It’s hard picking out any comment that George Altman made as the “best” one. They were all pretty much incredible.
George opened the 19th annual SABR Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference by wowing the dozens of attendees who gathered to hear him tell tales of his playing days — as a Kansas City Monarch, as a Chicago Cub and as a star in Japan in a professional career that ran from 1955 through 1975. During his tenure in the top leagues, George achieved All-Star status as a Cub three times and smacked a total of 306 homers between his time in MLB and in the Nippon League.
I’m a bit bleary-eyed right now and running on pure adrenaline — it was definitely a mistake to drive here from NOLA (Arkansas can be a looooooong state) — but I made it, as did all of us pilgrims to the birthplace of the first Negro National League.
George was a special guest of the Negro Leagues committee, and during tonight’s meet-and-greet, he definitely kicked things off with a bang. Here are a few of his comments:
On the difference between spring training in the U.S. and in Japan — “They do things over there [in Japan] that are a loooooot different, and one thing was the spring training. I call it kamikaze training.”
On the pressure of playing for stellar managers like Leo Durocher — “You gotta go out and do a good job or else they back up the truck.”
On how he developed his fast feet while competing at youth rec centers as a kid in Goldsboro, N.C., in a rival team’s gym — “After the game, you had to move on home. They [other players] get very territorial after a while. And that’s how I think I got my speed.”
On the impossibility of choosing the best hitter he ever saw — “I saw Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Stan Musial … I’d like to say who was best, but I’d have to say that they’re just all good.”
On the best day of his career — “Probably the day I signed my first contract,” a comment that garnered a lot of audience laughter.
On why he loved the Negro Leagues — “What I liked about the Negro Leagues was all the history. I heard about all these guys, and I just liked how colorful it was when they played. They had colorful nicknames — Double Duty Radcliffe, Smokey Joe Williams, Boojum Wilson …”
His advice for aspiring young African-American ballplayers — You just have to work hard, study and concentrate, and just be there when your chance comes along. The young black American player just isn’t pursuing baseball like they did in the past. But baseball offers so many opportunities, so I would think that black players would look at baseball more.”
After sharing his wisdom and stories, George received a commemorative certificate and bat from Malloy Chairman and Q&A moderator Larry Lester, to a standing ovation from the audience. George’s dedication to the game and the fans at the Malloy was evidenced by the fact that he made the trip from St. Louis despite a painfully ailing back.
But even at 83 years old, he’s lithe, spry and eager to open himself up to the public.
As George sat signing autographs for a long line of fans after his talk, I had a little chat with his wife, Etta Altman, who didn’t meet and marry George until after his playing days. As a result, she said, she didn’t really know who he was and how popular he had been as an athlete. She said she was especially struck by how much of an impact he had when, while at another baseball convention, fans asked her for an autograph.
She told me about how she met rock ‘n’ roll icon Chuck Berry on a trip to Japan, where George had been invited to speak about his post-playing career as a successful commodities broker. She had a chance to meet a slew of other famous people through George, such as jazz/R&B singer Nancy Wilson.
“I couldn’t believe how many people he knew!” she told me.
Etta stressed, too, that one of George’s achievements of which she is most proud is the fact that he earned a degree from Tennessee State University.
“That’s so important, to have something to fall back on,” she said. “You can get injured [playing sports], and you need to have something else there.”
Etta said her husband is dedicated to serving the community and giving back to fans, especially by appearing at conferences, conventions and memorabilia shows so he can share his experiences and his life lessons with newer generations of baseball fans and historians.
“These men have so many great stories to tell people,” she said.
OK, we got lots more tomorrow, so hopefully I can get another post or two up soon!