowess as a dancer — played for the Indianapolis Clowns, not long after Aaron left them for the major leagues. He told me that the Clowns were a barnstorming team and never played in Indianapolis because they didn’t have their own home field.
His dance talents came in handy as the Clowns were the baseball equivalent of basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. They travelled the country entertaining fans from other Negro League teams. One of their players was Goose Tatum, who rose to fame as one of the Globetrotters’ marquee entertainers.
I couldn’t help feeling after spending time with these aging athletes that they experienced much of what Jackie Robinson was subjected to when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. We sometimes forget that Robinson may have integrated the playing field but some of the cities he played in were strictly segregated.
In St.Louis, he and teammate Don Newcombe were permitted to stay at the “White Only” Chase Park Plaza as long as they agreed to not use the swimming pool. Robinson said that was OK because he didn’t know how to swim. The year was 1954.
Sportsman’s Park, the city’s baseball field, integrated fan seating in 1944. But Robinson and Newcombe swore that black fans were limited to 3000 seats in a segregated section of the park whenever the Dodgers played there.
On the last day of the reunion, I drove one of the players to Rickwood Field, which is the oldest ballpark in America. It was built in 1910, two years before Fenway Park in Boston and four years before Wrigley Field in Chicago. Each year a day game is held there to recognize the beginnings of baseball in the city and the two teams, the Barons and the Black Barons, who separately played there from 1920-1963.
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of Negro League baseball. Birmingham is planning a big celebration to commemorate the milestone.
As I sat next to former Black Barons pitcher, Raif Blue, an uncle of the great Oakland A’s pitcher of the 1970s, Vida Blue, I asked him if Birmingham’s most famous native son, Willie Mays, would be in attendance. A 16-year-old Mays played for the Black Barons in 1948, three years before he was elevated to a Hall of Fame career by the New York Giants.
Blue said nothing. I heard a murmur but no response from other players sitting next to us who had heard my question. Finally, one of them blurted out, “ Mays doesn’t leave his house for less than $200,000.”
Mays was my boyhood hero. But I’m not a boy anymore. I think Humphrey Cole, Russell “Crazy Legs” Patterson and Raif Blue are more deserving of my adult adulation.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.