Baseball bloodlines in Birmingham

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That most handsome gentleman next to that goof in the glasses is Mr. Henry Elmore.

Well, today didn’t go quite as planned, but it was still a dandy of a day. I unfortunately left NOLA a lot later than I wanted to, so I didn’t get to Birmingham until after 3 p.m., which meant I missed most of the scheduled events for the day. That was not the best, to be sure.

But once I got to the hotel, I immediately knew it was a very good call to come on up for the players reunion, the Rickwood Classic and a tour of the new Negro Southern League Museum. When I was checking in, there were a few gentlemen sitting in the lobby shooting the breeze, and of course I had to be obnoxiously nosy and barge my way into the conversation.

I introduced myself to them, by saying I was a journalist and researcher covering the event, and the most outgoing — the word “outgoing” is a bit of an understatement — stood up, stuck out his hand to shake and said, “I’m Lonnie Harris, but the man you want to ask any questions to is him.”

Lonnie — an NYC native whose nickname, I discovered, was Showboat — sports a thick beard, a full head of hair, a baseball cap and big, Bono-type sunglasses. His introduction and comment caught me a little off guard, but in a very, very good way. “I gotta talk to this guy,” I thought. Lonnie suited up for the Birmingham Black Barons and Memphis Red Sox in the 1950s. But more on that to come …

But Lionel insisted I chat with the whom to whom he referred me, another member of the small contingent named Reggie Howard, a South Bend, Ind., native who played most memorably with the legendary Indianapolis Clowns under (in)famous owner Syd Pollock.

I traded a couple thoughts with Reggie before he, unprompted pulled out a mint condition, protected copy of a baseball card of him, asked me again for my name, and signed the card for me!

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Later in the evening, I was able to catch up with Mr. Howard while he was recalling days gone by with a teammate, Gil Black, another native of NYC who grew up in Connecticut. Reggie introduced me to Gil, and the two then proceeded to burst forth with a dizzying slew of stories from their days together with the Clowns — yep, Gil also donned his spikes for Mr. Pollock.

After a while, their banter reached a fever pitch of friendly jibes and bragging, with tall tales just flooding out in a rapid-fire procession. It was so fast and furious that I eventually gave up scribbling their words down with my wholly inadequate pen and notebook. (Yes, I stubbornly refuse to use a recorder. Maybe it’s the old-time Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy in me.)

So, needless to say, more on the tales of Brothers Black and Howard later. …

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Former Indy Clowns Reginald Howard and Gilbert Black

I also had a chance to do quick intros with Jaycee Casselberry and Yogi Cortez (about whom I talked in my previous post), but I’ll end with a short buy buoyant chat I had with former infielder Henry Elmore, a quiet, understated guy from Birmingham who played with the Black Barons and the Philadelphia Stars.

Sporting a blue cap adorned with the logos of practically all of the vintage blackball teams, Mr. Elmore told me that he was greatly inspired to play baseball by his uncle, Mobile native Jim “Shifty” West, who himself played in the Negro Leagues with a whole bunch of teams as a dependable infielder.

“He could play,” Henry, who’s 74 years old as of this writing, said of his uncle with pride. “He was the best first baseman in the Negro Leagues.”

Henry said West inspired him in both character and sports.

“He taught me how to act, how to be respectable, and how to play baseball,” Henry said.

Henry was a solid enough player to earn bids to two East-West All-Star games (in Chicago and New York), and later played in the talent-rich Birmingham industrial leagues after moving back home. He competed locally for about 10 more years before hanging up his spikes.

I asked him what his favorite memories of his playing days were. It would be a tough query for anybody, and it was for him.

“I have so many,” he said with a grin.

He added, “I just love baseball.”

‘Nuff said.

More tomorrow …

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