Greason’s teammate gets dinged by a bullet in Cuba

Frank Verdi (AP archive photo)

This is an addendum to my previous post about Bill Greason and his tenure with the Rochester Red Wings; that piece was already too lengthy without this little nugget, and this isn’t directly related to the Negro Leagues, so I decided to break it out into a separate article. …

During Greason’s stint with the Wings in the late 1950s – specifically, summer 1959 – Greason was present when one of his teammates became a victim of the chaos of the Cuban Revolution.

Well, his level of victimization wasn’t very high – especially compared to the thousands of Cubans who lost their lives during the churning turmoil of Castro and his communists’ takeover of the island nation – but the incident does make for a nice little yarn.

So … Frank Verdi spent a virtual lifetime in the sport of baseball. During his 18 seasons as a player, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native spent almost all of his playing career – minus a single inning with the Yankees in 1953 – in the minors, but he went on to become a highly regarded manager in minor-league and independent ball. Overall, Verdi enjoyed a 24-year managerial career in the American pastime.

However, in 1959, Verdi was a 33-year-old infielder with the Red Wings; overall, he spent three years playing for the Wings, 1957-59. Greason was largely a relief pitcher during the 1959 campaign, and the Wings finished the campaign with a mark of 74-80 in the International League.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Revolution was entering its final stages. Fulgencio Batista, who, beginning in 1952, ruled the country under a corrupt, repressive, military dictatorship – with U.S. support for his authoritarian regime, part of a disconcerting but thoroughly unsurprising and hypocritical pattern of behavior by the alleged democratic “city on a hill” – fled Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959 as the forces of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other rebels closed in on Havana and seized control of most of the country.

By mid-summer 1959 – roughly a half-dozen years since the beginning stages of Castro’s movement –  Castro and his forces had saturated the national capital of Havana, and on July 26 a massive, raucous parade in Havana celebrated the day the Castro-guided governmental Cabinet had just declared the “Day of Rebellion.”

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, April 5, 1958.

Here’s how the New York Times of July 27, 1959, described the scene in the city:

“Cuba’s bedraggled but proud rebel army paraded today in happy confusion before its idolized leader, Dr. Fidel Castro.

“It was as gay and casual a military event as had ever been witnessed here and a highlight of an immensely busy day of celebration …

“Marchers forced their way through cheering crowds along the wide Prado promenade and past the national capitol …

“Church bells tolled, white pigeons and balloons were released and the crowd sang the ‘Rebel Hymn’ and the Cuban National Anthem. Machetes were raised in the air. …

“Tens of thousands of Cubans filled the area in front of the capitol and along the Prado. They shouted, cheered and waved.

“The ‘guajiros’ (peasants), today’s guests of honor, unsheathed their long, sharp machetes. The steel blades glittered in the sun as they saluted Dr. Castro and the passing troops. …

“Bearded rebel soldiers and policemen fought hard to keep the pressing crowds from closing in on the parade route. They finally lost the battle and, toward the end, there was just enough room in the center of the Prado for the passage of two calvarymen abreast.

“A police motorcycle caught fire in front of the viewing stand and, a little later, a helicopter made a forced landing in the middle of the crowd.

“A yellow biplane flew over the capital [sic] with a stuntman atop the wings. Jet and propellor-driven fighter planes swooped low over the parade area. Another aircraft released small black and red parachutes, the colors of the revolution.”

Now we’ll shift to another thread in the tapestry of this historical snapshot – the Havana Sugar Kings. The Sugar Kings began their existence in 1946 as the Havana Cubans, when they played in the Class C (eventually Class B later) Florida International League.

In 1953, the club was purchased by Roberto “Bobby” Maduro, who changed the team name to the Havana Sugar Kings and, concurrently, purchased the rights to the Class AAA International League franchise previously located in Springfield, Mass., then shifted the franchise to his rebranded Sugar Kings in Havana, where the team became a top-tier farm team in the Cincinnati Redlegs system.

While apparently Maduro and the Sugar Kings supporters in Cuba harbored hopes that Havana could eventually be home to a franchise in Major League Baseball, for a half-dozen years the Sugar Kings were a thriving, colorful component of the International League, and as such, they and the Red Wings became quite familiar with each other over those years.

Hopping back to Stateside and, more precisely, upstate New York, the Red Wings (along with the other IL teams) warily watched the unfolding drama in Cuba with keen interest tempered with a healthy dose of anxiety and a smidge of trepidation.

During the first several months in 1958, for example, while the IL was collectively in spring training and preparing for the upcoming campaign, hands were wringing and metaphorical bullets were being sweated as executives, management and players eyed the continuing violence and upheaval in Cuba.

In late March 1958, various IL officials, from both the league office and member teams, toured Cuba to scope out the scene in an effort to assuage fears and move forward with IL games being played in Havana, especially with a Cuban presidential election scheduled for that June, the Castro-led rebels continuing their increasingly successful guerilla war and Batista clinging to power.

An ensuing league-wide meeting in Miami with Maduro and other Cuban representatives soothed American fears and produced a commitment to keep the Sugar Kings in the league and to move ahead play in Havana as scheduled. Discussions continued, however, as IL officials continued to monitor the sociopolitical landscape in Cuba, with an April 10, 1958, Associated Press citing league officials issuing the caveat that the IL’s position and plans could be altered if “conditions [in Cuba] materially changed.” When IL president Frank Shaughnessy was then asked what he’d consider a material change, he ominously answered “shooting people down there.”

Put a pin in that sentiment for now.

Two Cuban kids play ball. (AP file photo)

Other interested observers also weighed in on the volatile situation in Cuba, including Cleveland Indians general manager Frank Lane, who had recently visited the island nation to survey and assess the atmosphere there.

The Sporting News of Jan. 14, 1959 ran a long article about Lane’s evaluation, as well as his overall support for encouraging Cubans and Latin Americans to continue cultivating a passion for baseball and to strengthen their relationship with American baseball teams, officials and players.

Lane said he didn’t believe communism would take over Cuba, adding that the further flourishing of baseball on the island would help prevent the proliferation of far-left political forces there.

However, Lane also told TSN writer Hal Lebovitz that he (Lane) didn’t think Castro would attempt to install communism under his (Castro’s) administration, adding that Castro would only serve to benefit baseball in Cuba, and that the Cuban Winter League would continue to thrive.

“From the standpoint of relationships between our country and those in Latin America,” Lebovitz quoted Lane as saying, “it gives them [Cubans] an opportunity to understand us [Americans] better. They see our young men play ball with their natives and it builds up a feeling of friendliness. It’s the finest way to bring countries with alleged communist tendencies a picture of how well-treated their sons are by Americans.”

Lane also said he felt perfectly safe while in Cuba, with mobs of looters presenting more of a challenge than Castro’s forces, who spent more focus on tracking down Batista supporters than harassing foreign visitors.

“They were very polite and refused to take advantage of their sudden power,” Lane asserted about Castro’s men.

Lane added: “I don’t know if [Castro will] be able to carry out his intentions but if he does, Cuba will be a better place.”

Nostradamus, Lane was not, obviously.

Meanwhile, Wings players and managers were in spring training in spring ’58 in Daytona Beach as the diplomatic grappling persisted, with a regular-season series in Havana slated for April 20-21, just a matter of weeks away.

During the first week of April, a Democrat & Chronicle reporter quizzed several Rochester players and officials about the Wings’ impending regular-season series in Havana against the Sugar Kings, and some of them weren’t exactly overflowing with enthusiasm.

Eddie Stevens, a first baseman who’d played in the majors for six seasons in the late 1940s to 1950 but was in 1959 in the middle of a lengthy career second act in the minors, expressed some apprehension.

“I’m really leery right now,” Stevens said. “I can’t see walking into something like a revolution. But if we gotta go, we gotta go.”

Bobby Maduro

Said another player, Tommy Burgess, when he was asked if particularly wanted to go to the island nation to play: “Positively no. I’m playing in the outfield, which makes me a very big target. How about my life insurance in a revolution? But I guess, in the final analysis, I’ll go if I have to.”

Pitcher Dick Ricketts also brought insurance into the matter, telling the paper that he had “double indemnity” coverage before adding that “if my insurance is no good, I don’t want to play there.” Fellow flinger Kelton Russell chipped in with some sly sarcasm, noting that if he’s having a rough day on the mound, “I sure don’t need to complicate it with a bullet in the back. Those bullets don’t know whether you’re neutral.”

(One player, pitcher and one-time New York Yankee Bob Kuzava, didn’t like playing in Havana under normal conditions because of the island’s culinary customs: “I don’t believe the eating conditions permit a player to play at top efficiency.”)

Bill Greason, the subject of my previous post who spurred my research on this matter, was also asked his opinion. His answer was characteristically understated for a World War II and Korean War veteran who survived the hellish battle on Iwo Jima.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Greason said. “I’ll go with the team. It wouldn’t be right to say I wouldn’t go.”

Then there was Frank Verdi, the subject of this post. What did he say about playing in Cuba?

“I very definitely do not care to play baseball in Havana with all the difficulties they are having there,” Verdi said.

Keep another pin in that point No. 2.

An emergency league meeting in Miami in mid-April settled the situation when IL executives decided to take out a $1 million insurance policy on the first four league teams to play in Havana that season. With that, the season progressed with the Sugar Kings and their much-liked owner Bobby Maduro still in the International.

But even with a resolution in place for the time being, it remained an uneasy, fragile sense of calm in the baseball world. With Batista showing a willingness to crack down on the rebellion with violence, and the rebels tenaciously persisting with their attacks on the government forces, no one was under any illusions that everything was A-OK, as D&C sportswriter Paul Pinckney noted in an April 16, 1958, column.

“No matter how minute,” Pinckney penned, “one explosive incident while Havana is entertaining International League rivals will blow the island capital off the baseball map.

“For many months, long before the political unrest there brought on armed revolt, I.L. officials had been masking in the public prints their true feelings about the Havana membership.

“Only their respect and admiration for Roberto (Bobby) Maduro … sidetracked abortive moves to drop the Cubans and admit a United States city into the oldest minor league in the game.”

The Wings ended up venturing to Havana for their three-game series against the Sugar Kings as scheduled April 20-21; they swept a doubleheader on the first day and lost to the Kings the second day. It seems the games went off without any significant hitches.

The Rochester club made a second voyage to Cuba that season; in August they lost a series in Havana with one of the Wings’ worst outings of the year. However, once again, the trip went smoothly.

Jump ahead to the 1959 campaign, and the Cuban civil war was lurching to a conclusion – the aforementioned victory by Castro and his followers following Batista’s abdication and flight from the country – leaving the International League and its member teams again coping with the ongoing dilemma of what to do with the Sugar Kings’ membership in the IL.

Maduro spent the first few months of 1959 on a lobbying blitz, traveling to various meetings and engaging in discussions with IL officials to convince the league that all was well in Havana, that they needn’t fret about the Sugar Kings, and that Castro was fully on board with preserving the Kings’ operations as well as the team’s league membership.

As part of his PR barrage, Maduro ventured to the Great White North to huddle with other IL executives at the league’s mid-winter meetings in late January, at which time he seemed to indicate that he and Castro were good buds. According to The Sporting News, Maduro went as far as to claim that if Castro and his troops had not been successful in giving Batista the boot, the Sugar Kings would have bolted to Jersey City already. It was Castro’s backing, Maduro asserted, that were keeping the Kings on solid ground.

By all appearances, IL execs readily bought Maduro’s claims. Reported the TSN:

“Maduro came here [to Montreal] prepared to defend Havana’s because of criticism from Buffalo [and that city’s IL members, the Bisons] that there is still danger of more shootings and unrest. However, no defense was necessary.

“The support was so heavily in his favor that President Frank Shaughnessy did not call for a vote on whether the franchise should be shifted. As it turned out, the Cuban situation was only a minor part of the meeting. …

“Maduro, who has always kept free of political entanglements, said he had been given assurances of complete cooperation by Felipe Guerra, Cuba’s new sports director. In fact, Maduro gave the impression that he could write his own ticket with the new government.”

TSN reporter Cy Kritzer further quoted Maduro himself on the issue of the Sugar Kings fitting into the new political landscape in Cuba.

“I have kept out of politics and intend to do so,” Maduro said. “I have worked always for the good of Cuba and not for any particular government.”

Maduro added that the new regime’s crackdown on numbers running, betting parlors and other illicit gambling operations would also boost the team’s fortunes.

The Cuban owner doubled down on the “Castro is a swell guy” line roughly two months later, when Sporting News scribe Jimmy Burns reported on the IL Miami Marlins exhibition series in Moron, Cuba.

“If Batista had remained in power,” Maduro told Burns, “baseball was finished in Havana.”

As the ’59 season commenced, Maduro made public reassurances that his team would remain in both the Cuban capital and the International League. In late April he told the New York Times, following a reported three-and-a-half-hour conference with Castro, who was now in power in the country, that the new leader and he had agreed to keep the franchise running as it was, with a plan for retaining its locale and its affiliation with organized baseball. Castro also arranged a $70,000 infusion of cash to Maduro’s team on behalf of the government.

(In fact – and this isn’t a joke – an AP story around that time even states that Castro said he’d even take the mound and pitch for the Sugar Kings if it would help keep the club in Havana. In addition to, you know, the civil war, the Kings were battling poor attendance, and Castro struck on the brilliant idea to boost turnout at games by letting him play. That didn’t happen, it looks like, but Castro did pitch in exhibitions at Gran Stadium, and he was also caught sitting in the Kings’ dugout during games.)

Such reports, coincidentally, came out just as the Red Wings were in Havana for a four-game set with the Sugar Kings. As far as the happenings on the field went, the teams split the series, and, to harken back a little to my previous post, Bill Greason contributed a stellar showing on the mound for the April 24 game. In four-plus innings of long relief, the former Negro Leaguer and future minister hurled one-hit ball. He replaced another former Negro League star, injured starter Marshall Bridges, who’d played for the Memphis Red Sox and would eventually spend parts or all of seven seasons in the majors.

Oh, and Frank Verdi – remember him? – clubbed two doubles and swiped a base. Unfortunately, the Wings lost, 1-0, succumbing to their lack of offense and a brilliant performance by Havana righty Vicente Amor on the mound.

D&C writer George Beahon was on the scene covering the whole experience. (You see, 60-plus years ago, when newspapers were daily, were dozens and dozens of pages thick  and actually had lots of money, they sent their sports reporters wherever the home teams were playing to cover it. Life as a sportswriter in 1959 was pretty sweet. Today, of course, the D&C is about eight pages thick each day and couldn’t care less about the Wings, or the hockey Rochester Americans, because the paper is funneling all its meager resources into making sure the Bills are covered ad nauseum. But anyway …)

Emblematic of the Cuban people’s apparent distaste for attending Kings games was the fact that the four games against the Wings at Gran Stadium generated so little money at the gate that the Havana club was unable to pay a locally mandated $800-per-game guarantee to the visiting team.

In his coverage of the series, Beahon reported the news about the agreement between Castro (whose official title at the time was prime minister) and Maduro to keep the Sugar Kings in Havana – the discussion between the two had taken place in New York City, where Castro was giving speeches and pressing the flesh at the United Nations – as well as Castro’s offer to pitch for Maduro’s team.

In the April 23 edition of the Rochester paper, Beahon quoted what Castro reportedly had told Maduro in reaction to news reports that the Havana franchise was headed to New Jersey.

“I will solve their problems,” Castro reportedly told Maduro. “The Cubans can not [sic] leave Havana. If necessary, I’ll pitch for them.” (Insert eyeroll here.)

Beahon went on to quote Maduro, who indicated that Castro was willing to ask the leaders of the country’s economic industries – namely, sugar, beer and tobacco – to help by, among other actions, subsidizing the team’s broadcasting costs.

In a corresponding column, Beahon gushed about Cuba under Castro post-Batista. Pointing to factors like reduced food prices and costs of living for the country’s people; the end of the Batista regime’s often violent and murderous suppression of dissent; the crackdown on the corrupt black market economy; lowered or eliminated taxes and surcharges; the jovial, even helpful attitude of Castro’s soldiers; and an overall more welcoming atmosphere for tourists, Beahon painted a lovely picture of the current scene in Havana.

But that would eventually change, of course.

Two days later, in the April 25 issue, Beahon elaborated by further quoting Maduro, who said thusly:

“[Castro] and I spent over two hours alone in his hotel apartment. He threw everybody else out. … he wanted to get this baseball business straightened out. He said it would have been terrible if we had to move.”

Repeating that Castro would help the team sort out its broadcasting rights issues, Maduro also said Castro told him that Castro would be willing to establish a local player-development commission to continue to grow baseball in Cuba, with a possible goal of joining the American major leagues at some point.

“He repeatedly told me we would have no more problems with our franchise in Havana,” Maduro said.

But again, that would change.

And the reversal of the Sugar Kings’ fortunes began to unfold within a few months, because by July, apparently, Maduro was doing a fair amount of backpedaling from his public pronouncements in February and April by now claiming that he was prepared to unload the Sugar Kings if the 1959 season kept the franchise in the red.

The Miami Herald broke the story about Maduro’s comments about selling the team, and The Sporting News followed up on the matter. The media outlet reported that Maduro claimed the Sugar Kings were perpetual and perennial money losers while members of the International League, even with successful seasons on the field.

Apparently in May-ish – just a month after his proclamations of confidence – Maduro was ready to sell the Sugar Kings until Castro reportedly stepped in proactively to keep the Havana ball team going in Cuba. Maduro said he and Castro agreed that the Cuban regime shouldn’t directly subsidize the team, so alternate, more indirect means of support were undertaken.

For example, the Cuban Tourist Commission anted up some money, and Camilo Cienfuegos, the chief of the Cuban army, ponied up $10,000 for tickets for soldiers. In addition, the Sugar Institute purchased radio time to promote the team. Unfortunately, Maduro said, those funding infusions were already almost gone.

We now arrive where we started, in July ’59, when the Red Wings returned to Cuba for another series with the Sugar Kings as Castro continued to solidify his grasp on power and the atmosphere in Havana was becoming a little more fevered.

It’s July 26, and the scene on that day in Havana was as described in the previously cited article in the July 27, 1959, issue of the New York Times – festive to the edge of pandemonium.

Along with the parade, the plane stunts, the parachuters, the white pigeons and the balloons, and the surging, shrieking crowds jamming the streets of the nation’s capital, a baseball game was getting underway at Gran Stadium, where the Sugar Kings were hosting a Red Wings aggregation that somehow had to adjust to the swirling furor.

Just like what was transpiring out in the streets, inside the stadium crowds were celebrating the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution that had swept out the despotic, repressive, US-backed Batista regime and ushered in what would soon become the despotic, repressive, US-hated Communist regime.

D&C, July 27, 1959

By the end of the day, Paul Pinckney’s prophecy – that baseball in Cuba might be altered with a single calamitous event – would be proven quite accurate.

Because, with the score between the Wings and the Kings knotted at 4-4 in the 11th inning (some media reports said 12th inning), a few of those jubilant attendees packing Gran Stadium got a little reckless with their firearms.

And in one of the zaniest and frightening occurrences in baseball history, poor Frank Verdi – the minor league lifer and, on this night, the Wings’ third base coach – took a bullet to his noggin.

Don’t worry, he was fine – his headgear, coupled with an additional lining of rubber and plastic, deflected the .45-caliber bullet enough to prevent any real injury – and was checked out at Anglo-American Hospital and was released without being admitted to the facility. In fact, he was with his teammates when they skeedadled via plane for the mainland the next morning.

As it turned out, Verdi, who was left with some burning on his ear and shoulder after the grazing, had actually replaced Wings manager Cot Deal in the third-base coaching box; Deal had been ejected from the game for arguing a call earlier on. In fact, Deal later told Beahon that getting tossed by umpire Frank Guzzetta probably saved Deal’s life. The manager said that unlike Verdi, he wasn’t wearing a plastic liner in his cap and, unlike Verdi, he might have been killed by that stray bullet.

It’s an event that, even absent the particulars of that exact location and moment in time and, would seem patently bananas. But these weren’t dull times, and it certainly wasn’t a dull place.

Here’s how Beahon described it in his same-day coverage of the game:

“At midnight, the stadium erupted with side tommy gun chattering and rockets blaring off. There was firing inside and outside of the park.

“Verdi was standing in the third base coaching box. Suddenly, he wobbled and grabbed his head. Players and umpires surrounded him. He was not hospitalized.”

An ensuing United Press International article elaborated with further details about the hair-raising incident, including that Verdi was pegged in the right temple.

“If that bullet had been two inches to the left, all the team would have had to chip in five bucks apiece for flowers,” Verdo told the UPI reporter, who described Verdi as “still shaken.”

Later, The Sporting News interviewed Verdi about the incident while the Rochester club was held over in the Miami airport, and the Wings coach related his experiences with lingering amazement. Reported TSN:

“No one ever brought back a souvenir from Havana such as the one displayed by Frank Verdi, Rochester infielder …

“Verdi stuck his finger through a hole made in his cap by a stray bullet during a Rochester-Havana game … at Gran Stadium.

“‘I don’t think I would be talking to you if the bullet had hit squarely,’ he declared.

“Verdi was hit by the bullet during gunfire by celebrating soldiers in the stands, while he was subbing as third-base coach for ousted manager Cot Deal.

“‘I was wearing a rubber and plastic lining in my cap,’ said Verdi. ‘It saved my life. I have a wife and four kids at home. So as far as I’m concerned, I’ve had it in Havana. We went there to play ball, not to get shot at.”

Right after the shooting, umpires Frank Guzzetta and Harry Schwartz ordered the game suspended and telephoned IL president Shaughnessy with a full report. The UPI article went on to relate the event further:

“A Red Wings spokesman said more than 500 Rebel soldiers poured onto the playing field at the stroke of midnight Saturday, signaling the beginning of a July 26th celebration commemorating the attack on Moncada army headquarters that launched the revolution in 1953. He said the soldiers fired machine guns, rifles and pistols into the air and ‘everything was in a terrible state of confusion.’

“Police reported that 17 people were treated for bullet wounds in Havana early yesterday morning.”

Verdi wasn’t the only one to be grazed by a slug of lead – Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas also was struck by another errant bullet, causing a flesh wound in his shoulder that wasn’t serious.

For another perspective of the bizarre, unnerving experience, we’ll briefly go back momentarily to the guy who was the inspiration for these last two blog posts, I didn’t know about the Red Wings-Cuban-Verdi tale until after I interviewed Bill Greason at the Malloy conference this past June, so I didn’t ask him about the Cuban affair.

Rev. Bill Greason

However, Greason was asked about the incident for an article in June in “Rickwood Tales,” the newsletter for the Friends of Rickwood Field, and here’s how he remembered the mishap:

“We were playing in Havana, Cuba on the night that Fidel (Castro) took over Havana. He came to the ballpark with some of his troops; and they were celebrating — firing those weapons into the air. One of them (a bullet) clipped one player’s ears. They had a big writeup about it when we got back home. … They were just celebrating the liberation. I think the leader of that nation had been Batista. That’s pretty good for 94 years old [Greason’s age]! (Laughing).”

The fallout from the incident in Gran Stadium was practically instantaneous and decidedly grim. Right after the shooting, Deal pulled his coaches and players off the field, and soon Red Wings players refused to play the remaining two games of their series with the Sugar Kings in Cuba.

As the Rochester team took off from Havana for Miami the next morning, Maduro stewed and steamed about the Wings’ stance and subsequent departure. He grumbled to Beahon that the Wings had used the shooting incident as an excuse to cut off a Rochester losing skein and avoid two more potential losses in a scheduled doubleheader in Havana.

Noting that the Wings’ early exit from Cuba could have negative repercussions from Castro, Beahon wrote that everyone wrote that all parties involved would try to save face with the new Cuban premier. Maduro claimed that “Rochester’s refusal to play today will damage baseball in Cuba, in our league, and baseball everywhere.”

The reverberations of the ugly incident rippled through the rest of the International League, including in Richmond, Va., where Laurence Leonard, a columnist for the News Leader newspaper, quickly chipped in his two cents. His words resonated partially because Richmond was home to the Richmond Virginians, another IL club at the time.

While Leonard started his column with the qualification that there “is no desire to become an alarmist,” then proceeded to ring alarms, asserting that “the time has come, it appears, for the International League to give thought, and very serious thought, to pulling out of Havana.”

Leonard added: “When players are fired upon, it’s time for action. …

“Cuban revolutions, uprisings or whatever you want to call them, may be all right by the Cubans. But why should baseball players be subjected to them?

“The Cubans … may claim things are orderly in Havana, but shooting in a ball park doesn’t indicate it. The Cubans may be willing to risk their valuable players to possible injury. That doesn’t mean other teams in the league have to do the same thing.”

Meanwhile, within a day or two Shaughnessy attempted to restore order and confidence among league teams and players, many of whom were reportedly unnerved by the shooting incident, to say the least. Shaughnessy firmly stated that despite the unrest and severe trepidation throughout the league, the IL would go ahead with its 1959 schedule, including all contests in Havana, noting that no one within the league had issued or submitted any formal complaints, requests or protests concerning the prospect of going through with the schedule.

Two days after the incident at Gran Stadium, the new Cuban government – either out of embarrassment or diplomatic calculation, or both – responded to the criticism and skepticism expressed by Leonard and other critics by taking steps to mitigate the potentially severe damage done to the new regime’s image by the mishap.

The country’s national sports director, a military man named Guerra Matos, extended an apology to the Red Wings, and officials attempted to reassure International League officials and teams that any future IL series in Havana would be completely safe for players, managers, coaches and staff.

Within two days, though, the beleaguered Maduro seems to have seen the writing on the wall, or at least a first draft, so to speak, of that writing; apparently tiring of losing money and walking on political and economic pins and needles in Cuba under the new regime, Maduro announced that he now was prepared to sell the Sugar Kings if he ended up enduring more red ink in 1959 after completing that season.

Maduro’s exclamation prompted Castro to commit more aid to the team.

“The Sugar Kings are a part of the Cuban people,” Castro was quoted as saying in the July 29, 1959 Sporting News. “It is important for us to have a connection with Triple-A ball.”

But such a connection rapidly became increasingly untenable as the Castro regime ramped up the level of bellicosity with America and its allies and the amount of boldness Castro and his cohorts displayed in reshaping the Caribbean island.

Gran Stadium (AP archive photo)

While Castro and his cohorts at first disassociated themselves from the idea that they espoused communism or similar far-left ideologies – especially while the revolution and civil war were being waged – it wasn’t long after the Castro administration took control of the government that their intentions were indeed to implement a communist system were made career as the regime nationalized several industries — including, most prominently, American ones — and the economy as a whole and began to engage in the same type of authoritarian crackdowns on dissent that the Batista government had employed.

Such developments, as history bore out, were received with a blend of reproach and fear by America and its allies, a reaction that led to several of the sort of recklessly impetuous recriminations (the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion) or nerve wracking brinkmanship (the missile crisis) that came to define a Cold War that was increasingly being waged on several continents. Overall, the U.S. placed a stifling economic embargo on Cuba that’s existed, to varying degrees, for decades ever since, formally signaling that Cuba was persona non grata to America.

Meanwhile, between the domestic policies of the Castro government and the severe souring of international relations, professional baseball in Cuba was snuffed out. The storied, venerated Cuban Winter League and other intra-national baseball traditions were terminated on the island, and Bobby Maduro was compelled to sell his beloved Sugar Kings, who as an International League franchise moved to Jersey City and abandoned the Havana background they had called home for more than a decade.

Moreover, the Castro regime, placing singular emphasis on the Cuban national team, banned Cuban beisbol players from leaving the country to pursue other, possibly professional baseball opportunities abroad. With that, the tradition of supremely talented Cuban stars playing pro ball that began with Negro League stars like Jose Mendez, Cristobal Torriente, Martin Dihigo, Alejandro Oms, Luis Tiant Sr. and Minnie Minoso dropped to a trickle.

The restricting of Cuba’s rich baseball tradition spurred derision from some in the States, where journalists viewed the revolution and its social, political and economic fallout on the island with an increasingly jaundiced eye.

The Washington Post, in an editorial published in the paper’s Nov. 15, 1960, issued under the headline, “Psychopath’s Delight,” framed the drastic shriveling of big-time baseball in Cuba as a microcosm of the steep fallout from Castro’s assumption of power in the Caribbean nation.

“No one should be surprised at the news from Havana that Cuban baseball – or beisbol as the bearded beatniks down there prefer to spell it – is a casualty of the revolution,” the paper stated. “The Cuban Winter League which in former years drew great crowds to the island’s fine ball parks is rapidly going broke.”

The editorial listed several factors in the sport’s seeming demise in Cuba – the MLB ban on American players competing in Cuba, the migration of the Sugar Kings to New Jersey, the depressed post-revolution Cuban economy, even the American embargo’s blocking of the importation of baseballs for play – but said the issue ran even deeper than those developments.

The editorial’s writers went as far as engaging in stereotypes and obliquely racist images of Latinos to make their point, arguing, somewhat speciously, that Cubans traditionally used baseball as an outlet for their alleged natural hot-headedness and proclivity for violence.

“Baseball basically, if we may put it that way, has always been a substitute for aggression,” the editorial claimed. “… But Cubans have no need for such a substitute. Dr. Castro has given them the real thing.

“When Cubans feel hostile and aggressive – and they do sometimes, you know – they just hold a public trial, quite possibly in a ball park, and send a batch of their compatriots before a firing squad. Naturally, that takes care of their inner tensions, at any rate for the moment. There is nothing, not even a ball game with Cuban pitchers, quite like a round of executions for producing a deep sense of psychic satisfaction.”

Just four days before that editorial, the New York Times ran a news story about the implosion of the Cuban baseball scene, asserting, “Baseball, once the favorite sport in this island, is about to become a casualty of the Cuban revolution.

“Baseball parks are empty of spectators. No longer do small boys play ball in vacant lots, and no longer is the latest score the top news of the day. …

“The poor attendance at the nightly games here is caused by a combination of factors, according to sports writers.

“The middle and upper classes, who were always the most ardent baseball fans on the island, have been stripped of their possessions by the Castro regime. There is a lack of good American players. And the continual marching and drilling of the civilian militia composed of workers and students that leaves them no time for recreation.”

As stated previously, by the end of the 1950s, and as the country barreled along into its transition from faux democracy to communist dictatorship post-revolution, the Havana Sugar Kings were nearing their brief but tumultuous existence in Cuba.

However, Maduro’s squad went out with quite a bang – after finishing third in the IL in the regular season, they won the league playoffs to claim the IL crown. The Havana squad then outlasted the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in the Junior World Series in seven games in the Kings’ penultimate season in Cuba.

Castro tosses the traditional first ball at ceremonies opening the minor International League baseball season, in Havana, Cuba April 1960. (AP archive photo). At right is Rochester Red Wings manager Clyde King.

Despite this final flourish of greatness, the Sugar Kings’ days in Cuba were rapidly nearing a dour conclusion, and the franchise headed north in the middle of the 1960 season. Upon arriving in Jersey City in summer of that year, the franchise was renamed the Jerseys and took its place in the International League as the Reds’ AAA affiliate.

For his part, Maduro forlornly lamented the move to the States of the club that had been his baby in his beloved homeland for many quality years. In comments to the UPI in July 1960, Maduro said the franchise’s shift would portend the irreversible decay of baseball on the island.

“The International League is making a big mistake,” Maduro said. “Baseball was a strong link between the Cuban and American peoples, and it should never have been broken.”

Maduro further noted, though, that the Sugar Kings were awash in debt in Havana and claimed that he stood to lose even more money than he already had during his years owning the team.

Another person who didn’t receive the news of the team’s transfer was Castro himself, who, as he moved to consolidate power and establish a dictatorial communist regime, placed the move within the context of already-worsening relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“American players when they came here got nothing but respect and admiration,” Castro declared defiantly. “The people [of Cuba] treated them cordially and there is no record of attacks on players of any kind. But violating all codes of sportsmanship, they now take away our franchise.

“It is another aggression they’ve committed,” he added. “We never told our players not to play in the United States in spite of attacks against us there.”

All along, though, both before and after the revolution, the sagas of baseball in Cuba and the man whose vision and viciousness radically altered the country’s destiny have always been entwined.

In his 2001 book, “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball,” Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria examined, among other topics, how deeply Castro and his regime impacted the sport of baseball on the island.

Asserting that few, if any, political leaders have exerted as much influence on their national sports as Castro, Echevarria stated that while it might be tempting to reduce post-revolution Cuban baseball and Castro’s passion for the sport to the realm of humor (especially given the very tragic conditions, economic devastation and violent suppression that caused, fueled and resulted from the revolution), the sport’s national standing post-Castro is neither frivolous nor insignificant.

“[B]ecause of the historical depth and relevance of baseball in Cuban culture and history, the commander in chief’s relationship to the national sport is no trivial matter,” he wrote. “Fidel Castro’s role in the sport during the revolutionary period is necessarily an important subject. In a sense it defines baseball in Cuba from 1959 until today …

“Given the inordinate length of Fidel Castro’s tenure in power, it is impossible to find even a close second in this aspect of his performance, and only the most ludicrous hypothetical comparisons come to mind.”

Echevarria stressed that baseball had been ingrained in the national ethos of Cuba and embedded in citizens’ personalities and lives from the nation’s inception after throwing off Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century. And naturally, as a Cuban himself, Castro possessed and nurtured his own love for the game.

“It is for all these reasons that the commander in chief wears not only his olive green military hat but symbolically a baseball cap as well,” Echevarria wrote. “He embodies the nation, and with it the martial yet ludic physical spirit of sport.”

D&C, July 27, 1959

Those long-standing situations – the national passion for the sport and its new leader’s devotion to baseball – made it not only natural and quite imperative to somehow retain the saturating presence of beisbol in Cuba.

In an article in the fall 2012 issue of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture titled, “The Cause of Baseball: Baseball and Nation-Building in Revolutionary Cuba,” Kyle T. Doherty elaborated on the situation.

“While Cubans have embraced niche sports like chess and fencing, baseball has always occupied a rarified stratum in Cuba’s sporting culture despite its historical association with American imperialism,” Doherty stated. “This has continued to be the case despite drastic changes to the way the game was organized and presented to the Cuban public after 1959. In the wake of the Revolution, the sport came to have great importance to the state as a symbol of revolutionary ideals and defiance. The nature of the game [leant] itself to politicization by state actors. … In order to better capture the hearts and  minds of the Cuban public, the revolutionary government set about shaping baseball into a spectacle that was equal parts training program and patriotic theater.”

Given the wide-scale overhaul of the nation’s government and economy from a system dominated by private corporations, corrupt capitalism, powerful business magnates and organized crime to one driven by the nationalization of the island’s biggest industries (especially of the ones formerly run by U.S. corporations that bore a paternalistic and parasitic view of Cuba and its people), the eradication of the wealthy classes and the suppression of dissent, the re-imagining of the national sport meant the elimination of the professional baseball that was owned by private interests and operated on the money-making motive.

“The end of professional Cuban baseball signaled the state’s appropriation of the sport into an important facet of the Revolution’s mission to promote ideals of self- sacrifice and egalitarianism,” Doherty wrote.

“For the revolutionary government, professionalism was but another way to promote inequalities, allowing the wealthy elite  to field teams to perform for their amusement, while society’s less fortunate lacked access to modern stadiums, equipment, and instruction in the game,” he added.

So, then, came the departure of the Havana Sugar Kings and their beloved owner, Bobby Maduro, roughly one year after the military forces of the new Castro regime collided with the national sport in the festivities in July 1959 that resulted in poor Frank Verdi getting his head dinged by a soldier’s errant bullet. As baseball was nationalized and all U.S. influences were ejected and purged in Cuba, so went any involvement of America’s “Organized Baseball” on the island.

Also resulting from the remaking of Cuban baseball was the end of the storied Cuban Winter League, which folded after the 1960-61 season. The Cuban League had been launched in 1878 and had become the world’s first fully integrated professional baseball circuit, making its demise all the more heartbreaking.

For decades the Cuban League had blended the best in native talent of both races with the best of American talent, both Black and white, to form a multi-cultural, highly competitive and relatively lucrative enterprise for all involved.

The league was an egalitarian, culturally unparalleled venture in which the cream of the baseball crop rose to the top without regard to race, nationality or creed. It was an ultimate irony that such a democratic, multicultural endeavor was eliminated by a man and a regime that supposedly wanted to impose equality and fairness for all.

“When Almendares and Cienfuegos played the final game of the 1960-61 season it was obvious to people running the Cuban League that there would not be a championship the next year,” wrote Echevarria. “I do not think that anyone thought that professional baseball as it was known in Cuba was finished for good. As with everything else, changes appeared to be provisional, soon to be reversed when the new regime collapsed or was forced to correct its policies drastically. The revolutionaries were improvising under pressure. Most of those (of us) who left early believed that normalcy would return in the not too distant future … But the revolutionary leaders had other plans …”

The creation in February 1961 the INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes Educacion Fisica y Recreacion) proved key; “In March,” wrote Echevarria,  it decreed the abolition of professional baseball, and plans to hold a national amateur championship were laid out.”

In the place of the Cuban League and Organized Baseball under Castro rose a national amateur system and network that cultivated the best Cuban prospects with the goal of forming the strongest Cuban national team as possible, one that would ideally put American baseball to shame. In place of professional teams (and the illicit gambling rings that swirled around those franchises) formed institutional teams from schools and colleges.

A key facet of the Castro regime’s overhaul of baseball structure and culture was spreading the sport into every corner of the island as a way to promote national unity, physical fitness and pride.

“Postrevolutionary [sic] Cuban baseball,” Doherty stated, “… became an insular system, retaining its finest players to represent Cuban self-sacrifice and patriotic fervor. Even the biggest stars renounced the material rewards of professionalism in favor of the purity of amateur play. Furthermore, producing athletes who could compete on the international stage served as proof that the island nation stood on equal ground with the United  States, the country against which Cubans measured their progress and standing in the world. …

“The Castro government set to work transforming the game into a far-reaching state institution whose goal was both to inculcate revolutionary ideals through sports and to field all-star teams to represent the country on the international stage. Creating this revolutionary baseball apparatus required a host of changes. The revolutionary government promoted the sport as a quintessentially Cuban and nationalist pursuit.”

He added that a “principal goal of these reforms was to bring sports into the long-neglected Cuban hinterland. This new attention given to sports infrastructure in underdeveloped provinces marked a democratization of the game.”

And, of course, “[v]ictory in international competitions became the primary focus of the Cuban baseball apparatus,” stated Doherty. “The newly dominant Cuban national team was an ambassador for the Revolution— a demonstration of the nation’s vigor and also of a break with Cuba’s undistinguished performances in prerevolutionary international athletic competitions.”

Added Echevarria: “To the revolutionaries the notion of beating the United States at its own game became a cherished dream, even if it meant perpetuating an undeniable American influence. To common people the game was too deeply ingrained in everything a boy learned as soon as he was able to socialize and satisfy the need to play, to be easily abandoned. Memories of past games, even local or provincial, were too profound and could not be erased. So the decision had to be made very soon after 1959 to continue Cuba’s commitment to baseball.”

Echevarria continued, noting that the remaking of Cuban baseball established “something that many Cubans seemed to have wanted for a long time: a national championship that involved all regions of the island and that also broke down the racial apartheid of amateur baseball. To tie all this to the forging of a new sense of national identity, invested in the revolutionary government and its leaders, was a consciously followed plan that met with great success in many areas, but not without the same cost to human freedom and individual self-determination as in all other aspects of Cuban life.”

But what about the Sugar Kings and their owner themselves? All in all, the fate of the Sugar Kings, as well as professional baseball as a whole in Cuba, painted a dismal portrait of a country being dragged through more trauma, violence and decades as an international pariah.

Unfortunately, the roving IL franchise wouldn’t find any stability in New Jersey; after posting losing records in 1960 and ’61 and reaping scant success at the turnstiles, the Jerseys folded at the close of 1961.

The franchise rights were then purchased by the Cleveland Indians, who used them to launch a new club, the Jacksonville Suns, in Florida and entered the new team in the IL. The club lasted in Jacksonville through the 1968 campaign, but moved to Norfolk, Va., before the start of the ’69 season to become the Tidewater Tides, who have subsequently become stalwart members of the AAA-level IL. The franchise adjusted its moniker in 1993 and now exists as the Norfolk Tides. (The Virginia club will come up a little later in this post.)

Much of the background on the Havana Sugar Kings that I’ve included in this piece was culled from an excellently detailed article by John Harris and John J. Burbridge Jr. in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the Sunshine State, from 2016.

In the article, Harris and Burbridge ruminated on the Sugar Kings’ place in Cuban history and whether things could have been different for the country’s baseball fortunes.

“If the Sugar Kings were allowed to stay in Cuba,” they posed, “would this have been a mechanism for better relations between the United States and Cuba? Probably not, but the question is worth asking.”

Harris and Burbridge wrote that, despite the team’s tragic exit from their home country amidst historic upheaval in Cuba, “their years in Havana are quite uplifting.” They asserted that the Kings’ ability to win championships in 1959 while revolution swirled all around them “an amazing story.”

“The Sugar Kings were a team of destiny intertwined with something larger than themselves,” the pair penned. “Were they the best minor league baseball team in 1959? Probably not, but external developments created a much bigger stage on which they performed and triumphed.

D&C, July 26, 1959

“It is ironic that a team embodying a shared aspect of distinct cultures became the object destroyed by those cultures,” they continued. “The Sugar Kings were a team that straddled eras, an experiment with one shining moment but unfortunately never given the chance to fulfill its potential.” 

Harris and Burbridge asserted that out of the Sugar Kings’ remarkable tale, Bobby Maduro made the best memories and deserves better recognition and plaudits for his ability to steer the franchise through the chaos.

While his team tried to settle in at its new home in the States, Maduro did his best to maintain his home and his prospects in Cuba. However, Maduro saw most of his business holdings be seized by the Castro government, which was in the process of nationalizing most of the Cuban economy and redistributing the wealth of the country’s wealthiest property owners and businessmen.

After losing his business assets and any real hope for socioeconomic survival in Cuba, Maduro found himself practically forced to leave his homeland for brighter prospects in the U.S., but it wasn’t to be – mounting debt and finances bathed in red led Maduro to divest his majority share in the Suns.

Following that, he returned as the Suns’ GM in 1964, but the sinking Jacksonville franchise folded the following year, causing Maduro to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. Saddled with mountains of debt, Maduro secured scouting/consulting jobs with the Dodgers and the Cardinals, followed by many years working for Major League Baseball’s Commissioner’s Office as the director of MLB’s Office of Inter-American Relations, from which he helped coordinate Organized Baseball’s relations with Latin American leagues and other baseball activities.

Maduro engaged in a few other job positions and business pursuits to make ends meet before passing away in 1986 in Miami at the age of 70, but by then he was starting to receive recognition for his monumental contributions to international baseball and to the development of strong connections in the sport between Latin America and the U.S.; he was inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985, and the city of Miami renamed a 13,500-seat ballpark Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium in 1987.

In a bio on Maduro for the SABR Biography Project, Rory Costello wrote that “[a]long with all of the wonderful Cuban players over the years, Roberto Maduro de Lima helped weave baseball tightly into his homeland’s fabric. Yet few if any men in the game’s history have had such a broad worldview.”

Costello also included a quote from Maduro’s son, Bobby Maduro Jr.: “He was a national treasure in Cuba. He loved baseball. He loved el cubanismo.”

As far as the Rochester Red Wings go, my hometown team never returned to Cuba to play a professional or league game of baseball again. The Wings finished the 1959 season six games under .500 and worked through several more mediocre seasons before winning a league championship in 1964. They shifted their major league affiliation from the Cardinals to the Orioles in 1961, to the Twins in 2002, and to the Nationals in 2021, with the multiple championships and loaded roster in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Frank Verdi rebounded quite nicely from getting shot in the head and enjoyed roughly three more total decades in professional baseball, mostly in the minors, in various leagues and at various levels, either as a player, coach, player-coach, player-manager or manager. That included a brief stint skippering the Red Wings in the 1980s. Verdi retired in 1995 and was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 2008. As colleague Eric Vickrey wrote in a SABR biography of the ol’ skipper, “Figuratively speaking, Verdi gave his life to baseball.”

Verdi passed away in July 2010, and by all reports, Verdi in later life lamented the fact that he never got a chance to pilot a major-league team, a feeling re-asserted by Vickrey in his SABR bio on the manager. In the bio, Vickrey quoted Marshall Brant, who played for Verdi’s Columbus Clippers squad in 198182. The Triple-A Clips are a longtime International League franchise that won the league championship in ’81 under Verdi.

“He always wanted a shot to manage or coach in the big leagues,” Vickrey quoted Brant as saying. “He was just jinxed for whatever reason. Maybe he rubbed some people the wrong way. He was not always politically correct.”

Vickrey also included comments from Mike Bruhert, who pitched for a Tidewater Tides club managed by Verdi. (The franchise is now dubbed the Norfolk Tides.)

“Frank was tough but had a big heart,” Bruhert said, according to Vickrey. He was one of a kind. If you played hard, you played, and if you didn’t play hard, you didn’t play.”

Rev. Greason recalls his Rochester days

Rev. Bill Greason, right, with SABR Negro Leagues Committee chairman Larry Lester at the 2022 Jerry Malloy Conference in June.

It’s been about three months since the 2022 Jerry Malloy Conference in Birmingham, and I wish I could have gotten this written and posted before now, but I’m glad I’m finally doing it because it blends two of my favorite baseball topics – the Negro Leagues and my hometown Rochester Red Wings.

While at the Malloy a got to speak with Rev. Bill Greason, whose top-level baseball career began with several seasons on the mound in the late 1940s/early 1950s Birmingham Black Barons, at the time one of the best teams in the Negro American League.

Arguably Greason’s most well known achievement while with the Black Barons was pitching in the very last Negro World Series in 1948 between the NAL champion Black Barons and the dynastic Negro National League kings, the Homestead Grays. Although the Grays overwhelmed the Barons, four games to one, Greason – who’s also celebrating his 98th birthday today! – was the Birmingham hurler to nab the Barons’ only win in the series.

Aside from his time with the Barons, Greason is perhaps best known, at least in the U.S., for, in 1954, becoming the second African-American player for the St. Louis Cardinals and the first African-American pitcher for the Cards. Greason’s debut with the Cards came roughly a month after Tom Alston became the clubs very first Black player. More on Alston a little bit further down in this post.

As for the second favorite topic in this discussion, I’ve been a Rochester Red Wings fan since I was a little pisher growing up in the Rochester area and catching Wings games at the old Silver Stadium in the 1970s and all through the ’80s. As I aged, so did Silver, which gradually became a history-filled but dingy and unwelcoming ballpark with support columns blocking views all around the stands and parking lots so close to the stadium that foul balls routinely shattered the windshields of unsuspecting fans.

I also watched guys like Glenn Gulliver, Floyd Rayford, Bobby Bonner, Storm Davis, Larry Sheets and, yes, the Ripken boys, Cal Jr. and Billy. I clearly remember staying after one game to get players’ autographs on the field, and joining the throng of kids who surrounded the talented but troubled budding superstar Alan Wiggins while he was on a short rehab assignment from the Orioles in Triple-A. (The Alan Wiggins story itself is a tragic one.)

However, it wasn’t until much later as an adult that I started to dive a little bit into the Red Wings history. I learned that the Wings, having been founded in 1889, are the oldest continuously operating franchise in North America below the major-league level.

I also learned that in 1957-58 the Red Wings administration and Rochester community revolutionized baseball ownership by selling shares in the team to members of the public through the Rochester Community Baseball, Inc. company. The process made the Wings one of the few, truly community-owned franchises, while also saving the Rochester franchise entirely.

And as a kid I knew that the Orioles were the Wings’ parent club, and that toward the end of that relationship things got pretty rocky and acrimonious between the two clubs, but I had no idea that before the Orioles era in Rochester, the Cardinals were the Wings’ parent organization.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, April 6, 1959.

The Wings served as the Cards’ top minor league club from 1929 to 1960. That meant, as I subsequently learned, that Rochester rosters at one time included National Baseball Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Johnny Mize and Red Schoendienst, among other Cardinals greats.

The crux of this post, naturally then, is the confluence of these two threads – Negro Leagues legends who played for the Rochester Red Wings. It’s a topic I previously explored in this post about slugging star Luke Easter’s brilliant career and legacy with the Wings.

But while Luscious Luke is generally considered the greatest Rochester Red Wing of all time (other outside contenders are similarly slugging Russ Derry, and several members of the ’71 team, the franchise’s greatest club, such as Don Baylor and Bobby Grich), he certainly wasn’t the only Black player to make his mark with the Wings during the post-Jackie period of large-scale integration of Organized Baseball.

The Wings rosters of the 1950s were routinely dotted with former Negro League stars and other Black players, including Alston for periods in 1954; Mexico native Ruben Amaro and Bob Gibson in 1958; one time Memphis Red Sox pitcher Marshall Bridges and infielder Billy Harrell, who went from the Black Barons to play in MLB for a few seasons, in 1959; Gibson, Easter, pitcher Frank Barnes (former Indianapolis Clown), leftfielder and Tuskegee grad Leon Wagner, and outfielder Ellis Burton in 1960.

Also in that 1950s stew of talent was Bill Greason, a native of Atlanta who eventually became one of the best known, most loved figures in Birmingham, first as a baseball player, then as a minister and Civil Rights activist.

Along the way, Greason did two hitches in the Marines, including during World War II in active battle zones in the Pacific Theater, even taking part in the landing at Iwo Jima in 1945; played in multiple Negro League East-West All-Star games with the Black Barons; enjoyed numerous successful seasons in Latin America in Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico, including the absolutely loaded 1954-55 Santurce squad in the Puerto Rican Winter League that cleaned up in the Caribbean postseason and stands as one of the greatest winter league teams in history; became, in 1952, the first African-American player in Organized Baseball in Oklahoma with the Double-A Oklahoma City Indians to start a legendary stint in OKC; and receiving a theology degree, advocating for Civil Rights and being active at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in the 1960s. (The church was tragically thrust into history in 1963 when Klan members set off a bomb there, killing four little girls.)

In “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, James A. Riley described Greason as being “a successful pitcher, [but] as a batter he was relatively ineffective and showed a high strikeout ratio.” Riley added that Greason was a “right-handed hurler [who] mixed a curve and a fastball effectively.”

Frederick C. Bush, in the official SABR bio of Greason, wrote that “Greason’s major-league career consisted of only three appearances, but his contributions to baseball history should not be underestimated.”

Now, at the age of 98, Greason is the oldest living Negro Leagues player. Still living in the Birmingham area, preaching regularly and teaching Bible classes, Greason was one of the guests of honor at the 2022 Jerry Malloy Conference in Birmingham June 1-4.

D&C, Sept. 1, 1958

Rev. Greason was honored at the conference’s concluding banquet and awards ceremony on the night of June 4, when I was fortunate enough to have a few minutes with him to talk about his time in Rochester with the Red Wings. I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, because I know he’s constantly being approached for interviews, autographs and photo ops.

During our conversation I asked him to assess his experiences in the ROC, which ran from 1956-59. He didn’t talk too extensively – he’s 97 and I’m sure he gets weary from interview and autograph requests, something for which I’m not sure I’d have the patience he and other old ballplayers possess – and it was getting late after the banquet, so I kept our chat short.

To set the scene, during a preseason stint with Rochester in 1955, during spring training Greason told the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper that he was disappointed that he was able to stick with the Cardinals, but that he gave it his best.

“I went up to St. Louis last year in the middle of the season. I guess the pressure was too much, I was trying too hard. Yes, [Cardinals manager Eddie] Stanky started me early. I went against the Cubs, got out of there after the third inning. I didn’t have much of a record {0-1), but I pitched only four innings.”

However, by that time Greason was already gaining positive attention elsewhere in the baseball world, including Baltimore Orioles second baseman Bobby Young.

“He’s a good pitcher,” Young told D&C sportswriter Paul Pinckney in March 1955. “He should help Rochester a lot this season, provided the Cardinals don’t take him up.”

Greason officially pitched for the Wings from 1956-59; he was 31 during his first season in Rochester. During that span, he pitched in a total of 107 games over the four International League seasons and accumulated an overall record of 16-18.

However, only five of those appearances came in 1956, meaning the vast majority of available stats for Greason’s time in Rochester were gathered in the final three seasons. Across those three years, Greason’s ERA ranged from 3.43 in ’57 and 5.59 in ’59 as he pitched 346 innings, including six complete games. He amassed 195 bases on balls versus 266 strikeouts. Unfortunately, saves were not a recorded statistic at that time in the IL.

D&C, May 13, 1957

The reverend said he was welcomed warmly in Rochester, and he enjoyed the city and his overall experience.

“They responded well to me,” he said of Wings fans, “and I did pretty well as a pitcher.”

Unfortunately, Greason occasionally experienced elbow maladies while in Rochester – he spent several short stints on the DL and needed cortisone shots in his elbow a few times – and he probably came out of the bullpen more than he was in the starting rotation. Greason, like many Black and white players, also pitched in Latin America during the winters, putting more strain on his arm.

But despite the elbow troubles, Greason persisted, by spring training 1959 he was managing just fine and just about at full strength. He displayed his prowess during a five-inning, one-hit, winning performance in a preseason contest against the Texas League’s Tulsa Oilers in Daytona Beach. Reported the D&C:

“But Greason was the reason for [Wings manager Cot] Deal’s game-ending smile. ‘We won a ball game,’ the Rochester pilot said softly. ‘Bill had some arm trouble while pitching winter ball, but he looked fine today. One hit – that should have been caught – three bases on balls and two strikeouts – not bad. Not bad, at all.

“‘Jim Dudley (trainer) worked on Greason’s arm after the game. He told me that Bill had nothing more than the usual soreness expected at this stage. That gave me a lift after losing three games in a row,’” Deal added.

Greason reinforced the positive impression a week or so later in an exhibition contest against the Phoenix Stars of the Arizona-Mexico League, when he not only turned in a sterling performance – five innings, no runs, two walks, four strikeouts and two measly singles – but cracked a 370-foot homer himself.

D&C, April 18, 1959

Many of his appearances for the Wings came in long relief, and although he posted a cumulative losing record for the Wings, he frequently put in sterling performances on the mound, his low-scoring teammates wasted those hurling talents with paltry offense. News articles from his time in Rochester reported that Greason usually had excellent control on the mound, with lots of strikeouts.

Overall, Greason said his arm was well enough to fling the pill for the Wings.

“It was a need [for the team],” he said of relief work. “You can’t throw every day, so I didn’t mind [relieving]. My arm held out, and I enjoyed it.”

Greason was joined on the Wings’ roster by several other Black players, shortly after Tom Alston, who broke the color barrier for the Cardinals in 1954, spent time in Rochester. Alston, a native of Greensboro, N.C., who graduated from North Carolina A&T, an HBCU in that city.

Alston was very gifted and often showed flashes of excellence in his career, but as a young adult he began suffering from a neurological disorder that afflicted him with chronic fatigue, a debilitating malady that was accompanied by mental illness – likely schizophrenia – that led to him hearing voices and having other serious symptoms.

Between combating those health challenges and the intense pressure he felt integrating a franchise that had a history of racism – not to mention that in many ways, St. Louis was a Southern, Jim Crow city – Alston collapsed under the weight and didn’t last long in professional baseball. He died in poverty in Greensboro in 1993.

Greason said he could tell that despite Alston’s potential, the latter was struggling.

“We got along really well together,” Greason said of Alston. “I knew what was going on [with Alston]. I think he was kind of shell shocked, with so much pressure on him to do well, and he couldn’t do it.” 

Another outsized personality Greason crossed paths in Rochester was Luke Easter, the super slugger who bashed homers for the Homestead Grays and then the Cleveland Indians before becoming a minor-league legend and folk hero with the Buffalo Bisons and, from 1959-64, the Rochester Red Wings.

As I noted in this post, Easter is beloved in Rochester and widely considered the greatest Wing of all time. He was inducted to the IL Hall of Fame in 2008. Greason and Luke were both on the 1959 Wings team. 

Funnily enough, however, Greason found himself facing off against Luscious Luke during the latter’s several years with the Bisons, including on Aug. 31, 1958, at Buffalo’s Offerman Stadium, an encounter that turned rather dramatic.

Greason got the starting nod for the Wings, but it was a rough outing for the hurler – the Bison’s nicked him for eight hits and four runs, all earned, through six and two-thirds innings. Greason yanked in the seventh – well, booted is a more appropriate word for it – when Easter came to the plate right after Buffalo’s George Risley thumped a home run off Greason.

On the second pitch, a medium speed heater by Greason got away from the Wing pitcher and zipped high and very inside, forcing Luke to duck under the errant throw. Umpire Bob Smith interpreted the pitch as an allegedly angry knockdown pitch in retaliation for Risley’s round-tripper and tossed Greason from the game. The ejection apparently surprised those in attendance, including Wings manager Cot Deal and Easter himself, and it resulted in Greason getting dinged for the loss.

In addition, Greason helped mentor the great Bob Gibson in 1958, one season before Gibson made his Major League debut with the Cards. Gibson, of course, became one of the greatest and most dominating pitchers of all time, a career that earned him admission to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

D&C, March 25, 1959

In a March 31, 1959, column from Daytona Beach, the D&C’s George Beahon pointed out Greason’s mentorship of Gibson (as well as other Black pitchers working their way through the Cards’ system). Beahon called Greason “the veteran Red Wing pitcher who always has served as a sort of counselor and housing and travel aide to the younger Negro players on the club.” The column singled out Gibson and Dick Ricketts who successfully made it to the parent club with Greason’s assistance.

A lengthy 2014 profile of Greason in the St. Louis Dispatch, reporter Derrick Goold wrote that Gibson had recently confirmed that Greason “took him under his wing.” (Rochester-centric pun likely not intended.) Crazy side note about Greason and Gibson: Before a win over Montreal in September 1959 at the Royals’ stadium, the teams held a pre-game “field day” that included, somewhat oddly, an egg-throwing contest, plus a home-run contest won by (who else?) Luke Easter, who clubbed two dingers over the outfield scoreboard. But there was also a pitchers’ foot race around the bases, in which the Royals’ Paul Lapalme beat Gibson and Greason, as well as Bill Harris.

Other Wings teammates, including white ones, credited Greason for serving as a mentor to them as well. “Fellows like Bill Greason, who have played with me, say the International League is the place to really go places,” infielder Alex Cosmidis told the D&C in March 1958. “He also told me Rochester is a good basebball [sic] town.”

Greason’s last year in organized baseball was with Rochester in 1959, when the Cardinals’ management – including former Wings manager and, briefly, Cardinals manager Johnny Keane – hassled Greason in contract talks, spurring Greason to walk away from the Wings, and soon after pro baseball altogether.

“I didn’t go back [for the 1960 season],” Greason said. “They wouldn’t sign or release me,” so he retired.

Thus ended Bill Greason’s tenure in my hometown. In the grand scheme of the universe and in Rev. Greason amazing, long life, his time in Rochester was a footnote – as great as Rochester is, I’m guessing it can’t compare to serving under fire at Iwo Jima, becoming a major league pitcher, taking part in the Civil Rights Movement, and serving his faith and Birmingham for half a century. But I’m glad he has fond memories of Rochester, and I can pretty much guarantee that baseball fans in my hometown, both back in the 1950s and now, were grateful for the work he put in with the Wings.

Bill Greason

But what about how Greason, and his other Black players, were received in the city? Greason told me that he was enthusiastically accepted by the Rochester community.

At least on the surface, the Rochester community seemed to back up Greason’s fond memories of local baseball fans and residents and the way they welcomed him – he, along with new teammates Bob Boyd, a first baseman, and Charles Peete, an outfielder, were recognized by community page columnist Clara Leonard. She wrote:

“BROTHERHOOD WEEK NOTE – Maybe it isn’t news to baseball fans, but it’s nice to know. Our city isn’t lagging behind other communities in the elimination of racial barriers in sports.

“Three Negro ballplayers have been signed for the 1955 season Red Wing team … Last year, Tom Alston, first baseman, was the first man of his race to wear a Red Wings uniform. The three new Negroes who will be on the ball club’s roster come spring training time are [Boyd, Peete and Greason].”

Such a positive reception for the Wings’ Black players in Rochester might not be that surprising, given the city’s reputations for a certain amount of Civil Rights efforts. Before the Civil War and Emancipation, Rochester and its vicinity ran numerous Underground Railroad stations that helped shepherd escaped slaves to freedom.

In addition, Frederick Douglass called Rochester home for much of his life, including the founding and publishing of his bold, abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. Douglass settled in Rochester in 1847 and was buried there in Mount Hope Cemetery after his death in 1895.

However, Rochester’s record on race relations, like many Americans, isn’t exactly unblemished. In July 1964 – just five years after Greason’s last season with the Red Wings – simmering racial tensions boiled over into a race riot that lasted three days, destroyed more than 200 stores, and left four dead, several hundred injured and nearly 1,000 arrested. The uprising – triggered by de facto segregation, police oppression and significantly higher unemployment and economic strife in the Black community – required the arrival of the National Guard to quell the violence.

D&C, April 2, 1958

But although the Wings’ African-American players in the 1950s were generally accepted in the city, it appears that at times, they weren’t so warmly welcomed elsewhere, including Jacksonville Beach, Fla., where it seems that some locals gave them some trouble while the Wings were in town for an exhibition game against the Columbus Jets, another International League team. Reported the April 16, 1959, D&C:

“Worst memories of the spring training: The Indignities [cap in original] suffered by Red Wings Billy Harrell, Bill Greason and Marshall Bridges, during the exhibition game stopover at Jacksonville last weekend, General Manager George Sisler Jr., who was not with the traveling contingent, says it will never happen again.”

Unfortunately I was unable to find any more information about the Jacksonville incident after some cursory research, and I was unaware of the event when I interviewed Greason at the Malloy conference. But like most of Florida in the middle of the 20th century, segregation was enforced in Jacksonville, and the tight grip of Jim Crow had yet to be sufficiently loosened. However, the city also was a center of the Civil Rights Movement in Florida, making the history of race relations in Jacksonville complex and multi-dimensional.

D&B, July 1, 1957

It’s all been a thrilling, rewarding life for Greason, and the reverend continues to make a positive impact on the world in general. Here’s what researchers Bryan Steverson and Layton Revel wrote in their biographical essay on Greason for the Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research:

“From this researcher’s perspective William Greason ended on an extremely positive note because he spent the final three years of his career pitching at the Triple A level. Very few players can say they ended their career in such a positive manner.”

One phenomenon of baseball history that continues to amaze me is how so many different threads of that history coincide, intersect and deepen as they weave the complex historical and socioeconomic tapestry of the American pastime, and Bill Greason most assuredly provides another striking example.

In the three-plus seasons he hurled for my hometown heroes, Greason was witness to a whole slew of developments and occurrences that fundamentally shaped the history of one team and the lives and aspirations of numerous African-American players who were part of the courageous, talented wave of post-Jackie baseball integrators.

The greatest single event in franchise history and one of the most revolutionary economic and financial in minor-league baseball – the creation of Rochester Community Baseball and its community-based ownership of the team occurred during Greason’s tenure there, meaning he got to be on the roster of the first RCB edition of the Wings.

(The formation of RCB came about after the 1956 season – one in which the Wings won the IL championship – when the Cardinals ceased to operate and put the franchise and its stadium up for sale, threatening the franchise’s very existence. A Rochester businessman, Morrie Silver, spearheaded the drive to sell shares of the Wings to members of the public in order to save the franchise and keep it thriving.)

Unfortunately, during Greason’s three (more or less) full seasons in Rochester, the Wings finished sub-.500 and in fifth place in the league, while in 1958 they ended up 77-75, placed third and lost in the playoff semis. However, despite the Wings’ struggles during several of his seasons there, Greason remained eternally optimistic and eager about his tenure in Rochester. At the beginning of the 1958 season, for example, Greason was spotlighted by the Democrat and Chronicle in a daily feature called “Red Wing Scrap Book,” that included sketches of individual players, stats and comments from the player. In the April 2, 1958, graphic, Greason said:

“I had a good year in winter ball. There’s no reason, as I see it, why I shouldn’t continue. More than anything else, I’d like to get a starter’s job. That’s up to manager Cot Deal. Maybe he wants to use me in the bullpen again. That’s all right with me, too.

“I look forward to winning 15 games for Rochester.”

Stated a similar feature in April 1959:

“’We’ll be battling around the top of the league,’” says Bill Greason, the fastball pitcher who returns to the Red Wings line-up this year.

“’I think we’ve got a better ballclub than last season’s. We’ve got speed, which we lacked last year. And we haven’t had any serious injuries that bothered us last spring, giving us better conditioning.

“’If we escape injuries, and our pitching holds up, I think we’ll be battling for the top of the league.’”

D&C, July 14, 1956

Now, for some fascinating historical quirkiness, while Cot Deal was the team skipper from 1957-59 for all, during the ’56 campaign – Greason’s first – the Wings were managed to the league championship by, believe it or not, Dixie Walker.

If that name rings a bell for some readers, it wouldn’t be a shock – Walker became infamous in 1947, when, as a player, he reportedly attempted to lead an ultimately unsuccessful Brooklyn Dodgers player revolt against the arrival in the Majors of Jackie Robinson.

Walker’s efforts have ever since tarnished his baseball legacy and continues to overshadow any personal accomplishments as a player, coach and manager, including the IL Governor’s Cup he won with the Wings in 1956.

The skipper who succeeded Walker – and therefore managed Greason and the Wings – was Cot Deal, who played in the Majors for a few years in the 1940s before embarking on a much respected, 30-year coaching and managing career at various levels and teams.

During the 1957 season – the first for the now-community-owned Wings under the Rochester Community Baseball banner – the Wings threw a Cot Deal Day at the stadium; he spent more than a decade in the Cardinals organization in total.

D&C, Aug. 22, 1956

There’s also another crucial fiber in the Bill Greason tapestry – his exact trajectory for his years after his second stint in the Marines during the Korean War and his debut for the Cardinals in late-season 1954. More precisely, it’s what he accomplished during that stretch, because it’s pretty amazing.

After Greason left the service, he was scooped up by the Oklahoma City Indians of the Double-A Texas League. When he debuted with the Indians – and in Organized Baseball – in summer 1952, he became the first African American to play for a professional baseball team in the state of Oklahoma.

By all accounts, Greason was warmly welcomed by the Oklahoma fans and residents in general, especially among the Black population, which regarded him as a hero.

But in addition, when Greason squared off against Dave Hoskins, a hurler for the Dallas Eagles and former Homestead Gray who integrated the whole Texas League earlier in the season, on Aug. 3, 1952, they became the first all-Black pitching duel in Texas League history.

In a 2020 article for forbes.com, writer Nick Duinte penned that, quite simply, “Greason became a legend in Oklahoma City, while a 2007 piece in The Oklahoman newspaper, reporter Berry Tramel called Greason “a pitching and box-office sensation in OKC in 1952-53.”

In the same article in The Oklahoman, Russell Perry, a local baseball fan and longtime publisher of the Black Chronicle, the OKC African-American newspaper, said that having the barrier-shattering Greason in town “was like Jackie Robinson was here.” Perry further described Greason’s reception in the local Black community as “jubilation. He was an icon of the black community. Everybody was very, very proud of him.”

After two years in OKC, Greason’s contract was purchased by the Cardinals organization, and he began the ’54 campaign with the Cards’ other Triple-A team, the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association. The Red Birds’ manager that season? Johnny Keane.

From Columbus, Greason got his shot in The Show in St. Louis, then spent a season and a half with the Cardinals’ AA team, the Houston Buffalos, another Texas League franchise, before getting promoted to Rochester in mid-1956. All told, Greason spent six seasons in the Cardinals organization.

Here’s a final, “small world” tidbit: on June 29, 1958, Greason took the mound in relief during a Red Wings’ Family Night clash with the Miami Marlins (which was a Triple-A franchise in the IL at the time and the Phillies top farm club) and ended up the hard-luck loser – which was a recurring theme for him – at the end of a 10-inning, 6-5 Miami win. 

“It was a heartbreaker, for the home side had rallied for three tying runs in the ninth, and because an even 5,000 Family Night fans watched reliefer Bill Greason suffer the loss despite a brilliant pitching job,” the D&C stated.

Yeah, for some reason the D&C used the term reliefer, not reliever. Them’s were the times, I guess.

Anyway, to make matters worse, it was Greason himself who drove in the three runs that tied the game in the bottom of the ninth! So what happens? A bobbled bunt and errant throw leads to Miami scoring the unearned, winning run in the 10th without getting a hit. Greason pitched the last five innings and gave up just one hit yet still got tagged with the loss. He whiffed six and walked four, including one in the decisive 10th inning in dropping to 4-5 on the year.

But here’s the punch line: the Marlin pitcher who came closed the game out with one and one-third flawless innings?

Some guy named Satchel Paige.

That’s right, the ol’ man himself. Just one week before his 52nd – 52nd! – birthday, Paige beat Greason and the Wings when Satch was an erstwhile journeyman at the tail end of his pro career.

D&C, July 1, 1958

It all paints a complex, vibrant mural of a life lived in pro baseball. In his 2014 Post-Dispatch article, Goold stated as much about Greason: “[H]is contribution, though mostly lost to time around the club and never before honored by the team, would not be limited to his time in the majors. His legacy isn’t bound behind the buttons of a baseball jersey.”

Many thanks to Bill Greason and everyone who made my interview with him possible. I’ll wrap up with another quote from Frederick Bush’s SABR bio of Greason that sums up both my primary point about Greason’s long, full and very influential life as a Marine, as a baseball player, as a Civil Rights advocate and a minister.

Wrote Bush: “Greason’s baseball career also intertwined with other experiences to create a compelling portrait of what life was like for an African-American man during segregation, as well as in its aftermath, in 20th-century America.”

New Orleans Negro Leaguer feted by friends and fans

The Xavier University of Louisiana baseball team visited former Negro Leaguer Gerald Sazon for his birthday recently. (Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.)

Editor’s note: This post is an expansion of an article I previously wrote for The Louisiana Weekly. The original version ran in the newspaper’s May 16, 2022 edition.

The sounds of baseball are part of what makes America’s pastime so unique, and for those who love the game, the sounds become indelibly seared into one’s memories.

The crack of the bat on a home run. The roar of the crowd when a team scores in the bottom of the ninth inning. The guy walking up and down and through the stands, hawking hot dogs and popcorn and beer.

For Gerald Sazon of New Orleans, the auditory stimulus came when his fastball’s arrival at home plate.

“I used to love to hear that sound of the ball hitting the mitt – pow!” Sazon said.

And Sazon’s fastball, he’s proud to say, had enough zip to it to vex hitters and battery mates alike.

“I used to throw it so hard, you wouldn’t see it until it hit the catcher’s mitt,” Sazon said. “Catchers had to put extra rubber in their mitts” to protect their hands.

Although Sazon celebrated his 86th birthday recently, such memories linger clearly in his mind for the man who played in the segregated Negro Leagues in the 1940s and ’50s. As a member of local pro outfits like the New Orleans Black Pelicans and the New Orleans Creoles, as well as the national touring team, the famed Indianapolis Clowns, who in the 1950s launched the careers of players who made the jump from Black baseball to the Majors, particularly the legendary Henry Aaron.

On April 28, Sazon was feted with a 86th birthday party at St. Margaret’s at Mercy nursing home, where the ex-pitcher now lives in his golden years. Dozens of fellow residents joined St. Margaret’s staff, members of Sazon’s family, other loved ones and other baseball enthusiasts attended the party.

The bash included short talks by people who know Sazon, as well as a group rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Nursing home staff also presented Sazon with a baseball signed by the members of the Tulane University varsity team.

Prior to the event, the members of the Xavier University baseball team personally visited the ex-Negro Leaguer and gave Sazon a signed ball, bat and shirt, a gesture that carried extra significance because of Xavier’s status as an HBCU

“It was overwhelming,” Sazon later said of the party and the support he received. “They didn’t tell me that all those people would come.”

Amy Sprout, central intake coordinator for St. Margaret’s, helped organize the bash, the plans for which got rolling because the St. Margaret’s staff knew how important Sazon’s trips to Birmingham for a reunion with his fellow players at the Negro Southern League Museum

However, such a trip wasn’t possible this year, Sprout said, so “our team thought it would be a great idea to instead bring the celebration to him.” She added that the party exceeded everyone’s expectation, as was the overwhelmingly positive response from the community.

Gerald Sazon with friends and neighbors at his party. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

Sprout said Sazon has become a vital part of the St. Margaret’s community, making throwing a celebration in his honor easy.

“Mr. Sazon has kind of been a ‘silent star’ within our community for the past couple of years,” she said. “A few of our staff members were aware that he had a history as a baseball player, but it was not until recently that the extent of his impact in the baseball world was really brought to light.”

Sprout said every elderly resident of the home has a fascinating, intricate life story to tell, and for Sazon, that story is the national pastime.

“We often hear stories about different trailblazers throughout history on TV and in newspapers, but to have one of these trailblazers living in our home is truly an honor,” she said. “We are grateful to be in a position to help share his story and create connections with today’s generations, particularly today’s athletes, who are directly benefiting from the efforts of Mr. Sazon and his likes.“

Gerald Sazon was born in 1936 to Irby and Louise Sazon and lived on Law Street — located in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a historically African-American community that has struggled economically and development-wise for decades, especially following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — with his family. His life in baseball began when he joined an age 12-14 youth league in New Orleans.

He also took in as many pro games as he could at Pelican Stadium, where he’d enjoy “knothole” nights. You went around the fence, and you had a hole you could look through.”

Although he attended a private school that had no formal baseball team – “Education was the thing for my parents,” he said – the promise of the diamonds had him itching to get through the school year.

“I couldn’t wait ‘til summer,” he said.

His formative, teenage years playing baseball were an experience that sharpened his skills and whetted his appetite for a life of baseball, and, he said, “by the time I got to 16, I was well groomed.”

His developing talents as a twirler attracted the attention of some of the established local pro players – more on that in a little bit – and soon he was snatched up to the big time, or at least as big as it got in New Orleans, in Louisiana and in the Deep South.

As a young man, Sazon, as did his father Irby, toiled as a longshoreman along the Mississippi River, keeping him in shape while restricting his diamond dreams to the weekends. During his playing career, some of his teammates and peers traveled to Cuba for winter ball, but Sazon was kept home by his parents, who felt their son was too young for adventures in the far away Caribbean. 

When starring on the mound, Sazon complemented his sizzling fastball with a sneaky curveball – “and it wasn’t no little curve,” he said. The sharp veering of the pitch caused some batters to duck in fear of getting beaned, and prompted other hitters to step into the batter’s box wearing football helmets.

“I’d aim it at you, but when it crossed the plate, it would cut way down,” he said. “They [the batters] would freeze, and the ball would just drop in there for a strike.

Sazon said his teammates just had to produce a run or two on offense, and he could take it from there and get the win. The key for a good pitcher is control, he said; “once you get zeroed and on where you want it,” it’s all over for an opponent.

“I didn’t think nothin’ of it,” he said. “I just wanted you to hit the ball and get me a run or two,” he said.

Like countless other segregation-era Black ballplayers, Sazon and his teammates endured grueling road trips, squeezed onto buses, rolling by night through towns in the Deep South that employed “sundown” rules – formal or informal rules order people of color off the streets and in their homes as the sun set – and other draconian measures to enforce white supremacy.

“They were rough,” Sazon said of the treks. “You’d go to a little town, and there wouldn’t be any colored boarding houses, so you’d have to sleep on the bus. We’d open up the sides so we could sleep.”

He added, “We’d sleep on the bus all night, then we’d get out there on the field, and we’d be stiff as a board.” And even if a town did have accommodations for African-American visitors, such as a boarding house or “colored” motel, the players would have to squeeze three or more players in each room.

Sazon recalled one particular Mississippi town where the white sheriff, irate that Sazon’s club had beaten the local town team, met them at a bridge out of town to warn them to walk across the span and never come back.

Sazon being interviewed by a local journalist. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout

(Of course, often the games themselves presented perilous hazards, such as opponents sharpening the spikes on their cleats to slash up an intrepid infielder trying to tag someone out.)

But despite the arduous, exhausting realities of the road, there were many highlights and shining moments that made the labors of the job more than worth it.

What became “the proudest game I ever pitched” took place in the city of New Roads, La., a burg in Pointe Coupee Parish, located 110 miles northwest of New Orleans, when he recorded a shutout. Sazon lived for a period in New Roads.

Other highlights included shutting down a Navy team, taking part in an integrated game at Pelican Stadium, and playing a contest in Yankee Stadium.

“You talk about scary,” he said of competing at the House That Ruth Built. “Just to walk in there and walk around was frightening.”

Sazon’s baseball career in the South was interrupted in the early 1950s when he was drafted into the Army, where he pitched for the troops as part of his service assignment and advanced to the rank of corporal.

After leaving the service, Sazon temporarily settled in the Washington, D.C., area, where he caught on with teams in the southern Maryland League. That effectively ended his time as a star in the Southern Negro Leagues.

Unfortunately, the number of African-American players of Sazon’s generation continues to dwindle, much like the fortunes of Negro League baseball following Jackie Robinson’s barrier-shattering debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Over the past few years, several prominent New Orleans Negro Leaguers have passed away; in 2019, former Black Pelican Paul Lewis Jr. died at the age of 92, and before that the city in 2015 said farewell to 94-year-old Herb Simpson, who played on several local teams before stints with national-level Negro Leagues teams and in the integrated Minor Leagues.

Because of this inevitable, bittersweet march of time, those who played the game and those acolytes who study the Negro Leagues and work to preserve and enrich the legacy segregation-era Black players and managers are constantly working to cherish the few remaining survivors and burnish their memories.

“We have come to a point in our history where many players from the ‘heyday’ of the Negro Leagues are gone, and now we are seeing those who played near the end of the Negro Leagues leave us as well,” said Dr. Ray Doswell, vice president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “Seeing these men ‘going home,’ in many spiritual traditions, is a time to rejoice, but bittersweet for those of us racing to preserve these stories and histories.”

Doswell added that Sazon remains a bright light in the legacy of the Negro Leagues.

“I am happy to know Mr. Sazon can celebrate one more year with folks recognizing his unique place in history,” he said. “It is also good to know he still loves baseball.”

Many of those New Orleans legends who have passed were friends, teammates and opponents of Sazon.

Simpson used to playfully call Sazon “Junior” because of the latter’s relative youth. In one anecdote, Sazon recalled running into Herb at the VA hospital, much to each of their delight and surprise.

“Herb looked up and saw me and said,’ Is that you, Junior?’” Sazon said.

Herb Simpson, one of Sazon’s friends and fellow New Orleans Negro Leaguer. Photo by Ryan Whirty.

Sazon also knew well the slugging Bissant brothers – Bob and John, who played with the great Chicago American Giants and garnered the nickname, “Champ.”

“Both of them could hit that ball,” Sazon said of the Bissants.

While he was with the New Orleans Creoles – who at the time were owned and run by the great local hotelier, sports promoter and baseball entrepreneur Allen Page – Sazon played with the trailblazing second baseman Toni Stone, the first woman to play professional baseball. Stone became a sensation, first in New Orleans, then with the Indianapolis Clowns.

“She was a star at second base,” Sazon said.

Sazon also rubbed elbows and took the field with shortstop Billy Horne, another Crescent City native. Horne spent several years with the Chicago American Giants, including one season with John Bissant who also played with the American Giants off and on through the late 1930s and early ’40s. A few other New Orleans lads donned spikes to play with Chicago during this period, including outfielder Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport (who also garnered another nickname in his hometown, “Bearman”) and catcher Ziggy Marcell, son of the irascible third baseman Oliver Marcell. The CAGs of this time also had the “Rocking Chair Catcher,” Pepper Bassett, a Baton Rouge native.

Arguably the most enigmatic, colorful figure and teammate recalled by Sazon was pitcher Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins, a native of Mississippi who spent much of his adult life based in New Orleans, including stints with several southeast Louisiana Black teams.

Pipkins’ outsized legend has reached near mythic proportions, his flamboyance and brashness making him a must see attraction whenever he took the mound. Sazon remembered what was perhaps the Diamond’s most eccentric trait – gold teeth that would glint in the sun and vex opposing batters with the shine.

“He had all that gold in his mouth,” Sazon said with a wide smile. “He would get up there [on the mound] with the sun shining and flash those teeth. Batters would complain to the ump.”

In fact, it was Pipkins who persuaded a 16-year-old Sazon to pursue his baseball dreams. Sazon said Pipkins at one point lived on the same block as him and asked permission from Sazon’s parents to set out on the road as a professional ballplayer.

Guiding many of these players in their careers, especially in New Orleans, was the Skipper, Wesley Barrow, the crusty, gruff, endlessly experienced manager who piloted many teams, including the Creoles, with unmatched passion and skill.

Wesley Barrow Stadium. Photo by Ryan Whirty.

Sazon said Barrow – after whom the historic stadium in Pontchartrain Park, New Orleans’ first planned neighborhood for middle-class African Americans, is now named – was a strict taskmaster who shaped the career, life and character of countless young Black men and women.

“He was something else,” Sazon said of Barrow, “and he’d cuss you out, too. Wesley was a card.”

Sazon’s baseball career, as do the careers of most other men and women who swing the wood and flash the leather, eventually came to an end. As Sazon reached early middle age and was still living in the DC area after playing in the Mid-Atlantic states, he realized his team in the athletic spotlight was winding down. In addition, he missed his hometown, and his mother passed away.

“I’d been away so long,” he said. “I’d gotten sort of homesick.”

So, after more than 20 years in the Maryland-DC area, Sazon decided to come home to the Crescent City in the early 1970s. But he wasn’t going home a stranger; the former teammates with whom he kept in touch informed him that his friends and colleagues at him still remembered from his sprightlier days on the ballfields of New Orleans.

“They’d say, ‘Don’t you know they still talk about you?’,” Sazon said.

As a result of his lingering renown in his hometown, Sazon still played on a semipro basis once a month or so while he paid the bills by working at a power plant. At one point he’d saved up enough money to purchase a limousine and launched his own chauffeuring service. In his later years, Sazon worked as an administrator in a private school in Westwego, a suburb of New Orleans across the Mississippi River.

But he still remained active and visible among the graying men of the old New Orleans Negro Leagues. He played in a few reunion games put on by the local Old Timer’s Baseball Club, which was founded in 1959 by Walter Wright, a native New Orleanian and a star pitcher in 1930s and ’40s Louisiana Negro Leagues.

Gerald Sazon. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

For many years the Old Timers threw an annual banquet and awards dinner, followed by a game at Pontchartrain Park (now Wesley Barrow Stadium) that was preceded by a Little League all-star game. The Old Timer’s Club and its annual celebrations became so popular that they regularly attracted living legends, including National Baseball Hall of Famers Bill Foster and the one and only Satchel Paige

Sazon also attended several of the Negro League reunions that took place annually in Birmingham, Ala. These reunions, most of them organized by Dr. Layton Revel, a passionate Negro Leagues historian and founder of the new Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham, often included a day at Rickwood Field, the oldest functioning baseball stadium in the country. The stadium was the site of the annual Rickwood Classic, an official Double-A game hosted by the Birmingham Barons.

“I think about going to Birmingham,” Sazon said. “All the fellows would meet, and we’d be up all night talking.”

During our conversation, Sazon also mentioned the names of several star Black players would excelled in the Majors following integration, singling out one-time Negro Leaguer Dan Bankhead, one of the five ballplaying Bankhead brothers who became the first African-American pitcher in the Majors while slinging for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-51; ex-Baltimore Elite Giant Joe Black, a key part of the Dodgers starting rotation in the 1950s who went on to a successful career in the corporate world; and Dominican Juan Marichal, who was a 10-time All Star for while with the San Francisco Giants from 1960-73 who eventually made it into Cooperstown.

These days, Sazon stays close to the game by following the various college teams in New Orleans, especially Tulane. He also catches major league games on TV, and like many “old timers,” he’s flabbergasted by the massive salaries, but, he adds, “the talent is there.”

He also finds the domination these days of pitch count limits for pitchers, which he feels are a little ridiculous, especially if a pitcher is doing well on the mound.

“As long as they don’t start hitting him,” he said, “they should just leave him out there.”

Plus he has the memories of his own career and experiences. As one of a rapidly dwindling number of living Negro Leaguers, making the stories he unspools and the wisdom he dispenses more vital than ever in preserving the histories and legacies of Black baseball.

And on that note, one more sound, one more story that remains crystal clear in his memory …

When his team traveled to Alabama to play the Prichard Athletics, Sazon and his mates faced Tommie Aaron, the younger brother of home run king Henry.

Tommie had similar power at bat as his brother, and during this particular game, Tommie crushed a long drive that smacked against the outfield wall, which was made of galvanized aluminum. The impact produced a thunderous “Bang!”

Sazon’s birthday cake. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

Not a bad memory to have, all these years – and fastballs – later. As he sits outside in the nursing home’s back courtyard recently, a gentle breeze swaying the landscaped bushes and trees and a bright blue sky overhead, Sazon – who began playing professionally at the age of 16 – recounts that and other tales that made his life exhilarating, rewarding and satisfying.

“I think about [his career] all time,” he said.

Despite all the challenges and rigors he and his teammates faced almost daily – racist police in small Southern towns, having to scrape up food whenever they could, sleeping in flea bag hotels or on the bus all night as they plunged toward their next game – Sazon recalls it as the thrill of his life.

“Hell,” he said with a sly grin, “I was young. That was all fun to me.”

The Malloy Conference returns in a big way

Clinton “Tiny” Forge of the Detroit Stars. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)

It had been five years since SABR held its last in-person Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference. Way back then, in 2017 in Harrisburg, we never could have anticipated all the dramatic developments that lay ahead. Our community was brought together in 2019 in Detroit, where a committed group of organizers put together a fantastic conference for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars.

But despite how educational and rewarding the Detroit gathering had been, we in the Negro Leagues fandom missed the annual Malloy conference, the first of which was held in 1998 in Harrisburg. The Malloy conference was born from the brilliance and hard work of Negro Leagues Committee co-founders Dick Clark and Larry Lester, and from those humble beginnings, the Malloy — and correspondingly, SABR’s Negro Leagues Research Committee itself — became institutions that attracted the attention and respect of baseball historians, scholars and fans, many of whom, me included, would attend the Malloy conferences, some on a regular basis.

But Dick’s untimely, tragic passing disrupted the flow of the committee, then the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on in-person gatherings for two solid years. So when we finally, at long last, came back together under the Malloy banner June 2-4 in Birmingham, it was a homecoming and in many ways a catharsis for all the challenges and barriers that hindered us.

Earlier this month in Birmingham, Larry said it best: “We are a family.”

And Birmingham was a reunion for the ages, and hopefully the start of many more. In this post, I won’t delve too much in depth about the conference proceedings, and I’ll save giving each presentation, discussion and other conference events in more detail in a week or two.

For now, I’ll tell the story of the 2022 Jerry Malloy Conference in photos. Many thanks to Sherman Jenkins and Signe Knutson for contribition pictures to this endeavor, and if anyone else has some photos they’d like to share, definitely let me know at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

Scenes from the start of Friday’s conference proceedings.

Donald Spivey, James Brunson and Negro Leagues Committee Co-Chair Larry Lester. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Lamar Smith, board member of the SABR Rickwood Field Chapter in Birmingham, welcomes attendees to the conference. At the closing banquet, Smith received the prestigious Fay Vincent Most Valuable Partner Award, which is named after former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who has a steadfast, influential advocate for the Negro Leagues and their legacy. “I am overwhelmed by your knowledge, passion and love for the players, and for your commitment to the research,” Smith told attendees. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Larry Lester and Dr. Kimberly White-Glenn, a professor at Alabama A&M, who made a presented comparing and contrasting Toni Stone and Effa Manley, two women who blazed trails in the Negro Leagues. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Author Rich Bogovich presented a paper about overlooked Negro Leaguers from rural Bullock County, Ala. Rich’s latest book is a biography of 19th-century great and National Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Grant. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Larry Lester and Alabama State Sen. Sheila Tyson, who presented a proclamation by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in honor of the Malloy Conference. Coleman-Madison also donated a state flag of Alabama that had flown over the State Capitol. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Larry Lester with statistical guru Todd Peterson, whose presentation ranked the top 102 Negro League players of all-time through rigorous statistical analysis. Peterson’s working in quantifying Negro League stats played a large role in the Negro Leagues finally receiving major league status in 2020. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Conference attendees received two sweet new books. (Photos by Ryan Whirty.)

The first stop on the bus tour of Birmingham landmarks was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The following photos are of artifacts and installations at the Institute. All photos by Ryan Whirty.

Skip Nipper checks out a bus display.

Across the street from the BCRI sits the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of a KKK bombing that murder four little girls in 1963. Photos by Ryan Whirty.

The next stop on the bus tour was the Negro Southern League Museum. Photos by Ryan Whirty.

“This is something unique that we have that no one else has,” said State Sen. Sheila Tyson of the museum. Added Alicia Johnson-Williams, who works in Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office as director of the NLSM: ““We don’t say that it’s [the city’s] museum. We say it’s your museum. It’s all of our museum’s, because we are celebrating that history together.”
Dr. Layton Revel, the founder and primary memorabilia benefactor of the museum, who attended the conference despite recent heart surgery, told me: “We’re proud of it. It’s nice to see your life’s work come to life”

The last stop on the tour was historic Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in America still in active use. Rickwood was built in 1910 and served as homefield for the Birmingham Black Barons, among other teams.

Conference attendee Wayne Davis takes in the stadium’s beauty. (Photo by Signe Knutson.)
Photo by Signe Knutson.
Photo by Signe Knutson.
Leslie Heaphy wings a ball on the field. (Photo by Signe Knutson.)
Phil Ross demonstrates his patented two-ball pitching motion. (Photo by Signe Knutson.)
Photo by Ryan Whirty.
Photo by Ryan Whirty.
Photo by Ryan Whirty.
Photo by Ryan Whirty.
Sherman Jenkins and Phil Dixon. (Photo courtesy Sherman Jenkins.)
Fred Saffold, founder of the True Black History Museum. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Photo by Sherman Jenkins.
Photo by Sherman Jenkins.
Several representatives of the media attended the conference-goers visit to the stadium. (Photo courtesy Sherman Jenkins.)

The proceedings during the day Saturday included more presentations, pointed discussions and the trivia contest.

Phil Dixon, left, placed third in the trivia contest. Contest administrator and three-time winner Ted Knorr is at right. A total of 15 contestants vied for the 2022 crown. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
John Graf, here with Ted Knorr, placed second in the trivia contest. He won the title in 2016. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Todd Peterson took the trivia crown in 2022. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
The panel discussion titled, “Black Ball and the Hall: Justice in Cooperstown?” featured a lively, often passionate conversation about the Hall of Fame’s controversial, ever-evolving policiy regarding the induction of segregation-era Black players. Discussion participants included, from left: Gary Gillette, Leslie Heaphy, moderator Ted Knorr and Steven Greenes. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)

The 22nd annual Jerry Malloy Conference concluded with a banquet and awards ceremony.

Rodney Page, son of legenday New Orleans team owner, sports promoter and businessman Allen Page, was recognized at the banquet. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Dr. Jeremy Krock, founder of the nationally renowned Negro League Baseball Marker Project, updated attendees about the Project’s latest activity, which includes the placement of markers on 12 previously barren graves of Black ball greats since 2017. Efforts on the horizon include stones for Newt Allen, Elias “Country” Brown and, hopefully, Dick Lundy and Chino Smith. If a marker can be successfully placed at Allen’s grave, it would mark the 50 successful gravestone projects. Said Krock: “Some graves took a long time, but it was worth it.” (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Father David Polich gave the invocation for the ceremony. It was his first Malloy conference. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Author and trumpeter Phil Dixon played a soulful version of the traditional hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Banquet-goers listen as SABR Executive Director Scott Bush, far center, addresses the dinner. Bush’s words were eloquent and at times emotional. Bush said SABR’s Negro Leagues was among the first such research groups organized within SABR, having been created in 1971. “Since that time,” Bush said, “the committee has been a leader in everything it does, not just within SABR but across the baseball world.” (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Three former Negro Leagues players were in attendance and were recognized by Larry Lester on behalf of the committee. Here is Detroit Stars catcher Clinton “Tiny” Forge. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Birmingham Black Barons pitcher, practicing minister and Marine veteran Rev. Bill Greason, 97 years young. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Birmingham Black Barons second baseman Tony Lloyd. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)
Lamar Smith accepts the Robert Peterson Award. (Photo by Sherman Jenkins.)

All in all, it was a fantastic conference, especially because, in addition to the former players, several descendants of Black ball greats attended. One was Harriet Hamilton, the daughter of Henry Kimbro, and Doug Foster, the great nephew of Rube Foster and grandson of Bill Foster. Doug said he was blown away by the Malloy conference.

“It’s been a great experience for me,” Doug said. “I’ve always felt like Rube Foster is someone who’s known in baseball circles, but beyond that not too many people know about him. [The conference) is just a credit to his legend and how important he was to American history.”

I’ll close this post (hopefully another article will be forthcoming) with a comment from another descendant of Negro Leagues, Rodney Page, son of New Orleans team owner and sports promoter Allen. When introduced at the banquet, Rodney had eloquent, heartfelt words about the Malloy conference and its “family.”

“All of us are here out of a sense of justice,” he said. “It’s so important that the truth of history be spoken. There is a truth and history that has to be cherished and preserved and passed on. Each of us has a calling, a calling that has to do with justice and truth.”

Preach it, Brother.

Satch, the president and looking to the future

President Biden with the Satchel Paige card on his desk.

The last couple years have been dizzying ones when it comes to the building and underscoring the legacy and influence of the Negro Leagues.

From the wildly popular “tip of the hat” celebrations in 2020 that marked the 100th anniversary of the formation of the first Negro National League, to the elevating of the 1920-1948 Negro Leagues to the level of major league and the resulting and continuing process of integrating of Negro Leagues stats into the baseball record books, Black baseball has entered the mainstream public consciousness like never before.

And late last year, the 46th president of the United States further burnished the profile of Black ball when he lauded the achievements of the greatest Negro Leaguer of all.

Well, sort of.

Living up to his (somewhat debatable) reputation as a “gaffe machine,” Joe Biden stumbled over his attempt, during a Veterans Day address at Arlington National Cemetery, to cite Satchel Paige as an example of how age is often relative and rests in the eye of the beholder.

Biden – whose Satchel Paige fandom is lifelong, well known and exemplified by the presence of Paige’s 1953 Topps card on his desk in the Oval Office – acknowledged the presence during the speech of 96-year-old Donald Blinken, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and father of current U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Biden, a stutterer who has successfully overcome the disability for many years, ended up garbling his words badly enough for some pundits to claim the president harbored latent bigotry and generating the hashtag #RacistBiden.

Here’s what Biden actually said:

“And I just want to tell you, I know you’re a little younger than I am, but you know I’ve adopted the attitude of the great Negro — at the time, pitcher in the Negro Leagues — went on to become a great pitcher in the pros — in Major League Baseball after Jackie Robinson. His name was Satchel Paige. 

“And Satchel Paige, on his 47th birthday, pitched a win against Chicago. And all the press went in and said, ‘Satch, it’s amazing — 47 years old. No one’s ever, ever pitched a win at age 47. How do you feel about being 47?’ He said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at it.’ They said, ‘How do you look at it, Satch?’ He said, ‘I look at it this way: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’

“I’m 50 years old and the ambassador is 47.”

This certainly wasn’t the first time Biden as president referred to Paige as an example of the progress America has made as a society and a nation. When Biden and others hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 2021 following the team’s 2020 World Series championship. Said Biden:

“Now I’m going to mention one ballplayer that the Vice President heard me mentioned [sic] before, that I – even I never – and I – even I’m not old enough to have watched him play – but Satchel Paige. 

“And Satchel Paige, as any pitcher out here can tell you – the older you get, the harder to keep that arm going. Right? Well, he didn’t get to the majors until he was 45 years old. On his 47th birthday – I know you all know this – he pitched a win against Chicago. And all the press went into his room, and – in the locker room, and said, ‘Satch, Satch, it’s amazing: 47 years old and you pitched a win. How do you feel about being 47, Satch?’ He said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at age.’ I had the staff look this up. This is what he did say: ‘That’s not how I look at age.’ ‘Then how do you look at it, Satch?’ ‘I look at [it] this way’– he said, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’ I am 51 years old. You guys are 19.

 “Anyway, I think you real- – I know you don’t underestimate it anymore. You saw what happened in other professional leagues and the way you and all the leagues responded to the crisis we faced. So thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

These comments once again display the way Biden, perhaps partially resulting from his stutter, continually and forehead-slappingly makes word salad of his public comments. 

The president also made similar comments that referenced the same Paige quote when Biden met with Pope Francis in October 2021. 

I’m not going to engage in extensive political commentary or wax poetic about neither supposed “optics” of Biden’s flubs, nor the predictable responses by the president’s critics. I’ll also refrain from examining the impact of stuttering on Biden’s public image and how the disability (which I myself have had since I was 3) can affect interpersonal communication in society.

And I won’t delve into the historical accuracy and verite of the anecdotes itself. Whether the tale is at least partially apocryphal – an adjective that can be used to describe many of Satch’s famous quotes – can also be debated by Negro League scholars, writers and fans.

Presidents (from left) Obama, Bush Jr. and Clinton tip their caps to the Negro Leagues.

However, I will say that once you read Biden’s full comments and place them in the context of both history and Biden’s Negro Leagues fandom, it’s obvious that he wasn’t being bigoted or ignorant or condescending when he blurped out the words in question. Summed up forbes.com writer Peter Suciu:

“Anyone reading that transcript should realize that Biden had a slip of the tongue, something that isn’t exactly uncommon for the 78-year-old who has a long history of verbal gaffes. Biden has admitted he’s a ‘gaffe machine’ who often says the wrong thing, but unlike some of his actual misstatements on facts or questionable stories, there wasn’t really much to this story.”

So that brings to perhaps the real questions arising from the Biden-Paige comments – why did much of the public believe Biden was being racist, and what does that reaction show about exactly how much segregation-era Black baseball has permeated the public consciousness?

First off, it’s worth noting that modern political actors of all stripes will glom onto anything dopey said by their opponents, regardless of the comments’ pertinence or context. Such slippery, often disingenuous political punditry and maneuvering goes without saying in this day and age.

Now, to more fully answer those two existential queries, we can refer to Negro League Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick’s comments to Newsweek shortly after Biden made the Veterans Day comments about Satchel. Kendrick told Jon Jackson:

“It’s an honor, as we look at it, that the president has such an affinity for Satchel. We take absolutely no offense to what the president said. As a matter of fact, we applaud the president for continuing to be an advocate for this history.”

Kendrick added:

“He was making a statement to relate this story about this timeless Black baseball hero who did play in the Negro Leagues. That’s what the leagues were called. That is the name of our museum.”

Kendrick then discussed how some members of the public have trouble understanding why Black baseball continues to, in this day and age, be tagged with the apparently outdated word “Negro.”

“Even to this day I’ll get folks who will call and say, ‘Well, you all never thought about changing your name?’ Kendrick said “No, because it wasn’t called the ‘African American Leagues.’”

Kendrick also acknowledged the large information and knowledge gap held by younger generations today, especially among non-baseball fans. And therein lies the crux of the matter, at least when it comes to how Negro Leagues enthusiasts interact with society at large:

No matter how many tangible steps of progress in the effort to bring Black baseball history into the public consciousness – the upgrading to major-league level, the hat tipping campaigns, the fandom of presidents – a large slice of the general public remains ignorant about what the Negro Leagues were, what they represented, and even why the leagues had to exist at all.

It’s a lack of awareness I, and doubtlessly some of my buddies in the Negro Leagues community, have encountered in our daily lives. Often when someone who doesn’t know me well or at all asks me what I do for a living and what subjects I cover and research, I hesitate to answer for a beat or two, because I worry that the person with whom I’m talking might not know what the Negro Leagues were. I sometimes feel the same unease and equivocation when I wear clothes or apparel with the term “Negro Leagues” written out.

I’ve had other people give me everything from a raised eyebrow to a blank stare to a look of disgust in those situations, and it’s kind of uncomfortable. The last thing I want is for people to believe I’m racist, but even more, I become disheartened that this person has no knowledge of something that means so much to me in my career and as a person.

Those close to me know that I’m keen, often bullishly, on demanding that people understand historical context and have an appreciation for and knowledge of what has taken place in the past and how it impacts the modern day.

It frustrates me, for example, when folks conflate modern versions of political parties with the versions of those parties that existed a century and a half ago. I would hope that most people realize that since the Civil War the Democratic and Republican parties have to a very large extent essentially flip-flopped in terms of their policy platforms and ideological stances. The Democratic Party of 1860 is not the same Democratic Party of today, and likewise for the GOP, and such contextual acknowledgement is crucial to understand modern American democracy.

My stringency in terms of historical context impacting the modern day is perhaps best exemplified by the stridency of my music fandom. I pride myself on liking all kinds of music, and I place enormous emphasis on how the music of today is a product of every type and genre of music that came before, and I practically demand the same level of understanding and love of the music of the past.

It frustrates me when fans of Florida-Georgia Line or Carrie Underwood have never even listened to Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills or Patsy Cline, and when supposed hip hop fans are clueless about Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow and even Public Enemy. And my blood boils when I encounter fans of Zeppelin or Clapton who are completely ignorant of how those pasty-white British putzes based their entire careers on ripping off Skip James, Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon

Ray Dandridge

I try to bring that approach to baseball history and the appreciation of it by the general public today, although I try to be less vociferous and indignant than I am regarding music. In my mind, to be modern-day baseball fan and aficionado requires one to know who Ray Dandridge or Pete Hill were just like such fans must be required to know Joe DiMaggio and Honus Wagner. All good baseball lovers must have a deep appreciation for everything – white and Black, good and bad – of what has come before and how that past continues to impact the American pastime in its current form.

I hope that much of this discussion doesn’t get bogged down by contrived histrionics over so-called “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors,” because alleged ideological extremism is fundamentally not what’s happening in terms of awareness of Black baseball history, and the type of often angry, borderline violent confrontations over such nebulous concepts and catchphrases like “microaggressions.”

Such ideological talk and vehement back-and-forth simply muddies the basic issue at play when it comes to the Negro Leagues – spreading awareness of the Negro Leagues and how important Black baseball is to our shared American culture.

Unquestionably such debates are necessary to have, especially as confusion surrounding what Critical Race Theory actually is has obfuscated the inherent truth that CRT exists, is vital and must be more greatly appreciated by the public as a whole if we are to ever reach some level of reconciliation between historic wrongs like slavery, Jim Crow and Native-American genocide with modern malaises like income inequality, the erosion of voting rights and the spread of political violence. They are conversations that we as a people simply have if we are to ever heal the myriad culture and ethnic rifts our forefathers ripped asunder.

And without a doubt the need for such comprehensive, mutual and patient discourse must eventually be had in the realm of baseball history and tradition, precisely because as America’s Game, baseball has continually and powerful been both a metaphor and a bellwether for where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going as a culture and a society.

The spread of Jim Crowism and institutional segregation, for example, was reflected just as much by the systematic ouster of all people of color from organized baseball in the 1880s, as it was by the disastrous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896.

And the importance World War II played in the push for desegregation and the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement – specifically, how millions of Black American GIs saw that while they were fighting for democracy and human rights in Europe, at home they were victims of segregation and second-class citizenship – can perhaps also be reflected in the way Organized Baseball’s color line was shattered by Jackie Robinson, himself a military veteran, less than a year after the end of WWII.

All of that – the esoteric, the existential and the all encompassing – will eventually be required to take place within baseball scholarship and fandom so we can more fully appreciate what baseball is in America and how it continues to reflect “we the people.”

However, the cart cannot be placed before the horse. True, such weighty discussions surely must take place, but we can’t have an honest, productive discussion about, say, comparing Oscar Charleston to Babe Ruth before we are all, well, informed. Before such debates take place, we must all know who Babe Ruth and Oscar Charleston are.

Which team was better, the 1927 New York Yankees or the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords? Well, who were the Pittsburgh Crawfords? Is Shonei Ohtani the second coming of Martin Dihigo or Bullet Rogan? Martin Dihigo and Bullet Rogan? Who the heck were they anyway?

Martin Dihigo

Those of us who love and study the Negro Leagues, if we are to continue evangelizing about the greatness and sociological importance of pre-integration Black baseball, must first set out on a mission of teaching Negro Leagues 101.

Moreover, we must do so without condescension or patronization, and we must do it optimistically, encouragingly and open-heartedly. We must not – and as a devoted, hardcore cynic, I’ll admit this is a perpetual challenge for me – go into conversations with Negro Leagues neophytes assuming that their lack of awareness of Black ball isn’t rooted in racism, intolerance or antipathy, but rather a lack of access or introduction to a history that occurred decades and decades ago. Lack of knowledge does not necessarily imply lack of empathy or interest.

It simply means that, in the swirling typhoon of information presented to average people on a daily basis, some folks simply haven’t had an opportunity to learn about the majesty and importance of Black baseball.

Our goal should be to testifying to the greatness of the Negro Leagues with eagerness, confidence and joy. Make the people around us see why we love researching, reading about and discussing Black baseball. Joy, my friends, is infectious and, hopefully, universal. Our Negro Leagues heroes, despite the grueling, oppressive and often demeaning conditions that they faced day in and day out, pursued the national pastime with joy. It’s why they kept at it so doggedly and zealously, and it’s why they created legends filled with brilliance, virtuosity and resolute determination.

We owe it to those legends, those men and women from whom we derive inspiration and happiness, to bring that joy to the world at large, so the greats of Black baseball and their achievements will never be forgotten or overlooked anymore.

Postlude

As kind of a coda, I want to note that Biden certainly isn’t the first U.S. president to reference either Satchel Paige of the Negro Leagues in public comments. In fact, multiple other commanders-in-chief have brought up the same Satchel story about the relativity of age that Biden has, or ones very similar in narrative and themes.

Ronald Reagan – one president who’s been dogged by allegations of racism, or at the very least, apathy toward the challenges facing people of color – relayed an anecdote about Paige and age twice in 1984. The first came in August of that year, during an address to leaders of the Catholic Golden Age Association, while Reagan repeated the tale in November 1984 during a talk at a senior center in Milwaukee. At the time, Reagan was 73 himself.

Reagan again trotted out the Satch story in 1986 during a speech to employees of the Department of Health and Human Services. Here’s how Reagan told the story:

“I always think age is relative. There was once a very famous baseball pitcher, Satchel Paige. And no one quite knew how old Satchel was, but he still was throwing that ball. And somebody asked him about that, and his wise answer was, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’ [Laughter] That’s how I came up with 39. [Laughter].”

Again, whether such a conversation by Satch happened verbatim or at all, I’m not sure.

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, also pulled Paige out of the presidential bag or oratorical wonders when Bush gave a talk to employees of Ford Aerospace Space System in Palo Alto, Calif., in April 1989. As Bush Sr. stated in referring to a famous Satchel quote:

“You know – remember Satchel Paige, great black pitcher, self-proclaimed philosopher? They asked him what was the secret of his competitiveness. You remember what he said? ‘Don’t look back. Somebody might be gaining on you.’ Well, Satchel, like high technology, knew that as Americans we do look ahead and not back. We always have, and we must now, more than ever. For the coming decade will see and shape a rapidly changing workforce. To invest its talents will be our challenge as a nation.”

Bush Sr. also became perhaps the first sitting president to honor a group of Negro Leaguers at a speech or special gathering when he recognized members of the Negro League Baseball Players Association during a ceremony for African-American History Month in February 1992 at the White House. In his comments, Bush noted that he was a baseball fan and implied that he had affection for Negro League baseball.

George W. Bush with Warren O’Neil, Buck’s brother, at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony.

George W. Bush, the 43rd president and George H.W. Bush’s son, reached out even further to the Negro Leagues community when he presided over a tee-ball game on the South Lawn of the White House in 2007.

The event paid homage to Jackie Robinson, and Bush Jr. pointed out several Negro Leaguers who were in attendance, noting “there were some pioneers ahead of Jackie. And today we’re proud to welcome Negro League players who are here.” Speaking to the Negro Leaguers, Bush said “[i]magine what baseball would have been like had you been a part of the Major Leagues.”

(Also appearing at the event was the tee ball game’s “commissioner,” Frank Robinson, as well as several of Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, including Tommy Lasorda, Don Newcombe, Clyde King and Ralph Branca.)

In addition, in 2006, Bush Jr. posthumously awarded Buck O’Neil the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he presented the actual medal to Buck’s brother, Warren. Bush said Buck “lived long enough to see the game of baseball and America change for the better. He’s one of the people we can thank for that.”

Just two months before that ceremony, Bush released a statement after Buck’s death in October 2006:

“Buck O’Neil represented the best of America’s national pastime. He devoted his long and full life to baseball, and refused to allow injustice and discrimination to diminish his love of the game and his joyous, generous spirit. Laura and I extend our sympathies to his family and friends, and on behalf of all Americans we give thanks for the life of one of the great ambassadors in baseball history.”

And of course, in August 2013, President Barack Obama welcomed several former Negro Leaguers in the White House Blue Room and thanked them for everything they did and for helping pave the way for future African-American athletes and African Americans in general.

Finally, in 2020, as the country was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first lasting Negro League, four of the five living presidents took part in the nationwide “tip of the hat” effort, which I blogged about here. Articles about the commanders-in-chief tipping their caps are here, here and here.

’42 for 21′ joins the Hall of Fame battle

Rap Dixon is one of the top 10 baseball luminaries tabbed by the 42 for 21 Committee for Hall induction.

To kind of follow up on my last post, in which I excoriated the National Baseball Hall of Fame for completely botching the election process partially designed to – allegedly – give Negro Leaguers a renewed shot at induction, I reached out to the creators of the “42 for 21” Committee to get a little background, as well as reassurance that it’s not just me screaming wildly into the void.

Around the time the members of Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era Committee were preparing to cast their votes – something the committee will as of now do just once every decade, with the next election not scheduled until 2031 – Ted Knorr, Gary Gillette and Sean Gibson drew up a list of segregation-era African-American baseball figures who’ve frequently been mentioned as potentially worthy of induction in Cooperstown.

They then sent their ballot out to their friends, Romans, countrymen and co-conspirators in the Negro Leagues community to get a sense of who the fans and historians of such legendary players, managers and owners from bygone days, i.e. those people today who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to Black baseball, think should be elected to the Hall. 

In all, several dozen of those prospective balloteers responded with their choices; a Dec. 15 press release details the results.

The words and efforts of Ted, Gary and Sean – the first two of whom answered a few written questions about the 42 for 21 project and its results – prove that there’s a larger number of folks out there, in addition to me, who are steamed that the Early Baseball Era Committee only elected three new segregation-era African-American members when it voted last year. The ranks of the frustrated Negro Leagues enthusiasts who are peeved at the Hall are large in number and overflowing with rancor.

For us, the Hall needs to know there’s a lot of us who are upset that the hallowed institution in upstate New York and the way it continues to blatantly, coldly and insultingly perpetuate the injustice and bigotry that pre-integration Black baseball legends endured while they were living and playing.

It’s a subject that I’ve tried to address on this blog several times before (such as here, here and here), both quantitatively and qualitatively, and it’s a fight that now has been enjoined the the 42 for 21 project and the folks (including me) who’ve so far cast votes. (I’ll give the results from my ballot at the end of this post.)

In addition to appealing to baseball folks’ sense of justice and fairness, the 42 for 21 Committee also underscores that when the Hall’s current membership is analyzed and tallied, the numbers don’t add up. From the project Web site:

“There are several ways of looking at how equitably the Negro Leagues & Black Baseball are represented in Cooperstown. One way is to compare the percentage of Negro Leagues & Black Baseball players in the Hall of Fame who debuted in the Segregated Era to the percentage of African American or Latino players in the Hall of Fame who debuted in the Integrated Era.

“Currently, only 17 percent of players in the Hall from the Segregated Era come from the Negro Leagues & Black Baseball, while 44 percent of players from the Integrated Era are African American or Latino. That is a huge disparity and shows how much more attention needs to be paid to players from the Negro Leagues & Black Baseball.” [Emphasis in original.]

The goal of 42 for 21, as the Web site says, is “to bring much needed attention to these distinguished but overlooked Negro Leagues & Black Baseball players, managers, umpires, executives and pioneers.”

For more background on and media coverage of “42 for 21,” check out this and this. Without further ado, here’s the lightly edited transcript of my email interview with Ted and Gary:

Ryan Whirty: Why did you guys launch the 42 for 21 effort? Were you frustrated by the Hall’s indifference, or was it more of just an informative type of thing for the public?

Ted Knorr: To gently nudge the Hall into realizing that, now that the Negro Leagues are finally recognized as Major League, it needed to up the census count of Negro Leaguers in the Hall. Previously, it was the only league outside of the Majors with any representation (now, only Frank Grant – among players – has that distinction, i.e. having never played in a Major League). I think we all have been frustrated since 2016 when the Hall announced the 2020 election and the 10-year wait for the next one. The 42 for 21 movement is more of an informative thing for the Hall of Fame.

Gary Gillette: From my standpoint, it was extreme frustration that the Hall could be so indifferent to the injustice still being perpetrated on Negro Leaguers. Also, frustration that their solution – one token election every 10 years – seemed reasonable to them and, apparently, to the public, as the only complaints I saw were from the Negro Leagues’ community.

RW: What has been the reception to the 42 for 21 project and its results? Have they been welcomed by the HOF, researchers, and Negro Leagues fans? Has the effort been productive and worth it?

TK: Early with exposure from Jay Jaffe, Adam Darowski and now Ryan Whirty, the response has been great. We are up to about 80 respondents to our survey and seek more.

[With] the results, i.e. the early results, the 42 have not raised any controversy, but we do need to get the word out. The effort will be worth it in the end. I think the three of us (and now the nine-person steering committee) are confident of that.

GG: Reception has been good among those who know about our campaign, but we definitely need to reach a much wider audience. That will be our focus in the next few months.

RW: Briefly run down the results of the voting. Who made up the top 10, for example, and were you surprised by the results?

Cannonball Dick Redding also placed in the committee’s top 10. He’s also this writer’s No. 1 choice for induction.

TK: Since we made you wait so long for our response, gonna give you a scoop … this is the first rendering of the current top 10 since we went live for the first time on. Here is the top 10 in order:

Rap Dixon

Dick Redding

John Beckwith

Gus Greenlee

John Donaldson

Vic Harris

Dick Lundy

Grant Johnson

Newt Allen

Spottswood Poles

I like all 10 for the Hall … I should note that O’Neil, Minoso and Fowler were in the top 10 but have been removed since they have been inducted.

I was surprised by Dixon being No. 1. He isn’t even No. 1 in my opinion. I suspect perhaps my name being associated with the poll might have had some influence, but when I look at the pedigree of the voters I realize that perhaps I’m overrating my influence. Dixon is a very deserving candidate through his statistics, feelings of his peers and the legends he left. For me, Greenlee, Beckwith and Redding were my top three, and they are all right at the top.

GG: The voting results were quite erudite, IMO. No one will agree with every choice, so there were a few players I thought deserved more support and a few whose level of support surprised me. Overall, however, it is a solid slate, and our list of 43 (because of a tie for 42nd place) deserves serious discussion and meaningful debate.

RW: Where do you guys want to see this go from here? What is the next step, and are you optimistic about efforts like these and their prospects for affecting change?

TK: I think we need to get to work, publish editorial/informational pieces on the 42 for 21 website, perhaps petition the Hall for action … the clock is ticking. The upcoming Malloy Conference is an opportunity that should not be wasted. Publicity is something we all need – we appreciate your interest.

Given our cause, I can’t help but be optimistic. Also, I think the Hall’s efforts from the fall and the successful election of the Negro League candidates (with Minoso going in as an integrated-era Major League) was very well received and celebrated by the public.

GG: I am very optimistic about eventual success, as our cause is just and there is simply no plausible way to defend holding the next election in 2031 for a 2032 induction. To quote the estimable Spike Lee: the Hall needs to “Do the Right Thing,” and soon.

Blog readers and baseball fans are encouraged to learn more about the 42 for 21 committee. Feel free to send the guys an email or give them a call: Gary Gillette (313) 306-2233, Sean Gibson (412) 589-1906, Ted Knorr (papabell@aol.com) or 42for21@gmail.com.

Finally, here’s the people, in alphabetical order, I checked off on the 42 for 21 ballot who I believe belong in the NBHOF:

Newt Allen, John Beckwith, Ed Bolden, Chet Brewer, Bingo DeMoss, Dizzy Dismukes, Rap Dixon, John Donaldson, Bud Fowler, Gus Greenlee, Vic Harris, Bill Holland, Grant Johnson, Dick Lundy, Dave Malarcher, Oliver Marcell, Minnie Minoso, Dobie Moore, Alejandro Oms, Buck O’Neil, Bruce Petway, Spot Poles, Dick Redding, George Scales, George Stovey, C.I. Taylor, Quincy Trouppe, Frank Warfield.

There were several over whom I hemmed and hawed but ultimately didn’t vote for, including Sam Bankhead, Frank Duncan, Bill Francis, Fats Jenkins, Max Manning, Dan McClellan, Double Duty Radcliffe, Chino Smith, Candy Jim Taylor and Frank Wickware.

The Hall of Fame whiffs again

The last six months have been … bonkers. Bonkers and zany and even a little surreal at times. Not Hunter S. Thompson surreal, but sufficiently screwy and exhausting.

In August we had a Category 4 hurricane hit Louisiana, forcing many of us to skedaddle outta the Big Easy for a week or more. We in New Orleans escaped relatively unscathed – well, hot damn, the Army Corps of Engineers actually fixed the levees! – but many areas outside the metro area’s levee protection were completely deluged, with multiple towns, for all intents and purposes, being wiped off the map.

Possibly almost as catastrophic down these parts was, that, for the first seasons in 15 years, the Saints and their fans faced life without Drew Brees under center. Then the Pelicans started out 2-15 (I’ll just say it: Zion is a bust), and we had yet another year without professional baseball anywhere in the state. Thanks, Wichita. May your state be cursed with the return of Sam Brownback to the governor’s chair for 14 new terms.

And, of course, we as a society continued to fumble and bumble our way through a pandemic that seems like it will never end. I got jabbed, a lot of other people got jabbed, but we still had to deal with nitwit athletes like Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers descending into full-scale, brain-melting conspiracy vortexes. 

Then came Oct. 21. That evening, a sudden, debilitating headache – while, I swear to goodness, hit when I was in the loo – ended up being a severe brain hemorrhage that put me in the hospital for 10 days. I was able to catch a couple World Series games while there, but I had to watch them sporadically and in bits because, even after the leak in my noggin was closed up and everything fixed, the splitting headache continued at full throttle for weeks. 

I think several points while watching the games, I thought the Seattle Pilots were playing the Page Fence Giants on the surface of Saturn, and Robert Redford was using a bat he fashioned from a massive Toblerone bar that was filled with Graig Nettles’ superballs instead of nougat, and the ghost of Phil Rizzuto was calling the games dressed as Slash from Guns ’n’ Roses. Fortunately I eventually realized all that was imaginary in my head. I mean, Saturn’s not a real place. Duh.

In the end, I returned home on Oct. 31, and it took a full two months to completely recover. But, luckily, I did end up recovering, and I was blessed that I suffered no long-term neurological or functional damage, an incredible stroke of good fortune resulting from calling 911 immediately while I was curled up on the bathroom floor feeling like the MC5 were literally in my head playing “Kick Out the Jams” (NSFW!) at absolutely top volume.

Then came the holidays and the New Year, and here we are, and here I am. The incredible run of events, as well as the rigors of my paying gig as a news reporter for the Louisiana Weekly, a job for which I am very grateful and of which I’m extraordinarily proud, has prevented me from posting anything on the blog for many months – or, sadly, from doing much baseball research and writing at all.

But even beyond all that, the past six months drained me – physically, psychologically and emotionally. I’ve experienced the entire gamut of intense emotion, from debilitating fear to wistful regret to ecstatic optimism to heated rage to, in the end, gratitude and love.

As a result, on many of the recent occasions when I’ve felt like possibly blogging, I’ve stopped myself, for one emotional reason or another. I didn’t want to recklessly express anger in an outburst I’d later regret, and I didn’t want to write while fueled by a manic euphoria that ended up in indecipherable nonsense.

And there’s certainly been a whole heck of a lot to react to going on baseball circles in the last year or so. First off, let’s get to the biggest bottom line in the sport: MLB is effectively shut down thanks to a labor lockout. The specter of a partially or completely lost 2022 MLB season shrouds the hardball universe in morose shadows.

A sad au revoir to the King.

Beyond that looming menace, the major developments – good, bad and meh – have whizzed by our ears like a Bill Foster fastball. Henry Aaron dies. MLB ravages the minor league system. Spider Tack ensnares the sport in a sticky web of confusion and deceit. MLB actually gets something right and stands up for voting rights, justice and fairness by moving the All Star game to Colorado and telling the reactionary dimwits in Georgia to stick it.

Aaaaaaaaaand … The Dodgers nominally have an alleged violent sexual predator in their rotation. The Cleveland club is now the Guardians, to the consternation of many obdurate, grumpy fans. (Meanwhile, the dinks down in the ATL persist in doing the embarrassing, degrading tomahawk chop. Message to Atlanta and Georgia: Thank you for Little Richard, REM and Outkast. But your state is still highly problematic. Get it together, you clods.) Shohei Ohtani turns in a brilliant, trailblazing and transformative season and earns an MVP. (Bullet Rogan, Leon Day and Martin Dihigo are smiling up there.) The Hall of Fame welcomes Jeter, Simba and Larry Walker, and it finally opens its doors – in something that should have happened 30 years ago – to Marvin Miller. (Hopefully Curt Flood will follow him someday soon.)

More on the Hall of Fame and an announcement in December by the new Early Baseball Era Committee a little later in this post.

Getting back to the subject of this blog, the Negro Leagues have been in the news as well with developments that are a bittersweet mixed blessings. First, the Negro Leagues are now Major Leagues! I know that happened more than a year ago, but its monumental importance cannot be overstated and still hasn’t dimmed yet.

Of course, merging statistics from the 1920-1948 Negro Leagues is a long, meticulous process, and it might be a while before its completed in a way that’s fair, objective and inclusive. But the folks at Seamheads and Baseball Reference have done Herculean work on it so far and have made a great deal of progress. Oscar Charleston is now officially second in career batting average, behind only a racist, churlish, spiteful guy from – ugh, here we go again with these guys – Georgia. Jud Wilson is now fifth, and Turkey Stearns is seventh.

To go further, Oscar and Jud are also in the career top ten in OBP, and Oscar, Turkey and Mule Suttles are in the top ten in on-base plus slugging. The top ten in pitching winning percentage now includes Ray Brown and Bullet Rogan.

Granted, Baseball Reference and others still have to do further integration of records, but it will come in time. But someday soon Rap Dixon will officially hold the hits in consecutive at bats record. Keep the faith, roomie!

Rap Dixon

There’s also the issue of giving sufficient recognition and respect to all the other men and women who filled out the complete history of Black baseball outside of the official Negro Leagues of 1920-48. The aspirations and accomplishments of all who persevered in the shadows of the national pastime – from 19th-trailblazers like Octavius Catto, Waxey Williams and the Walker brothers, to the people who kept the torch burning in the early 20th century and have to get their proper due, like Grant Johnson, Dick Redding and John Donaldson.

We also need to help the general public understand that Black baseball was everywhere and omnipresent in communities of color across the country, just like the sport was in white society. Circuits like the Negro Southern League, the West Coast Negro Baseball Association and the various regional loops that sprouted up in Texas and Pennsylvania and elsewhere need to be honored and brought into the light. The same goes for amateur, semipro, barnstorming and independent teams – like the Philadelphia Pythians, the Cuban Giants, the Page Fence Giants, the Columbia Giants, the New York Lincoln Giants, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, and the various traveling all-star teams.

On the sandlots and at Greenlee Field, at HBCUs and on municipal baseball fields, at Rickwood Field and Hamtramck Stadium, African Americans played, managed, scouted, gambled, wheel-and-dealed, sold tickets, hawked hot dogs, watered grass and clickity-clacked on typewriters in the press box. Hard-nosed scoop hounds and truth tellers and soothsayers like Sam Lacy, Fay Young, Wendell Smith and Sol White laid everything out in inky black and white, warts and all, the writing on the wall. They were there, too.

Sam Lacy

There’s also the overtures to diversity, multiculturalism, harmony and advocacy, ones that took place in 1930s Bismarck, N.D.; in the seemingly faraway land of Japan in the 1920s; on the chilly Canadian plains and francophone ballfields of Quebec between the world wars; in the Golden State, where an integrated winter league thrived; and on the island of Cuba, where white and Black players joined Latinx athletes from all across South America on the diamonds and in the cantinas after the game. Barnstorming white, religious dudes with long beards played scrappy, ragamuffin, semi-pro Black teams in just about every state in the Union. 

Point is, there’s a lot more to show and tell the world when it comes to the history, culture and legacy of segregated Black baseball.

Which brings me to my final subject, and the one that’s been eating at me for several months. When I said earlier in this post that I’ve often lately hesitated to blog about certain topics because I was afraid I’d become overly emotional and let my frustration and ardor get a little out of control, this was the topic I was primarily mulling over, the development that lit a fire under my butt.

So here it is: the Hall of Fame voters screwed up. Big time.

I’ll repeat.

The Hall of Fame voters screwed up.

To wit:

When the members of the Hall’s Early Baseball Era Committee only elected two people, Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler – the voters brazenly displayed their ignorance, apathy and timidity. It was appalling, egregious and a dismal failure. You dropped the ball, folks. 

Thanks a lot.

And now we have to wait 10 more fricking years until the numbnuts on the committee have another chance to get off their butts, actually do research into the people on the ballot, and do the right thing.

I know there are some members of the Early Baseball committee who did the right thing when voting and who did cast their ballots for more candidates. I know there are some who do have the knowledge and conscience to throw their weight behind more candidates.

But apparently it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough, is it?

To be sure, both Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil absolutely deserve to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and I’m ecstatic that they’re finally getting in. And most definitely do Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva deserve admission to the shrine in Cooperstown.

Bruce Petway should be in the Hall.

But Dick Redding also deserves to be in. So does Dick Lundy. And John Donaldson and Bruce Petway and Grant Johnson and Rap Dixon and Vic Harris and Dobie Moore and Newt Allen and John Beckwith.

Damn it, they do.

People have worked their tails off to prove as much to you, and the fact that the members of that committee didn’t even care is a slap in the face to us in the passionate world of Black baseball history, but it’s the ultimate sign of disrespect and insult to the men and women who toiled in obscurity, crammed into cramped buses for endless road trips, stayed one step ahead of Klan members and other racists who cursed their existence, ate dinners of canned sardines and crackers, and played eight games a week in everything from Major League stadiums to ragged, dusty small-town ballfields.

A whole bunch of dedicated researchers and number crunchers poured through thousands and thousands of rolls of microfilm, deciphering box scores and compiling those statistics to show how the accomplishments of Black baseball could finally, at long last be quantified.

Dr. Revel and his hardy, intrepid team of organizers and builders created a brand new Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham. They did it from scratch, because they wanted to honor the men and women who drove and supported Negro League baseball in the South, a region that is often overlooked by history. Plus the original Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City continues to strengthen its finances and grow its exhibits and other facilities immensely.

Officials and members of a committee devoted years to chronicling, tell and champion the career of John Donaldson, for very little in return except the type of pride and fellowship to be found when a group of people pull together for a single goal – a goal to honor and finally give Donaldson his just do.

The Negro Southern League Museum.

My buddy Ted Knorr has criss-crossed Pennsylvania and beyond, speaking at schools and libraries and Rotary Club meetings to help people know and understand the greatness of Rap Dixon. He’s written articles, done countless interviews, pressed the flesh with team executives, cemetery superintendents and business owners. Ted even made T-shirts supporting Rap!

I really wish you Hall committee voters who didn’t cast ballots for more candidates could understand the effort, time and often their own money these types of crusaders have expended over decades of their lives. I wish you would take time to actually understand the work and  emotion we’ve all put in.

It’s never enough, is it?

What else do you need? What else can we possibly do short of yelling in your faces? 

Tell us, what do you want to happen?

I even suspect that the two segregated Black baseball legends the Early Era committee did elect – Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil, who, again, absolutely should be in the Hall – gained admission because the voters knew they’d have a PR disaster on their hands if they didn’t.

Buck should have gotten elected with the huge class of 2006, but he wasn’t, and fans and researchers were outraged at that dereliction. The Hall knew it made a big mistake then because they got an earful of anger. So all the voters knew about Buck and the controversy, so they didn’t really have to brush up on all things Buck. They didn’t have to lift a finger.

Bud Fowler was elected for essentially the same reason as that for Buck’s induction – the committee voters already knew about Bud simply because his name was in the news. Bud had deservedly won SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legend  in 2020, so, again, the committee voters just had to read a couple newsletters to find out about Bud. If Bud hadn’t received that honor, voters on the committee would never have heard about him, so I guarantee you those wouldn’t have bothered to vote him in.

For Buck, the reasoning was, “People will be pissed if we don’t elect him this time.” For Bud, I have a feeling there was little reasoning beyond, “Meh, I guess so.”

And now we have to wait until 2031. But I surmise it’ll just be the same old, same old out of Hall voters.

As I said, thanks a lot.

Now you see why I hesitated to get back on the blog. Because I’ve been upset and angry. (Well, and my brain sprung a leak.) I didn’t want to let my emotions get the best of me, but I suppose I just did. I apologize.

Kind of.

Those of us in the Negro Leagues community don’t do all this for own own personal glory and enrichment. We do it because we love the Negro Leagues, and we want to chronicle their history and tell the world about them to they will be remembered, respected and appreciated for what they stood for – perseverance in the face of virulent racism, community self-reliance and entrepreneurship – and what they accomplished for people of color and society as a whole.

Granted, it’s rewarding to see my byline on articles, and I certainly enjoy getting paid for my time, effort and persistence.

But I’m never going to get anywhere approaching “wealthy” or even “well off” for doing what I do, and the same goes for the large majority of my peers. I knew that when I first started researching and writing about the Negro Leagues. (Well, I knew I’d never be rich when I chose journalism as a college major. Message to prospective collegians and their families: Do not, under any circumstances, even consider a major in journalism. In terms of usefulness and employability upon graduation, journalism ranks just below fine arts and just above philosophy. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be J-majors.)

There one significant reward to being a Negro Leagues enthusiast: the sense of fellowship and l’esprit de corps our little community has forged and continued to nurture. We are, in a very real sense, a family. We support and encourage each other, because we have a shared goal, and because every one of us, to a man and woman (or wherever you sit on the gender-identity spectrum), is just really, really nice. We’re fun to be around, and we’re quite cool.

I learned that when I attended my first Malloy Conference in 2012 in Cleveland, because every single attendee welcomed me with proverbial and literal open arms. I was instantly accepted, and I knew right away that I was “home.”

I’ll be there.

This year’s Malloy is scheduled (if COVID doesn’t ruin it again) for June 2-4 in Birmingham. Please consider joining us. We’d love to see you.

This diatribe is already much too long as it is, so I’ll stop my rambling. I’m not sure how much I blog this year, but I do have a few posts I want to finish before I decide the way forward. 

In the meantime, stay safe and well and happy. Pitchers and catchers report in just about a month. Theoretically, at least  …

New Orleans becomes a major league city

Allen Page (left) later in life with Hall of Fame shortstop Willie Wells. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Page.)

Editor’s note: This is the unabridged version of an article that I wrote for the April 26 issue of the Louisiana Weekly. I started the article a couple months ago, so a few of the time-related references, such as the beginning of this year’s MLB season, are a little dated, but only by a month or two.

In the June 22, 1940, issue of the Louisiana Weekly, sports columnist Eddie Burbridge confirmed the reports that had swirled around Black New Orleans for a few weeks.

The city was joining the baseball big leagues.

In a recruiting and economic coup, local businessman, promoter and baseball kingpin Allen Page had become part owner of the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League, which, along with the venerated Negro National League, was one of the segregation-era Black major leagues.

Beginning with a July 7 clash with the Cleveland Bears at Pelican Stadium, the Stars would split their second-half season with the Gateway City as the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars.

After steadily growing in national influence and economic clout on baseball’s biggest stage for several years, Page had landed what he and the city’s African-American hardball fans had dreamed of — recognition and reward in America’s pastime.

Burbridge voiced the elation and pride of the Crescent City’s Black fandom:

“This column wishes Allen Page the best of luck in his new venture. He has long tried to provide the city with major baseball, and it looks like his efforts have been crowned at last.”

However, running under the exhilaration was an ever present current of frustration and lingering melancholy, one the city’s Black population had battled for decades — that because of intransigent segregation and acute racism, the Stars, like all of Black baseball, and indeed all of Black society, were still viewed by mainstream white America as second-class and unworthy of respect or equality.

As long as the looming shadow of Jim Crow and its pernicious, lingering impact on history continued to exist, the Stars and the fans who loved them would never get their full due.

However, after decades of persistent advocacy and tireless, exhaustive research, that has now, at long last, changed.

In December of last year, Major League Baseball announced that the histories and statistical records of seven top-level Negro baseball circuits — including the Negro American League between 1937 and 1948 — would now be considered fully major league, equals with every long-recognized MLB leagues of so-called “Organized baseball.”

That means that now, finally, after decades in the shadows, legendary slugger Josh Gibson is officially equal to Babe Ruth, that ageless pitcher Satchel Paige is officially on a par with Walter Johnson, and tenacious, pugnacious Oscar Charleston — the man long considered by many as the greatest all-around player in history, regardless of race or era — officially stands shoulder to shoulder with Ty Cobb, the infamous racist whose malevolent bigotry held undo sway on the minds of white America and helped maintain Jim Crow in baseball. (To be fair, a great deal of information and literature has emerged in recent years arguing that Cobb’s reputation as a bigot is overblown. You be the judge.)

It also means that every team that was a member of those seven Negro Leagues during the stated time periods are now officially, in every way, Major League teams. That includes the 1940-42 New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League and every player and manager on its rosters.

New Orleans now, for the first time ever, has a history as a Major League Baseball city.

Something that no white teams based in the Big Easy ever reached was achieved by Allen Page and the players and managers of the Stars.

March 2, 1940, Chicago Defender

The news struck a deeply personal chord with Rodney Page, son of Allen Page, the entrepreneur and unflagging advocate for New Orleans Black baseball who brought the Stars to the Big Easy.

“This milestone achievement is deeply personal for me,” said Rodney, who now lives in Austin, Texas. “It is an important part of my life’s journey, and a significant dimension of my family’s story. It is something that I am extremely proud of and treasure immensely.”

Rodney said he continues to be awed by the myriad roles his father played both locally and nationally, as a savvy baseball team owner and executive, gutsy and influential sports promoter, executive officer in the Negro Southern League, and frequent attendee of the boisterous, high-stakes national meetings of the NNL and NAL.

Rodney said those connections, forged by hard-nosed negotiations and entrepreneurial daring, are what brought major league heft to New Orleans.

Rodney Page with the author

“His business acumen and stellar contributions were well known in New Orleans and throughout the South,” he said. “His risk-taking nature was on full display in 1940 as he became the owner of the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League with the designation of official major league status.”

The significance of the Stars’ elevation to major league status is certainly appreciated by Negro Leagues researchers, writers and educators nationwide. Kent State professor, Negro Leagues author and Society for American Baseball Research official Leslie Heaphy noted Allen Page’s many accomplishments — including the establishment and operation of the annual North-South All-Star Game at Pelican Stadium — as evidence of New Orleans’ importance to Black baseball history. She hopes that might help the modern baseball world shine a light on the Big Easy.

“Allen Page helped bring the team to the city to promote and elevate the level of play in the city,” Heaphy said. “With his support of the North-South All-Star game, it made it easier to bring the team to the city. Seeing the team as a major-league team now will hopefully bring more attention to all those who played, managed and owned the ball club.”

It cannot be understated the massive role Page played on the New Orleans sports and business over four decades in the city, within the Black community and in reaching and forming partnerships with white leaders. His business savvy, promotion and marketing savvy, and his dedication to local baseball also brought him renown and respect nationally. In October 1943, legendary Pittsburgh Courier journalist Wendell Smith called Page “a fair and unbiased promoter … whose whose record stands for itself …” Smith added that “Mr. Page has done more good for Negro baseball than any promoter in the South …”

Page’s dedication to the game and the resulting high regard in which he was held was also reflected in 1947, when he was chosen president of the Negro Southern League. Page, who also at the time owned the New Orleans Creoles, an NSL member team, was described thusly by journalist C.J. Kincaide in coverage of the June 1947 league meeting:

“Mr. Page is no new figure to baseball. In addition to being a successful businessman in New Orleans, he has been a promoter of baseball for a number of years and is well known and highly respected by owners and managers of both the Negro American and National Leagues.”

But while Allen Page was building his businesses and amassing clout in the baseball world, America and Black Americans as a whole were impacted by global events that would eventual plant the seeds of the modern Civil Rights movement.

Ray Doswell, vice president of curatorial services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, noted that at the time the Stars moved to New Orleans, America was on the verge of a great awakening of national awareness and social conscience, one precipitated by the entry of the United States into the Second World War.

World War II was a major revelation,” Doswell said. “African Americans were fighting valiantly against fascists and Nazis abroad, while suffering indignities and bias at home. Among the opportunities denied African Americans, of course, was the ability to play Major League Baseball. This irony is not lost on many observers in progressive politics, the Black press, as well as the communist left press and others. It was often reported, reflected and investigated.”

The effects of World War II were also immediately and more tangibly visible on the baseball diamond. Between the draft and the military enlistment of hundreds of professional players, both Black and white, the quality of the game presented in the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues suffered to varying degrees.

Ray Doswell

However, Doswell said, the impact of the personnel drain on Black baseball was less significant, meaning the Negro Leagues now often offered a more exciting, appealing version of the game than the depleted major leagues, a development that opened the eyes of a growing number of whites to the top-notch quality of Black baseball.

On top of the slowly increasing awareness of Black baseball among white fans, the war brought financial success for some Negro Leagues teams and players, who discovered that the greater attention being paid to Black baseball translated to increases at the turnstiles and in the financial ledgers.

In addition, with thousands of young men heading off to Europe or the Pacific, high-paying jobs in American factories and other industrial businesses opened up to Black workers who previously would have been barred from such white-dominated jobs. Thus, as the vast wartime industrial growth benefited many Black workers and their families, it also enriched Black communities as a whole.

Thus, on several levels, World War brought the potential for greater advancement for Black Americans — socially, economically, politically and culturally — for which the Negro Leagues served as a microcosm. The early 1940s saw what has become known as a golden age of Black baseball.

“Fans and others began to question the validity of segregated baseball,” Doswell said. “This is not to say that all Negro Leagues teams enjoyed the same success as the [Homestead] Grays or the Kansas City Monarchs on the field and with fans, but as Black communities and economies fared, so did Black baseball.”

Such a heady situation is what birthed the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars, whose migration to the Big Easy also reflected the clout Allen Page had on the national scene.

Jan. 24, 1942, Chicago Defender

The seeds of the Stars’ move were sowed in the years immediately preceding 1940, when Page routinely recruited numerous top-level Negro Leagues teams from across the country — including the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons and Chicago American Giants — to come to New Orleans for preseason and post-season exhibition games, usually at Pelican Stadium. Thousands of fans usually attended the games — some reached 10,000 or more — and helped raise the Crescent City’s baseball profile.

That build-up in popularity got another huge shot of adrenaline in the fall of 1939, when Page hatched the North-South All-Star Game. Designed as a postseason complement to the prestigious East-West All-Star Game held each year in Chicago that was the highlight of each Negro League season.

While the North-South game never developed into the same grand spectacle as the East-West contest, it became a staple of the Negro Leagues’ post-season festivities and exhibitions, drawing the best players from across the country, including, specifically, players from New Orleans, Louisiana and the South as a whole. The contest further cemented New Orleans as a reliable, attractive Black baseball outpost in the South, a region that traditionally didn’t have a baseball scene as thriving and vibrant as the more traditional ones in the North and Midwest.

With high-profile exhibitions filling out the baseball calendar and the North-South game remaining a staple in New Orleans for a decade, the time was ripe for Page to execute his greatest coup. In March 1940, he trekked to Chicago to rub shoulders and shake hands at the spring meeting of the executives of the NNL and NAL teams; although Page didn’t yet have ownership or management of a team in either league, his presence doubtlessly allowed him to establish the connections and partnerships needed to land a big-time club of his own.

Pelican Stadium

After returning to his home base, Page promptly arranged several April exhibitions between NNL and NAL squads that were touring the South as part of spring training. He also called a meeting of New Orleans baseball prospects to lay out his plans for the upcoming season and brief them on how local lads would fit into those exploits. Penned Burbridge in the March, 16, 1940 issue of the Louisiana Weekly:

“With popular interests in New Orleans stimulated by major attractions presented last season, Mr. Page expects 1940 to prove a banner year for local baseball fans and has made plans to present the best talent possible.”

And boy, did Page deliver on the promise.

“New Orleans became the home of a major ball club this week,” trumpeted the Jun 1, 1940, Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most important Black newspapers, “following the announcement that Allen Paige [sic], well known New Orleans sportsman, had purchased the St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League.”

Added the Courier:

“One of the best baseball cities in the country, New Orleans has been dickering for a team in organized baseball for some time. Paige’s [sic] purchase now assures Crescent City fans a season of topnotch [sic] baseball.”

The St. Louis Stars had been foundering a little at the gate and on the field — they’d finished far behind the first-half pennant winners in the NAL — and Page and the rest of the NAL executives hoped the move to a dual-city home base would be a shot in the arm that the franchise needed. 

Gary Ashwill, on his stellar Agate Type blog, actually discussed the travails of the late-1930s St. Louis Stars in a May 2018 post. The article chronicles the saga of a team — or rather, a team name, because over the course of three decades there were several iterations of the “St. Louis Stars,” with different owners, executives, players, origins, geographic paths and home parks.

The 1939 Stars, Gary notes, were the third version of the team, owned by real estate tycoon, night club owner and numbers runner Allen Johnson, who founded the club in Illinois in the mid-1930s as an independent team. They joined the NAL in 1937.

Gary points to a few of the challenges that faced the 1939 that might have spurred Johnson to usher Allen Page and New Orleans into the Stars’ fold.

“Few teams have suffered quite as much at the hands of an incomplete historical record as the 1939 St. Louis Stars,” he writes. “They were a pretty good team — the second half champions of the Negro American League, in fact, losing the pennant in a five-game series to the first-half champion Monarchs. But scouring the newspapers at the time reveals a paltry 15-16 record [the mark has been updated to 17-16 after further research] for the Stars in the Negro American League regular season (along with three losses to NNL teams). Clearly a large number of games were not reported, at least in the newspapers that have been found so far, and a lot remains to be uncovered.”

Gary adds that “[I]n addition to a tangled history and poor reportage, the ’39 St. Louis Stars have suffered from a lack of recognizable stars.” The highest-profile member of the ’39 Stars was probably catcher Quincy Trouppe, who was the team’s only bona fide star. The rest of the roster consisted mostly of solid, if somewhat unremarkable, players and pitchers, several of whom made the transition to New Orleans in 1940 with the franchise. I’ll get to the 1940 New Orleans roster in a bit.

The 1939 St. Louis Stars, before moving to New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Gary Ashwill.)

Unfortunately, Trouppe was not among them; following the 1939 campaign, he played in the Mexican League for several years, then finished up his playing career in the States, before managing in the Puerto Rico League. In 1952, at the age of 39, cracked the lineup of the Cleveland Indians, catching six games for the MLB club before suiting up for 80-odd games with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. He later scouted for the St. Louis Cardinals.

The newly branded New Orleans-St. Louis Stars debuted in their new hometown, and launched the second half of the league’s split season — on July 7 at Pelican Stadium, where they hosted the Cleveland Bears.

Unfortunately, the Stars fizzled out in their home opener, losing three of four games to Cleveland in the opening series. About 2,000 fans attended the contest, which was probably under expectations.

George Mitchell

The team that now called the Big Easy its “half home” was managed by George Mitchell, a 40-year-old Sparta, Ill., native whose career as a journeyman pitcher in the Negro Leagues was winding down. He first joined the Stars organization as player-manager in 1938 and piloted the club through the 1941 season.

Mitchell came to the franchise with some serious cred. In 1939, the Atlanta Daily World called Mitchell “one of the shrewdest baseball managers in the business,” and in January 1940 Homestead Grays owner and eventual member of two sports national halls of fame Cum Posey named Mitchell the manager of Posey’s annual “all-american” team in the Pittsburgh Courier.

(In hindsight, columnist Fay Young in 1944 declared Mitchell’s time as the New Orleans Stars’ skipper of marginal success at best; the Defender writer stated that “Mitchell tried New Orleans out a few years ago and didn’t do so well. Maybe it was because the St. Louis tag injured him with the New Orleans fans.” Young’s comments reveal one reason why the Stars’ tenure in the Crescent City, while historically significant now in modern day, never achieved the lofty heights predicted for it.)

The Stars’ pitching staff was anchored by Gene Smith, a 24-year-old righty from Ansley, a small community in Jackson Parish in north central Louisiana. Smith was just starting his career as a hurler, debuting with the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1938. Overall, Smith spent eight seasons pitching in the Negro Leagues, a tenure broken up by a three-year hitch in the Army, and his biggest claim to baseball fame would be pitching three no-hitters during his time as a professional moundsman.

Also pitching for the Stars during the tenure in New Orleans was right-hander Jack Bruton, an Alabama native whose brief Negro Leagues career lasted five season; Walter “Lefty” Calhoun of Tennessee, whose lengthy, respected time in Black baseball stretched for a decade and a half from 1932 to 1946 and included stops with the Montgomery Grey Sox, the Memphis Red Sox, the New York Black Yankees and the Indianapolis Clowns; and righty Frank McAllister, a kid from Arkansas whose career spanned several years in the 1930s and 1940s with a handful of teams.

In the field, the Stars were bolstered by a lineup of solid, if somewhat unremarkable, veterans, including Missouri native John “the Brute” Lyles, an infielder who was in his late 20s and whose career also included stops in Indianapolis, Homestead and Cleveland; Jackson, Miss., native Buddy Armour, an outfielder whose career spanned 19 seasons, beginning with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1933 and concluding in the early 1950s, when he actually broke into Organized Baseball with a couple minor-league teams in Canada; Alabaman Bobby Robinson, a dependable, well respected infielder whose defensive prowess made him a familiar name to many Black baseball fans and whose career was in its twilight by the time he hooked up with the Stars; Marshall Riddle, a heavy-hitting, 22-year-old infielder from Arkansas whose career spanned a half-dozen or so years; and outfielder and three-time East-West All-Star Dan Wilson from Yazoo City, Miss., who played for a dozen years that included a debut with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1938 and subsequent stops with the New York Black Yankees, Homestead Grays and Philadelphia Stars.

May 24, 1941, Chicago Defender

So how did the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars fare? Despite the early blush of optimism experienced by the New Orleans faithful in summer 1940, the team did … OK. They finished the season at .500, with a mark of 22-22, placing them in fourth place in the seven-team NAL. Riddle led the team in batting at .377, and Smith paced the pitching staff with a mark of 4-3 and an ERA of 2.76. Riddle and Calhoun were selected for the 1940 East-West All-Star Game, while Smith pitched for the South in the North-South contest.

Of significance was the fact that the vast majority of the Stars’ home games took place in New Orleans, which validated the NAL’s faith in the Crescent City as a location for a big-league franchise (as well as highlighted the plummeting enthusiasm for the Stars in St. Louis).

Through the 1940 campaign, the Stars were somewhat streaky — they began the league season with a calamitous run of losses — and were never able to grab hold of a solid winning streak or make a serious play for the second-half NAL pennant. The June 22 Chicago Defender said the Stars “have caused many of the clubs that thought they were pennant bound plenty of trouble,” and in early August the Stars played the Baltimore Elite Giants as part of a four-team doubleheader in Yankee Stadium, with the New Orleans-St. Louis team winning 6-4, while the Memphis Red Sox topped the New York Black Yankees in the other game.

Another highlight, especially for the Big Easy’s fans, occurred when an exhibition by Olympic legend Jesse Owens — he won a race against, of all things, a motorcycle cop — punctuated a Stars doubleheader sweep over the Toledo Crawfords, who represented the shambling remnants of the once-great Pittsburgh Crawfords franchise. (Also of significance was who pitched against the Stars in one of the games — Johnny Wright, the native New Orleanian who would later play in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system.)

An apparent rivalry ignited between the New Orleans-St. Louis club and their fellow NALers, the Memphis Red Sox; in early September, following the teams’ 3-3 split in a recent six-game series, Mitchell reportedly challenged the Tennessee team to a rubber-match series to determine the better Mississippi River squad team. Stated the Defender:

“A grudge series playoff for undisputed possession of second place is what Manager George Mitchell desires from the Red Sox management. He believes with the great spirit of rivalry existing between the two clubs, fans who witness the games are likely to see as much or better baseball than in a world series.”

Unfortunately, it’s not immediately clear if such a grudge series occurred.

The 1941 season started out fairly well for the Stars, whose big bats kept them lively through the first third of the campaign or so, while in June, Allen Page traveled to New York City to again attend the summer meeting of NNL and NAL executives.

The early part of the ’41 Stars campaign featured a barnstorming series of preseason exhibitions with the Chicago American Giants; the tour was scheduled to stop in several Louisiana locales, including Baton Rouge, Hammond and Monroe (now itself the unlikely home of a major-league team), as well as games in southwest Mississippi. In mid-season came a brutal, month-long barnstorming excursion for the Stars, during which the dual-home club flashed serious clout at the plate and rounded into shape on the mound after a rocky start to the season for the New Orleans pitchers.

Tom Parker

Another highlight was the mid-season signing of well-traveled slugger Tom Parker, a native of Alexandria, La., who had played several years with the Homestead Grays and most recently suited up for the New York Black Yankees. The Louisiana Weekly subsequently sang Parker’s praises in its June 7, 1941, issue, reporting that the new acquisition had clubbed three homers, two triples and six doubles since joining Allen Page’s aggregation. The publication stated:

“… Parker proved one of the best outfielders and greatest hitters in the Negro National League. He has also been used as a relief hurler and showed brilliant form on the mound. He possesses one of the greatest throwing arms in the game.”

The paper added that “[Parker’s] desire to be near home, because of business interest, gave the Stars an opportunity to obtain his services.” (Parker would later serve in the Army during the war and ultimately retire from baseball in 1948. He died in 1964 at age 52 near his hometown in Rapides Parish.)

In June the team went on a tear in the early summer — the Weekly described them as “[c]harging down upon the Negro American League leaders with vengeance in their bats and red pennants dangling before their eyes” — before hosting a familiar face at Pelican Stadium in mid-June.

Arriving in New Orleans for a doubleheader was Winfield “Lucky” Welch, another son of Louisiana whose professional baseball career began more than a decade earlier in N’Awlins. Welch was skippering the Birmingham Black Barons, the greatest, most storied Black baseball team in the South; he’d later lead the Barons to two straight NAL championships in 1943 and ’44. As far as the doubleheader at hand in June 1941, the Alabamians won the first game, and the second game was rained out.

In late June 1941, the Pittsburgh Courier reported on the Stars’ hot start, albeit with a touch of sarcastic skepticism. The paper stated:

“Reports trickling in from the road show that Manager Mitchell’s great aggregations, formerly known as the St. Louis Stars, and which has so impressed the sports scribes of the nation that many of them inevitably call them the St. Louis Stars or the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars or the whatchamacallits, are going great guns and setting up a terrific pace …”

But the team sputtered as the season wore on and finished in third place in the now-six-team NAL with a record of 17-24. Leading the aggregation at the plate was Wilson, who swatted .323 for the season, while McAllister paced the pitchers at a paltry 2-4 mark and a 4.88 ERA. Although the team enjoyed a solid season on offense, the pitching dropped off significantly from the previous year.

That was the second, and, as it turned out, last complete season enjoyed by the Stars during their time in New Orleans. The 1942 edition of the team never really got off the ground and folded early in the season, marking a substantial disappointment for Page, the team and their fans. The franchise reappeared in 1943 as the Harrisburg Stars in Pennsylvania, but that phase of the club’s existence also didn’t go well.

(As a side note in the Stars’ epilogue, George Mitchell bailed from St. Louis in 1945 as the last vestiges of the franchise collapsed and landed, coincidentally, as the manager of the Chicago Brown Bombers of the nascent but ill-fated United States Baseball League, the half-baked enterprise established by Gus Greenlee and Branch Rickey as a feeder Negro league for the Dodgers and, in Rickey’s hopes, the rest of Organized Baseball. Mitchell then signed on for the lasts gasps of another Black baseball franchise when in 1949 he became business manager of the NAL’s Houston Eagles, a rickety venture allegedly representing a new phase of the legendary Newark Eagles franchised forged by Effa and Abe Manley. Mitchell’s service in Houston lasted well less than a year. He died four years later in Sparta at the age of 53.)

The post-mortem on the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars read like the ones of other Negro American League teams over the course of the loop’s existence. The NAL remained weaker than the NNL for much of that stretch, and the franchises as a whole also proved a little less stable and permanent than those of the senior league. Clubs often came and went, some lasting just a season or two.

The Page Hotel on Dryades Street in New Orleans, where Allen Page conducted his many businesses, including sport promoting and team ownership and management. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Page.)

Such was the economics of Black baseball in the South, and Black baseball in general. However, the Stars time in New Orleans was nonetheless significant and, in hindsight, quite an accomplishment given the rough haul Southern teams faced compared to their big brothers in the North. It also must be kept in mind that for decades, no Major League Baseball teams existed in Organized Baseball in the South; while Negro Leagues teams like the Stars, the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox did reach the top levels of Black baseball for several years on and off, the South only had minor-league teams in white baseball. (The first MLB team to lay down roots in the South was the Atlanta Braves, who moved to Georgia from Milwaukee in 1966.)

Rodney Page said that his father’s tireless efforts at promoting Black baseball in New Orleans, including the arrival of the Stars in 1940, left an indelible mark on the city, and a place of pride in Rodney’s heart. He said:

“I am continually amazed at my father’s many accomplishments as he transcended and excelled despite the shackles of the Jim Crow South and racism in America. I can only imagine the obstacles he had to face and overcome. I am honored to call him dad, and proud to be his son.”

While Allen Page deserves a book-length biography, I want to at least highlight his experiences following the Stars’ departure and as his career in New Orleans reached its twilight. The esteem, admiration and appreciation the city held for Page was expressed in October 1950 with a testimonial dinner that, according to the Louisiana Weekly, “commemorat[ed] twenty years of faithful and successful services in the baseball promotion field and achieving a position as one of Louisiana’s leading sportsmen.”

At the event, Page received a bronze plaque, and the keynote speech was given by Grambling College (now University) President Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones. Music was presented by Mary Wilson (who was not the Mary Wilson of the Supremes), and live coverage of the dinner was broadcast on radio station WMRY.

Page moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s to be with family, and he passed away there in 1979 at the age of 80 (although some official documents list birth dates for him that would have made him in his later 80s).

In sum, Page’s philosophy on presenting New Orleans with the best the national pastime had to offer was illustrated in an interview he gave to the Pittsburgh Courier in 1944 for an article about a trio of blockbuster Negro Leagues games he’d booked for that fall. Page said:

“[A]ll three of these games are of big league caliber and will go over great in New Orleans, the biggest and best sports town in the South. The fans here have been so loyal and enthusiastic that I would not be doing them justice if I did not bring in the best teams and players possible.”

Now, as the 2021 Major League Baseball season unfolds and the nation gears up for more pennant races and the best the modern American pastime has to offer, the Negro Leagues enter a new era of fame and recognition.

However, Doswell urged caution and measured optimism when it comes to celebrating the Negro Leagues’ new presence in the Major League record books. He said much work still needs to be done in terms completing the accumulation, evaluation and integration of the complete statistical record of the Negro Leagues into that of Major League Baseball.

Doswell said much of segregation-era Black baseball’s statistical record needs to be uncovered and compiled. As a result of shoddy record keeping and spotty media coverage, countless Negro Leagues games and league standings have remained incomplete and hidden in history; what statistics that have been found and compiled so far are the results of the tireless investigative efforts of a handful of dogged researchers.

Also remaining to be ascertained and agreed upon is the exact process by which Negro Leagues stats will be officially and mathematically integrated in the MLB record books.

As a result, while MLB’s historic announcement last December was certainly cause for celebration, Doswell said, there is still much, much to yet be done — just as in American society as a whole. The nation, including its national pastime, continues to suffer the repercussions of racial oppression.

“I applaud Major League Baseball for recognizing that the fuller recognition of the Negro Leagues has been a gross oversight for many years,” he said. “They have begun the path of correcting that with this announcement. Still, the decision is nuanced, fluid and not a cut and dry decision or conclusion, because so much on the data side of this question has been lost to history. That’s part of the story of segregation in America.

“There are many historians who have been diligently working to piece more material together,” he added, “but we may never have a complete statistical record of even the finite scope of years this decision encompasses (1920-1948). As [MLB’s official historian] John Thorn told me, ‘History is a process, not a product.’ This story is ever evolving. We won’t have the satisfaction of turning to a book source to settle all bar bets and arguments on baseball history, but the Negro Leagues are now, as they should have always been, a greater part of the conversation.”

Leslie Heaphy

Rodney Page, son of New Orleans businessman and baseball kingpin Allen Page, expressed similar thoughts as Doswell’s. But he added that, as he can personally attest, those involved in the Negro Leagues in many ways never needed the validation of mainstream white America to remind them of Black baseball’s brilliance.

Rodney said that for him, as for the dwindling number of living Negro Leaguers and the descendants of the Black baseball legends of yesteryear, the Negro Leagues were and have always been great, imbued with the pride of those who toiled, then as now, to persevere and thrive despite the prejudice and oppression at Jim Crow’s hands.

“As a young boy growing up in New Orleans, and the Negro League environment, I always heard and remember the term ‘Negro Major League Baseball,’” Page said. “I’m not sure when the emphasis changed to just Negro Leagues. But, for me, it has always been Negro Major League Baseball. Those I grew up around, the players, managers, coaches and other officials, defined themselves as Negro Major League Baseball. They knew their worth, excellence and significance. Self-definition is a powerful tonic and statement of self-worth.

“Major League Baseball’s acknowledgment represents atonement and proper recognition for the Negro Leagues contributions to the game of baseball and our country,” Page added. “It is not just baseball history or Black history — it’s American history. The great work and consistent, bulldog determination of Negro League historians and researchers made it possible. Their efforts keep alive the memories, faces, and voices of so many who have gone before and remain worthy of remembrance and recognition.”

New book celebrates Hoosier hero John Merida

John Merida. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.)

Editor’s note: My good buddy and fellow Hoosier dude Alex Painter just followed up his outstanding first book, “Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland,” with another chronicle with a distinctly Indiana flavor, this one about John “Snowball” Merida, a key figure from Alex’s previous book. Merida was many things — a brilliant shooting star, a prototypical five-tool player and segregation-era standout whose brief but illustrious life trajectory would find him crossing paths with not only famed Black legends — like Sol White, Ben Taylor and Bud Fowler — but also a few white major leaguers.

The new book, “Baseball Immortal: The Odyssey of Trailblazing Slugger John ‘Snowball’ Merida,” is now available to the public (links to purchase it at the end of this post), and I highly recommend it.

The following is a lightly-edited email interview I conducted with Alex about his new book and the player who instantly became a favorite for Alex …

Ryan Whirty: What was the genesis of the new book? How did you first learn about and become interested in John Merida?

Alex Painter: In 2019, I decided to start what I thought would be a little research project about all the Negro Leagues baseball activity that happened in Richmond, Ind. (where I live). I was absolutely shocked to find no fewer than 125 games were played here in a span between 1907 and 1957. After discovering and logging all the games, I realized I should have also been documenting all the players as well.

Now with a new mission, I dutifully started at the beginning – an Oct. 2, 1907, contest between the Indianapolis ABCs and the Richmond Quakers (a local minor league outfit from the old Indiana-Ohio League). Looking at the ABCs box score, I began to log the players, and the leadoff hitter was catcher/second baseman John Merida. Merida was literally the first player in this registry — one that would grow to over 350 players. Needless to say, I had never heard of him, but noted that the local Richmond paper called him “the best hitter in independent company, not excepting (Turkey) Mike Donlin.” I thought that was pretty interesting.

So, I scampered over to Seamheads to learn more about him – come to find out he was from Spiceland, Ind., just one county over from Richmond. That immediately caught my eye (perhaps because my favorite history professor in college is a Spiceland native). Spiceland is a very small, rural town, and I was not aware there was ever a Black population there (I was incredibly wrong on this front). I wrote down his nickname, “Snowball,” thinking it was kind of quirky and interesting. I also quickly noticed that he died less than four years after the 1907 game in May 1911 and he was also buried in Spiceland. 

1907 Indianapolis ABCs (John Merida, top row, fourth from left. Image from the Indianapolis Freeman.)

Anyway, with all my Richmond findings, I felt that I could write a history of Negro Leagues baseball through the lens of a small Midwestern city, which became Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland: Unearthing the Negro Leagues Baseball History of Richmond, Indiana. The entire time writing the book, I kept circling back to Merida, and, based on what I was finding, I grew completely enamored with him. I began Baseball Immortal when I was maybe only halfway finished with Blackball. 

RW: What about him, his life and his career drew you to his story?

AP: In a literal sense, it is one that hits home geographically. Merida played all over Richmond, including at my alma mater (Earlham College) a few times. I discovered he played at ball fields less than a mile in both directions from my home. His story is distinctly East Central Indiana. The grandfather of Daniel Reid Topping (former owner and president of the New York Yankees from mid-1940s through the mid-60s) gave a sizable donation to Earlham in 1900 to build an athletic facility – which would become known as Reid Field. Merida was the first Black baseball player I could confirm played there, which he did in 1901.

Anyway, a cursory Internet search of John Merida turned up some incredible glass plate images of him posing with some of his white Spiceland Academy teammates from 1900. He was a mainstay at catcher. [There is] another [photo] at the annual Spiceland Field Day around the same time – John was the only person of color in the entire photograph of approximately 75-100 people. The images are just beautiful. I thought it incredibly interesting that of all the places where the high school team was integrated at the turn of the century, it could be found in Spiceland. I just remember staring at the photographs, completely taken by them. 

Merida with Spiceland Academy teammates. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.)

So, I did two things that were absolutely critical to my understanding of my subject: first, I read (then re-read) Paul Debono’s excellent history of the Indianapolis ABCs, who John suited up for regularly from 1907-09. Second, I packed my then-6-year-old son Greyson in the car and we drove to Spiceland in January 2020. The small town is only about 30 miles from Richmond. We walked around the grounds of the Spiceland Friends Church (the former Spiceland Academy), and we hoofed through most of Spiceland’s cemetery trying to find his grave. We finally found it, and the headstone, dedicated in 1976, called him ‘Baseball Immortal’. I was so hooked.

Come to find out, John’s grave was unmarked for 65 years. A gentleman by the name of Richard Ratcliff raised the money, designed and dedicated the tombstone – he would later become the Spiceland and Henry County historian. He is still living, and I presented him a copy of the book – he beamed with pride.

After tracking him and his family in census data, I found out that his mother was born enslaved in Virginia, moving to Indiana after the Civil War. John was born in May of 1879 – the actual date is lost to history. Spiceland, being an old Quaker town, was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. I mean, many of the town officials were helping harbor the runaways and creating subterfuge to help them escape north. So, after the Civil War, many of those formerly enslaved returned to the small town, knowing the attitude was incredibly progressive for the time. Though he was very imposing, 6-foot-1, over 200 pounds, he garnered the nickname “Snowball” since he was so friendly and a fan-favorite around Spiceland, particularly with the children. Win or loss, he was mobbed by the crowd behind the plate after each game had concluded.

While the backstory on Spiceland explained his membership on the all-white Spiceland Academy team (1895-1903) – I also tracked him on no fewer than six other all-white teams around East Central Indiana, including stops in New Castle, Montpelier and Dublin before he started with the ABCs in 1907. He was just too good not to be included on these white teams. During this time, he was an absolute star everywhere he played. The consensus was clear – if he were a white man, he would be in the company of major leaguers. He was regularly heralded as both the best catcher in the state and the best power hitter any one had ever seen. When he played semi-pro ball in Montpelier, he became the first Black semi-pro player on a white team in Indiana since [Baseball Hall of Famer] Sol White.

His career with the early Indianapolis ABCs, then owned by Ran Butler, was absolutely astounding. Playing the game while firmly entrenched in the Deadball Era, he slugged the baseball in a way that George Herman Ruth would popularize later. No hyperbole intended. He was gifted in every way on the baseball diamond – hitting for average, vast amounts of power, swiping bases, and playing sound defense (even after switching positions to second base with the ABCs). In 1908, he was called the “terror of all pitchers” by the Indianapolis Freeman. He was muscling the ball to all fields, and was probably among the fastest guys on the diamond – even at his size. There just weren’t any weaknesses in his game. To back the claim up, I logged every statistic I could find from every game I could find from every single game and compiled them – he was just amazing.

After his three-year stint with the ABCs, Merida went north to play for the Minneapolis Keystones in 1910. Despite having a belligerent, cantankerous owner (okay, he was pretty much an asshole, pardon my French) named Kidd Mitchell, the club still thrived, despite being practically ostracized from their home state due to Mitchell’s behavior. Chalk that one up to ace pitcher/manager “Big Bill” Gatewood, who somehow kept everything from falling apart.

In 1911, Merida decided to head west to play for the Kansas City Royal Giants, who were co-founded by “Topeka Jack” Johnson the season before. The Giants had an incredibly ambitious spring training tour in 1911 — spanning six Southern states and trekking no fewer than 3,000 miles. But, sadly, Merida never had the opportunity to play in a regular season game. He was admitted to the hospital on May 9, 1911, with symptoms of spinal meningitis before ultimately succumbing four days later. It happened just that quickly. Very similar to Addie Joss, who was roughly the same age and had died of meningitis just the month before. 

Muncie Evening Press, Sept. 3, 1902

After the obituaries (literally all of which made the claim he should have been playing in the major leagues), he was soon completely forgotten – relegated to the myth, lore and legend of Spiceland. After the founding of the Negro National League in 1920, many of the brilliant players from beforehand were greatly obscured or just forgotten. Buried in an unmarked grave for over six decades, John fit in the latter category. Thank God for Richard Ratcliff for keeping his story alive – my trail would have probably gone cold if not for him.

RW: What were some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you encountered when researching and writing the book?

AP: Man, honestly just the same I suppose as others who are trying to resurrect obscure or flat-out hidden stories – reading what seemed like endless pages of newspaper trying to gather the story … and even more to gather adequate context. Ryan, you know this as well as anyone, sometimes you write and have to be judicious about what to use because there is so much out there on particular subjects … other times you feel like you are inventing the wheel. That was what was easily most challenging but also equally exciting. Every find was exhilarating, every great game was cause for celebration. I knew I had a story – I just had to find more of it!

RW: What are some of the best anecdotes and nuggets of information about Merida and his life?

AP: How many Black catchers around this time were able to catch a major leaguer in a game? In 1904, while playing for the Krell-French Piano Company team, John (again as the only Black player on the team) regularly caught Jot Goar, a veteran of both the Reds and Pirates.

I had actually already plotted the entire book out before I found yet another amazingly cool chapter of John’s playing career; in early 1905, I had read a stray line out of a local paper that John received a contract offer for a Black baseball team in Cincinnati. Only after a deep plunge into the Cincinnati rags did I discover that John actually suited up for Bud Fowler’s Cincinnati Black Tourists that year! I was shook. I am a huge Fowler fan – I was so happy to find the association between the men. I may have been pumping my fists in the company of no one. Even though the Black Tourists fizzled after a couple months, I thought it was still amazing.

Indianapolis Freeman, July 11, 1908

As it were, Merida also played in the first Sunday football game in Indianapolis city history in 1906. Coincidentally, it was played at Northwestern Field, where the ABCs also played. He scored three touchdowns in the game for the Hoosier Tigers. After the game, someone wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion; Merida was listed by name.

Just to add to the legend a little bit here – he not only caught a former white big league catcher, he also hit a home run off a future Hall of Famer. In 1909, Merida hit a round tripper off then-pitcher Ben Taylor of the Birmingham Giants. Taylor would go on to a Hall of Fame career at first base, mostly for the ABCs. 

RW: How would you sum up the John Merida story — his personality, his prowess on the field, his life off the field and his legacy?

AP: Ryan, the guy was sensational – and the proof lies in the papers, statistics and the opinions of others. Shortly after a 1907 game between his Leland Giants and the ABCs, Rube Foster pointed to Merida and said, “When it comes to hitting, Merida is a dangerous man.” High praise, indeed!

For a Deadball Era player, I put his 1908 campaign against anyone of the time. I mean anyone. He hit the ball to all fields, and consistently over the fence. He played excellent defense (he’d play five different positions with the ABCs). He’d steal bases. In the latter two areas, he was a prototypical player of the era … in the offensive category, he was nothing short of a pioneer, playing a style of ball that would be popularized a decade after his death. I used the word “trailblazing” in the title of the book because that is exactly what he was. With very little hyperbole, we can think of him as akin to George Herman Ruth – just earlier and not on the same stage. 

“Snowball” Merida at Earlham College. (Photo from “Spiceland’s Black Heritage” by Richard R. Ratcliff.)

To me, the way he was described, he just seemed like a friendly, easy-going guy. He was very social – ABCs owner Ran Butler gave him a job working in his saloon in the winter of 1907-08. He was very popular among his teammates – they’d sometimes rib him from the dugout if he didn’t have a hit on the day – he’d wink or doff his cap at them, and then explode on the next pitch.

Unfortunately, he played during that time that I think can be chronically overlooked; Blackball before the advent of the Negro National League or other more organized leagues. The fact of the matter is John Merida was that good while playing for one of the very best teams he could hope to play for or had access to in the first decade of the 20th century. 

Stories like John’s really remind us that there is still so much to discover.

For more information or to buy Alex Painter’s new book on John Merida, check out here or here.

New novel explores link between baseball and blues

Michael Lortz’s new novel about baseball, blues and one’s soul.

Editor’s note: Baseball and the Blues. Are there any greater American creations? Nay, I say, and first-time author Michael Lortz has merged these two cultural pillars with his excellent new novel, “Curveball at the Crossroads.” The book unspools the story of JaMark Reliford, a young baseball pitcher who faces the premature end of a promising career and who, subsequently, receives an offer that might repair his arm but also take his soul.

Although “Curveball at the Crossroads” isn’t directly about the Negro Leagues, it reverberates with many of the themes that I attempt to critique on this blog — race, fame, legend and achievement — and that resonate with the future of baseball among the African-American community. In this lightly edited email interview, Michael and I discuss such topics, with a focus on the baseball and the Blues intersect and influence one another. People who know me know I love the Blues — it’s my favorite musical genre, especially Delta Blues — making Michael’s book a must-read for me and anyone else whose passions include the Blues and baseball.

Ryan Whirty: Where did the idea for the book come from? Describe how you developed the idea as a book project?

Michael Lortz: The idea for the book originated in 2012 when I wrote a short story that was basically the beginning and the end — a pitcher hurts his arm, makes a deal with the Devil, and has a confrontation. It was only five pages and was very influenced by Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I sent the story to several friends who told me it needed more. They said there was a concept that could be further explored and that I should get to writing. At the time, I was working as a government contractor in Afghanistan and after working my 12 hours a day, I had a lot of free time. And I missed baseball. So I dove into the creative world of my own baseball universe.

Michael Lortz

I put the story aside for a while when I went back to grad school. I edited a few scenes, but didn’t give it much thought. Then I sent it to Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports. Jay has been a good writing friend for a long time. He had some great suggestions and it wasn’t until the world slowed down during the pandemic that I was finally able to incorporate some of Jay’s suggestions and have a project I felt suitable to send to publishers.

As far as how the project was developed, I had the beginning and the climax already written from the short story. I like to say I had A and W written. The next part was filling in the rest of the story, the character development, the supporting characters, the dialogue, and the post-climax aftermath. That was definitely a creative challenge.

RW: How did popular folk tales and oral tradition about the history and development of the blues — especially the country blues tales found in the Delta — influence you to create a similar story, but for baseball? 

ML: I have been a Delta blues fan for well over 20 years. I made a journey to Memphis and Clarksdale in 2009, a few years before I started the book, that had a profound impact on my understanding of the genre. It went from music that influenced the rock I listened to, to a people that I knew and talked to. When you visit Memphis and then make that drive down to Clarksdale, Miss., and go to the Crossroads, there is a feeling there that is palpable. It is one of the poorest regions in America, but one that created a type of music that has an impact to this day. Visiting there helped me understand the paths that Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King and so many more traveled. I was deep in both music and American social history.

The Crossroads at US 61 and US 49, Clarksdale.

Along with my trip to Clarksdale and Memphis, I also lived near the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, Fla. It is one of the last remaining juke joints in the South and an absolute gem of a place to see live music. It is a small club hidden deep in the woods outside of town. That idea that there is a crossroads and a small historical building nearby plays a big role in the book. As a matter of fact, I visited Tallahassee when the book was in early development. I thought it would be a good idea to swing by the Bradfordville Blues Club. While there, I pulled out my laptop and started working on the story. To this day, I swear I felt the spirits of the blues. I knew then I was on to something good. 

RW: When it comes to essential American creations and cultural foundations, the blues and baseball are two of the most prominent and fundamental. How do the histories of the two cultural pillars mirror each other, and where might they intersect?

ML: It is interesting to compare baseball to the Blues. While we can look at baseball’s predominant demographic of white men over 50 years of age and see their connections to the blues-influenced rock of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, these two pillars of Americana definitely go much deeper. Neither of these creations would be where they are today without the direct influence of African Americans. It is nearly impossible to tell the story of baseball or the blues without them even before the Civil Rights Movement. In music, we have Elvis taking so much from his Memphis roots, and in baseball, we have Dizzy Dean and others admiring the work of Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues, watching what they were doing and learning.

I like your use of “fundamental” in this question. It leads me to think about the conservativeness of baseball and the blues. Each of these creations has rules that guide their rhythm. For baseball, it is the numbers — nine innings, three outs, three strikes, nine batters, nine fielders. There is a measured rhythm. Hence its fascination with statistics. Baseball is not as random, chaotic and uncontrolled as basketball, hockey or soccer. But in the measured world of baseball, there is always a story of people. Of winning and of defeat.

The blues is very similar. The blues is not a very complex musical genre. Twelve-bars, a few chords, a basic beat. The blues is almost as simple of a musical genre as we have in America. Stay in the rules or else it is not the traditional blues. But like baseball, in that measured element, is a story about people. Of winning and of defeat.

Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil.

And we have seen people be very protective of the rules of both baseball and the blues. Almost to a fault. Baseball purists are very protective of the game. Blues purists are very much the same. You look at someone like Gary Clark Jr. pushing the limits of the blues and adding elements of soul and rock and hip-hop. Gary Clark Jr. is still very much the blues, even if he does a remix with rappers — which I can go on about a lot of hip-hop having much of the blues feeling as well. Meanwhile, in baseball, Fernando Tatis Jr. or Jose Bautista flipping his bat after a performance is not unlike Buddy Guy swinging a guitar around his neck or playing with his teeth. Showmanship isn’t something as routine in baseball as it in other sports, such as football or basketball. But maybe that needs to change.

As a writer, especially as a white male writer, I had to take all of this into consideration when writing “Curveball at the Crossroads.” As you know, my protagonist, JaMark Reliford, is Black. His family is Black. The folklore from which the story evolves is from Black culture. Just as I had to be detailed in my understanding of baseball nuances, I also had to be detailed in my understanding of blues folklore. Rightly, we live in a time when being authentic matters. From the nuances of the Delta to the nuances of a clubhouse, I had to be as detailed and correct as possible. I hope I did a good job with that.

RW: While the concept of “selling your soul to the devil” is perhaps most prominent in blues lore, the basic tale is found in just about all American pursuits. Why and how does it fit in with baseball and success at the sport?

ML: The most obvious answer to this is the steroids issue that plagued baseball throughout the early 2000s. Was the juice worth the squeeze for Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and many others? While they have amazing stats, the Devil could be that they might never see Hall of Fame recognition for their accomplishments.

“Neither of these creations would be where they are today without the direct influence of African Americans. It is nearly impossible to tell the story of baseball or the blues without them even before the Civil Rights Movement.”

As odd as it might seem, I never thought about steroids as the Devil until someone brought it up to me after the book was published. I was so into the Devil as a literal figure and not a figurative one that I was oblivious to the comparison. But it does make sense, although I am leery to make a direct comparison of JaMark Reliford to Roger Clemens, for example.

I also think there is something to be said about the commitment to the game that could be a Devil. The cost in travel and time and family in order to live that athlete lifestyle or make that athlete money. When it is all over, will there be a happy ending — both physically and mentally? What if playing professional baseball only means getting stuck in the Minor Leagues for 10 years with low pay in run-down stadiums?

RW: Aside from the blues influences, were there any actual people, places and/or events from which you drew inspiration? 

ML: Many. “Curveball at the Crossroads” is full of inspirations. As a matter of fact, that was probably the most fun part of writing the story. As the book was started in 2012, David Price‘s career was a huge influence on the career arch of JaMark Reliford. Dwight Gooden was an inspiration for JaMark’s repertoire of fastballs and curveballs (Gooden of course faced his own Devil through addiction, but that might be a whole other story). JaMark’s first Minor League manager drew inspiration from a sergeant I had during my time in the Army, a careerist with a no-nonsense approach to developing personnel. Dusty Polichardo, JaMark’s coach and friend, drew influence from Fernando Valenzuela and Tommy Lasorda. As I mentioned in an earlier question, Memphis, Clarksdale and the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee definitely inspired me. The book is also full of announcer’s voices, where people such as Bob Costas, the Orioles’ Gary Thorne, who I grew up listening to, the Rays’ Andy Freed and Dave Wills, and my friends in Tampa radio were big influences. I was lucky enough to have two Tampa people, former Rays pre-game voice Steve Carney and news radio host Mabili Patro, provide their voices for the Curveball at the Crossroads youtube trailer

The Bradfordville Blues Club.

There are also many Easter Eggs throughout the book. There is a Snoop Dogg lyric, a reference to pro wrestling’s Iron Sheik, a Pee-Wee Herman reference, a Star Wars reference, a Casey at the Bat reference, a Field of Dreams reference, a Curious Case of Sidd Finch reference, and of course many, many Blues references. For example, it is not a spoiler for me to mention that JaMark Reliford shares a birthday with Robert Johnson.

The ending was also greatly inspired by a modern sports legend, but I don’t want to say more than that.

What was your goal in writing the book, and what is your hope for the impact it may have on the public and on the evolution of American folklore?

My goal is to make a ton of money and be able to retire after one book. I think that is the goal of every first time novelist. Of course, I don’t think that is going to happen. But I do hope my book can hold its own against other great baseball stories. I would like JaMark Reliford to be in the same pantheon as Sidd Finch, Roy Hobbs, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez and many other famous fictional baseball players. By combining these two American standards, I hope the book appeals to a wide audience. I hope it interests baseball fans in Blues folklore and interests Blues folklorists into different ideas for deals with the Devil.

I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious as a white writer, but I also hope “Curveball at the Crossroads” can play a small role in reconnecting the Black community with baseball. African-American players make up a very small percentage of Major League Baseball players. Many of the best athletes from African-American communities are not playing baseball, either because of cost — travel baseball, etc., is very expensive — or because of lack of interest. I wrote my book because I thought it was a good story. In a way, “Curveball at the Crossroads” is my ode to baseball and the blues. It is my way of giving back to those communities and sharing my love for these pillars of American culture. If “Curveball at the Crossroads” encourages an increased love of baseball or Blues folklore in anyone, white or Black or any other background, I will be elated.

For more information about “Curveball at the Crossroads,” including reviews and how to buy a copy — go here. Thank you so much to Michael Lortz for approaching me about this gem of literary fiction.