Regrets, loss, grace and baseball

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Herb on his sunny porch

It’s an unfortunately common refrain.

“I should have gone when I had the chance.”

“I kept saying, ‘I’ll see him next week.’”

“I’ll always regret not talking to him before he died.”

We all have examples of people close to us in our lives — family, relatives, friends — who died before we had a chance to say goodbye, or to see him or her one last time.

But we still believe that those close to us will always be around, or at least be around next weekend when we have some free time.

And then they’re gone.

And our mourning begins. And not just our mourning, but our regret, our guilt, our sadness bourn of the belief that we let this relative or friend down.

I’m feeling that right now. I just attended the memorial service for Herbert Harold “Briefcase” Simpson, a New Orleans native and lifelong resident — of the Algiers section of the city, Herb would proudly point out — who played in the Negro Leagues before integrating two different minor leagues in organized baseball.

I accompanied Herb and his nephew, Felton Glapion, to Seattle last summer, when Herb was honored by the Mariners on their annual African-American Heritage Day. It was an amazing trip, one of the greatest experiences of my life and one I’ll treasure in memory as long as I live.

I had met Herb and interviewed him several times before, so we we already pretty good friends. Multiple times we sat on his porch and shot the breeze, and I listened raptly as he told — with his ever-present humility and grace — about his time playing baseball, and his time serving in Europe during World War II.

(And, truth be told, my guess is that Herb could very well have been prouder of his service to his country than he was of his trailblazing baseball career. In fact, in his living room he had a a whole display case full of baseball memorabilia and mementos and treasures from his hardball career. But his favorite keepsake to show visitors might have been a piece of shrapnel from a bomb shell casing he gathered while on the march to Berlin with his Army brethren.)

But our trip to Seattle last July, I felt, kind of bonded us into a deeper friendship and mutual respect, because I got to see Herb Simpson up close and personal, for several days while we worked through our full schedules of dinners, testimonials, baseball games, museum exhibits and other events. I’m 41. Herb at the time was 93, by my count. And at the end of each day in Seattle, I could swear I was more exhausted and wiped out than Herb.

As we flew home from our trip, as we gathered up out luggage at the baggage claim, as we went our separate ways outside the airport, I told Herb I’d see him again soon. I’d come and visit and say hi and sit on his porch and talk baseball and life.

That was in July. Herb Simpson, the last living member of the Seattle Steelheads, died last Wednesday, Jan. 7.

And I never went to see him in that time. I didn’t go like I said I would. I never saw my friend again.
Because of this, I will forever feel like I let him down. It will always tear at my heart, this regret and sadness and grief.

Herb isn’t the only great Negro Leaguer we have lost recent. Mississippi native Henry Presswood passed away two weeks or so ago in Chicago. Carl Long moved on to greener pastures this past week in his adopted hometown of Kinston, N.C.

That’s three living legends, three links to a time in our history that was both shameful and glorious, three surviving members of the Negro Leagues, three people to carry the memory of the greatness that black baseball was.

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Herb and a fan in Seattle last summer

Their numbers are dwindling. Every year so many former Negro Leaguers pass away and take a piece of history with them, just as Herb, Hank and Carl did.

And it seems that each year brings more and more such passings. As that greatest of generations continues to age more and more, time speeds up, and we lose so many legends at ever increasing rates.

The baseball world has lost Herb Simpson. His adopted Seattle family has lost him. The New Orleans community has lost him. The Algiers neighborhood has lost him. His family and friends have lost him.

That, I’m very grateful and humble to say, includes me. But I’ve lost more than just his physical presence.

I’ve forever lost a chance to talk to him one last time, at least in this corporeal world. I’ve lost an opportunity to kick back on his porch, just shoot the breeze and watch the world go by.

Herb loved to sit on his porch, a smile ever on his face, and wave to everyone who drove or walked or biked by. It didn’t matter if he didn’t know that person personally. he still waved, still offered his open and warm heart, even to a stranger. Herb was a darn good baseball player. But he was an even better man, an even better human being.

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Carl Long

And I dare say that those who knew Mr. Long and Mr. Presswood personally — I was regretfully not one of them — would say the same thing about those two wonderful men as well. Baseball bonded those three great men, and baseball bonded them to their fans, like me.

But even more bonded them to their family and friends. Love did. Love and warmth and compassion and, yes, just plain ol’ fun.

Goodbye, Herb, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t come see you one last time. Perhaps one day we’ll meet again, somewhere, sometime. For now, I will miss you and what you brought to my life.

So thank you, goodbye, and may peace ever be with you.

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