Like just about every man (and woman) who played or managed in the Negro Leagues, Henry Presswood did what he did for one main, simple reason — a passion for the American pastime.
“It really excited me because I loved the game and they said I could play!” Mr. Presswood giddily told the South Bend Tribune in 2011. “I just did the best I could.”
At 93 years old, Mr. Presswood was one of the last remaining living links to the Negro Leagues, one of the dwindling few who could personally recall how much of their lives and souls they and their peers devoted to the game.
But a few days after Christmas — just about a week or so ago, the exact day is unclear — the baseball world lost one of those links when Mr. Presswood died in Chicago. According to reports, a memorial service is slated for today (Saturday) in the Windy City.
Leslie Heaphy, one of my friends and mentors in the world of Negro Leagues research and writing and a leader of SABR’s Negro Leagues committee, told me by email a couple days ago that while she wasn’t close friends with Mr. Presswood, she knew what he meant to hardball history.
“I did not know him extremely well but had met him on numerous occasions and presented with him once in Chicago,” Leslie said. “He was always a gentleman, quiet and courteous and loved life. He was a good player, not a star but a solid team player.”
She added that Mr. Presswood’s death represents “a sad loss because his passing represents one more loss to the fading Negro League history. He was so good at telling people about the years he played, and each time we lose a voice, the story seems to get harder to tell. He lived to tell people about his experiences.”
Mr. Presswood reached the black baseball big time in the late 1940s, just as segregation in the American pastime was crumbling and the Negro Leagues were transitioning into a type of feeder system for organized baseball. He competed for the Cleveland Buckeyes in 1948-1950 and briefly for the Kansas City Monarchs a couple years later.
Mr. Presswood first flew into blackball’s big-time radar early in 1948, when the Buckeyes started eyeing him for a possible slot at shortstop, which the Cleveland Call and Post said would be the subject of spirited competition for the starting job that year. But Mr. Presswood, the paper stated in January 1948, was near the top of the list.
“Among the short stop contenders going to the Hot Springs training camp in March [is] Henry ‘Schoolboy’ Presswood, [of] Canton, Ohio. A right hander, batting and throwing, Presswood has played with the Canton City League, in the army, and with a number of southern teams. He is 26 years old, 5 feet 10 inches, 150 pounds and a native of Birmingham.”
Mr. Presswood eventually nabbed the starting job, and while he never became a superstar in the Negro Leagues, he quickly proved his worth as a spunky little spark plug.
“Henry Presswood, a Mississippi lad,” wrote the Call and Post in June 1948, “is shining bright at short and has been hitting well.”
You’ll probably notice a few discrepancies in those quotes (not counting the violations of Associated Press style at which modern newspaper journalists would quiver). That’s OK, because in March 1950, the Call and Post somehow shaved five years off Mr. Presswood’s age and engaged in some geographical rejiggering, calling him “a shortstop … from Canton, Mississippi and …23 years old.”
Let’s clear a few things up. Mr. Presswood was born Oct. 7, 1921, in Electric Mills, Miss., not Birmingham or Canton, Ohio. And when the January 1948 Call and Post article said Canton, they likely goofed and meant Canton, Mississippi, where Mr. Presswood had played semipro ball for the Denkman All-Stars from 1938-44 before being spotted by Cleveland Buckeye scouts.
Mr. Presswood was the second child of Dee and Josephine Presswood, both Alabama natives who who eventually moved to Mississippi on State Highway 45 in the Kemper County community of Electric Mills, which was a de facto property of the Sumter Lumber Company.
The Sumter sawmill in Electric Mills
The company made Electric Mills famous — not to mention spectacularly bright, for the times — by constructing one of the country’s first sawmills powered completely by electricity. Hence, naturally, the town’s name.
Dee Presswood was, like pretty much all of Electric Mills’ male residents, a laborer at the Sumter facility. He also became a single parent when Josephine passed away in the 1930s. Henry Presswood soon joined his father as an employee of the sawmill, and in his time off, the younger Presswood played baseball for the semipro Mill City Jitterbugs after completing two years of high school.
Dark times came to Electric Mills in 1941, when the Sumter corporation shuttered its mill there in 1941, and the community quickly devolved into little more than a ghost town, a status that remains to this day.
(I’m hoping to write a little more about Henry Presswood’s Mississippi roots sometime next week.)
In February 1945, young Henry — at the time he was 23 years old — enlisted in the Army in the waning days of World War II, becoming a private and serving, according to the Web site baseballinwartime.com, for roughly two years.
Married to his wife, Thelma, Henry was discharged from the Army and briefly returned to the semipro Denkman team before hitching on with the Negro American League’s Buckeyes and later, briefly in 1952, with the famed Kansas City Monarchs.
Henry and Thelma settled in Chicago, where he worked at the Inland Steel Company for more than 30 years and played fast-pitch softball for the company team before retiring. (Inland Steel shut down in 1998.)
In his later years, Mr. Presswood became a spokesperson for the Negro Leagues, attending numerous events and regaling hundreds of baseball fans and hardball history enthusiasts with tales and remembrances of his playing days. His death a huge loss to the Negro Leagues community and to the history of the American pastime itself.
Fifteen years ago, Mr. Presswood was interviewed for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s Legacy 2000 Players’ Reunion Alumni Book, in which he summed up his tenure in African-American baseball’s big time.
“I was very excited to play baseball in the league …,” he said. “I didn’t let my skippers in Cleveland or in Kansas City down.”