Negro Southern League Museum
If all goes as planned, this afternoon I’ll arrive in Birmingham to attend my first Negro Leaguers reunion in that city. Although this will be the seventh year for the annual event, it’ll be my first time attending, and I’m pretty hyped up.
I was kind of encouraged to go by Cam Perron, a recent Tulane graduate who’s gained national recognition for his efforts to garner recognition and financial help for former blackball players and managers.
I’ll only be there two days and one night, and it should be a packed two days as well. I’m gonna try to get up and head out of Gretna by 7 a.m. at the latest so I can pull into Birmingham by noon or so for a players luncheon at Lawson State Community College, then head to the brand new Negro Southern League Museum for a tour, followed by a cookout/reception.
Wednesday brings a breakfast, then the 21st annual Rickwood Classic at famous Rickwood Field, the country’s oldest baseball park still in use. That’ll be a contest between the Double-A Birmingham Barons and Chattanooga Lookouts at noon. Then I make the drive back to NOLA to process all the cool stuff I’ll undoubtedly see.
Sunday I chatted on the phone with Cam, who just graduated from TU and headed home to the Boston area before flying back to Birmingham today. He’s been attending the reunion since 2010. In fact, he’s instrumental in putting it together and inviting many of the players.
Cam is an understated, subdued guy, which belies his passion for working to bring these great men and women into the limelight and to bring them together to enjoy each other’s company and reminisce about their glory days at the reunion.
“You’re just surrounded by these men,” Cam said. “They’re just chatting and talking. It’s a good time to see everyone. They’re all happy to be getting recognition. A lot of them didn’t play together, but they share the same experiences.”
The reunion is the brainchild of Dr. Layton Revel, the founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research and the moving force behind the new museum in downtown Birmingham.
Dr. Revel said this’ll be the eighth reunion in seven years, and between 75 and 100 are scheduled to attend this year’s siesta, with about 30-40 are arriving from out of town. Fifteen to 20 played in the top Negro Leagues, while several dozen mainly starred in the Birmingham industrial leagues, which thrived for decades in the Alabama city and also figure prominently in the new museum, which just opened to the public. (I’ll try to write more about the museum over the next couple days.)
“It’s the largest reunion of Negro League players in the country,” Dr. Revel said. “It will be a big deal.”
A key facet of the reunion is that every event is open to the public and free of charge. The headquarters for events is the La Quinta hotel in the Homewood neighborhood.
“[The players] really appreciate the fact that folks are remembering what they did so long after they played,” Dr. Revel said. “It’s meaningful for them that people are thinking about then 50 or 60 years later, that people feel what they did was important.”
Dr. Revel said, however, that every edition of the reunion mixes in a bit of sadness — every year, he said, more and more of these great men and women pass away as the years inevitable pass. But those who remain and who attend the reunions each year take the gatherings as a chance to fondly remember their comrades and heroes.
“It’s a very bittersweet time,” he said.
This year’s reunion will also include the attendance of several longtime, much honored researchers, such as Larry Lester and Wayne Stivers.
All in all, I’ll be very grateful and thrilled to join all of these great people at what promises to be a great time.
I had a chance to check out a few of the gentlemen who’ll be making the trip to the La Quinta and Birmingham. One is Gerald Sazon of New Orleans, whom I visited a few weeks ago in a beautiful new retirement home that was built after the neighborhood emerged from Katrina.
We chatted for a while, and Gerald, a pitcher, regaled me with several tales from his days on the local and national blackball scenes. The best one was his story about how the great and mysterious Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkin put the jump on his screwball — he’d poke holes in the ball with a safety pin.
Another baseball veteran who’ll be attending the reunion is James Cobbin of Youngstown, Ohio. Cobbin graduated from North High School in 1952 and attended Allen University in South Carolina as well as Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
In early 1955, Cobbin signed with the Cincinnati Reds as a 19-year-old infielder/outfielder. The Cleveland Call and Post stated that Cobbin “will be given a thorough tryout at both [positions] when he reports for practice at the rookie training camp in Douglas, Ga.” [It should be noted that at the time, Cincy’s name was technically the Redlegs; the team changed their moniker to distance themselves from communism during the Red Scare.]
However, by that point, Cobbin’s career was already in ascendency — a few months earlier, he had been signed by the Orioles, as the Call and Post reported in October 1954:
“Cobbin … has been playing baseball since he was as tall as a baseball bat. His regular position is shortstop. In high school Cobbin played on the regular team, and during the summer he played with the class ‘B’ and class ‘AA’ teams. …
“At Barberton, Ohio, where the [Orioles] scout gave him his three day workout, he was told that he had been under close watch ever since 1950, and since signing a contract, he is to report to the Baltimore Orioles’ training camp at the beginning of spring training.”
It also struck me that several of the players scheduled to be at the reunion played for the Indianapolis Clowns during the mid- to late-1950s. At that point the organized Negro Leagues were in their death throes, with integration quickly sapping both the quality of and need for African-American blackball.
James Cobbin (from Center for Negro League Baseball Research)
It wasn’t just players, though, who signed up with the Clowns. Another old timer scheduled to be in Birmingham this weekend is Yori Cortez, a contortionist brought on board in summer 1959 to dazzle crowds with his antics: Reported the Atlanta Daily World:
“Yogi Cortez, a supernatural spinner of Hindu acrobatics, is the newest star addition to the Indianapolis Clowns 30th Anniversary game and funshow.
“Yogi flew north two weeks ago to join the champions of Negro ball and diamond wizardry … Far from a rookie in the art of twisting himself into a pretzel of figure eight, he was nevertheless a ‘rookie sensation’ in his initial start in a Clowns uniform.
“The 4,000 fans present gave him a rousing ovation. One critic observed: ‘Yogi is unbelievable. The feats he performs are fantastic. His joining the Clowns means one more stellar performance.’
“Yogi was a victim of dread polio when he was young. Determined to overcome the handicap, he did special exercises that not only restored life to his affected limbs, but also gave unbelievable control.
“Yogi can wrap his legs around his neck like a pretzel and scratch his ears; he can lock them completely around his body and walk, or run, on his hands; and last but far from least he can double up like a frog and bound across the field with fantastic speed.
“Yogi has always wanted to join the Clowns, and General Manager Syd Pollack, who has never sacrificed money to bring baseball fans the very best in entertainment, was quick to recognize Cortez’s ability. He signed him at once to a ‘very satisfactory’ four-figure contract.”
OK, I’m off to throw some clothes in a bag and head to Alabama. Like I said, I’m very much looking forward to this — it promises to be a very fun time, and I’ll post as much as I can over the next few days!