New Orleans Negro Leaguer feted by friends and fans

The Xavier University of Louisiana baseball team visited former Negro Leaguer Gerald Sazon for his birthday recently. (Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.)

Editor’s note: This post is an expansion of an article I previously wrote for The Louisiana Weekly. The original version ran in the newspaper’s May 16, 2022 edition.

The sounds of baseball are part of what makes America’s pastime so unique, and for those who love the game, the sounds become indelibly seared into one’s memories.

The crack of the bat on a home run. The roar of the crowd when a team scores in the bottom of the ninth inning. The guy walking up and down and through the stands, hawking hot dogs and popcorn and beer.

For Gerald Sazon of New Orleans, the auditory stimulus came when his fastball’s arrival at home plate.

“I used to love to hear that sound of the ball hitting the mitt – pow!” Sazon said.

And Sazon’s fastball, he’s proud to say, had enough zip to it to vex hitters and battery mates alike.

“I used to throw it so hard, you wouldn’t see it until it hit the catcher’s mitt,” Sazon said. “Catchers had to put extra rubber in their mitts” to protect their hands.

Although Sazon celebrated his 86th birthday recently, such memories linger clearly in his mind for the man who played in the segregated Negro Leagues in the 1940s and ’50s. As a member of local pro outfits like the New Orleans Black Pelicans and the New Orleans Creoles, as well as the national touring team, the famed Indianapolis Clowns, who in the 1950s launched the careers of players who made the jump from Black baseball to the Majors, particularly the legendary Henry Aaron.

On April 28, Sazon was feted with a 86th birthday party at St. Margaret’s at Mercy nursing home, where the ex-pitcher now lives in his golden years. Dozens of fellow residents joined St. Margaret’s staff, members of Sazon’s family, other loved ones and other baseball enthusiasts attended the party.

The bash included short talks by people who know Sazon, as well as a group rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Nursing home staff also presented Sazon with a baseball signed by the members of the Tulane University varsity team.

Prior to the event, the members of the Xavier University baseball team personally visited the ex-Negro Leaguer and gave Sazon a signed ball, bat and shirt, a gesture that carried extra significance because of Xavier’s status as an HBCU

“It was overwhelming,” Sazon later said of the party and the support he received. “They didn’t tell me that all those people would come.”

Amy Sprout, central intake coordinator for St. Margaret’s, helped organize the bash, the plans for which got rolling because the St. Margaret’s staff knew how important Sazon’s trips to Birmingham for a reunion with his fellow players at the Negro Southern League Museum

However, such a trip wasn’t possible this year, Sprout said, so “our team thought it would be a great idea to instead bring the celebration to him.” She added that the party exceeded everyone’s expectation, as was the overwhelmingly positive response from the community.

Gerald Sazon with friends and neighbors at his party. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

Sprout said Sazon has become a vital part of the St. Margaret’s community, making throwing a celebration in his honor easy.

“Mr. Sazon has kind of been a ‘silent star’ within our community for the past couple of years,” she said. “A few of our staff members were aware that he had a history as a baseball player, but it was not until recently that the extent of his impact in the baseball world was really brought to light.”

Sprout said every elderly resident of the home has a fascinating, intricate life story to tell, and for Sazon, that story is the national pastime.

“We often hear stories about different trailblazers throughout history on TV and in newspapers, but to have one of these trailblazers living in our home is truly an honor,” she said. “We are grateful to be in a position to help share his story and create connections with today’s generations, particularly today’s athletes, who are directly benefiting from the efforts of Mr. Sazon and his likes.“

Gerald Sazon was born in 1936 to Irby and Louise Sazon and lived on Law Street — located in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a historically African-American community that has struggled economically and development-wise for decades, especially following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — with his family. His life in baseball began when he joined an age 12-14 youth league in New Orleans.

He also took in as many pro games as he could at Pelican Stadium, where he’d enjoy “knothole” nights. You went around the fence, and you had a hole you could look through.”

Although he attended a private school that had no formal baseball team – “Education was the thing for my parents,” he said – the promise of the diamonds had him itching to get through the school year.

“I couldn’t wait ‘til summer,” he said.

His formative, teenage years playing baseball were an experience that sharpened his skills and whetted his appetite for a life of baseball, and, he said, “by the time I got to 16, I was well groomed.”

His developing talents as a twirler attracted the attention of some of the established local pro players – more on that in a little bit – and soon he was snatched up to the big time, or at least as big as it got in New Orleans, in Louisiana and in the Deep South.

As a young man, Sazon, as did his father Irby, toiled as a longshoreman along the Mississippi River, keeping him in shape while restricting his diamond dreams to the weekends. During his playing career, some of his teammates and peers traveled to Cuba for winter ball, but Sazon was kept home by his parents, who felt their son was too young for adventures in the far away Caribbean. 

When starring on the mound, Sazon complemented his sizzling fastball with a sneaky curveball – “and it wasn’t no little curve,” he said. The sharp veering of the pitch caused some batters to duck in fear of getting beaned, and prompted other hitters to step into the batter’s box wearing football helmets.

“I’d aim it at you, but when it crossed the plate, it would cut way down,” he said. “They [the batters] would freeze, and the ball would just drop in there for a strike.

Sazon said his teammates just had to produce a run or two on offense, and he could take it from there and get the win. The key for a good pitcher is control, he said; “once you get zeroed and on where you want it,” it’s all over for an opponent.

“I didn’t think nothin’ of it,” he said. “I just wanted you to hit the ball and get me a run or two,” he said.

Like countless other segregation-era Black ballplayers, Sazon and his teammates endured grueling road trips, squeezed onto buses, rolling by night through towns in the Deep South that employed “sundown” rules – formal or informal rules order people of color off the streets and in their homes as the sun set – and other draconian measures to enforce white supremacy.

“They were rough,” Sazon said of the treks. “You’d go to a little town, and there wouldn’t be any colored boarding houses, so you’d have to sleep on the bus. We’d open up the sides so we could sleep.”

He added, “We’d sleep on the bus all night, then we’d get out there on the field, and we’d be stiff as a board.” And even if a town did have accommodations for African-American visitors, such as a boarding house or “colored” motel, the players would have to squeeze three or more players in each room.

Sazon recalled one particular Mississippi town where the white sheriff, irate that Sazon’s club had beaten the local town team, met them at a bridge out of town to warn them to walk across the span and never come back.

Sazon being interviewed by a local journalist. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout

(Of course, often the games themselves presented perilous hazards, such as opponents sharpening the spikes on their cleats to slash up an intrepid infielder trying to tag someone out.)

But despite the arduous, exhausting realities of the road, there were many highlights and shining moments that made the labors of the job more than worth it.

What became “the proudest game I ever pitched” took place in the city of New Roads, La., a burg in Pointe Coupee Parish, located 110 miles northwest of New Orleans, when he recorded a shutout. Sazon lived for a period in New Roads.

Other highlights included shutting down a Navy team, taking part in an integrated game at Pelican Stadium, and playing a contest in Yankee Stadium.

“You talk about scary,” he said of competing at the House That Ruth Built. “Just to walk in there and walk around was frightening.”

Sazon’s baseball career in the South was interrupted in the early 1950s when he was drafted into the Army, where he pitched for the troops as part of his service assignment and advanced to the rank of corporal.

After leaving the service, Sazon temporarily settled in the Washington, D.C., area, where he caught on with teams in the southern Maryland League. That effectively ended his time as a star in the Southern Negro Leagues.

Unfortunately, the number of African-American players of Sazon’s generation continues to dwindle, much like the fortunes of Negro League baseball following Jackie Robinson’s barrier-shattering debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Over the past few years, several prominent New Orleans Negro Leaguers have passed away; in 2019, former Black Pelican Paul Lewis Jr. died at the age of 92, and before that the city in 2015 said farewell to 94-year-old Herb Simpson, who played on several local teams before stints with national-level Negro Leagues teams and in the integrated Minor Leagues.

Because of this inevitable, bittersweet march of time, those who played the game and those acolytes who study the Negro Leagues and work to preserve and enrich the legacy segregation-era Black players and managers are constantly working to cherish the few remaining survivors and burnish their memories.

“We have come to a point in our history where many players from the ‘heyday’ of the Negro Leagues are gone, and now we are seeing those who played near the end of the Negro Leagues leave us as well,” said Dr. Ray Doswell, vice president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “Seeing these men ‘going home,’ in many spiritual traditions, is a time to rejoice, but bittersweet for those of us racing to preserve these stories and histories.”

Doswell added that Sazon remains a bright light in the legacy of the Negro Leagues.

“I am happy to know Mr. Sazon can celebrate one more year with folks recognizing his unique place in history,” he said. “It is also good to know he still loves baseball.”

Many of those New Orleans legends who have passed were friends, teammates and opponents of Sazon.

Simpson used to playfully call Sazon “Junior” because of the latter’s relative youth. In one anecdote, Sazon recalled running into Herb at the VA hospital, much to each of their delight and surprise.

“Herb looked up and saw me and said,’ Is that you, Junior?’” Sazon said.

Herb Simpson, one of Sazon’s friends and fellow New Orleans Negro Leaguer. Photo by Ryan Whirty.

Sazon also knew well the slugging Bissant brothers – Bob and John, who played with the great Chicago American Giants and garnered the nickname, “Champ.”

“Both of them could hit that ball,” Sazon said of the Bissants.

While he was with the New Orleans Creoles – who at the time were owned and run by the great local hotelier, sports promoter and baseball entrepreneur Allen Page – Sazon played with the trailblazing second baseman Toni Stone, the first woman to play professional baseball. Stone became a sensation, first in New Orleans, then with the Indianapolis Clowns.

“She was a star at second base,” Sazon said.

Sazon also rubbed elbows and took the field with shortstop Billy Horne, another Crescent City native. Horne spent several years with the Chicago American Giants, including one season with John Bissant who also played with the American Giants off and on through the late 1930s and early ’40s. A few other New Orleans lads donned spikes to play with Chicago during this period, including outfielder Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport (who also garnered another nickname in his hometown, “Bearman”) and catcher Ziggy Marcell, son of the irascible third baseman Oliver Marcell. The CAGs of this time also had the “Rocking Chair Catcher,” Pepper Bassett, a Baton Rouge native.

Arguably the most enigmatic, colorful figure and teammate recalled by Sazon was pitcher Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins, a native of Mississippi who spent much of his adult life based in New Orleans, including stints with several southeast Louisiana Black teams.

Pipkins’ outsized legend has reached near mythic proportions, his flamboyance and brashness making him a must see attraction whenever he took the mound. Sazon remembered what was perhaps the Diamond’s most eccentric trait – gold teeth that would glint in the sun and vex opposing batters with the shine.

“He had all that gold in his mouth,” Sazon said with a wide smile. “He would get up there [on the mound] with the sun shining and flash those teeth. Batters would complain to the ump.”

In fact, it was Pipkins who persuaded a 16-year-old Sazon to pursue his baseball dreams. Sazon said Pipkins at one point lived on the same block as him and asked permission from Sazon’s parents to set out on the road as a professional ballplayer.

Guiding many of these players in their careers, especially in New Orleans, was the Skipper, Wesley Barrow, the crusty, gruff, endlessly experienced manager who piloted many teams, including the Creoles, with unmatched passion and skill.

Wesley Barrow Stadium. Photo by Ryan Whirty.

Sazon said Barrow – after whom the historic stadium in Pontchartrain Park, New Orleans’ first planned neighborhood for middle-class African Americans, is now named – was a strict taskmaster who shaped the career, life and character of countless young Black men and women.

“He was something else,” Sazon said of Barrow, “and he’d cuss you out, too. Wesley was a card.”

Sazon’s baseball career, as do the careers of most other men and women who swing the wood and flash the leather, eventually came to an end. As Sazon reached early middle age and was still living in the DC area after playing in the Mid-Atlantic states, he realized his team in the athletic spotlight was winding down. In addition, he missed his hometown, and his mother passed away.

“I’d been away so long,” he said. “I’d gotten sort of homesick.”

So, after more than 20 years in the Maryland-DC area, Sazon decided to come home to the Crescent City in the early 1970s. But he wasn’t going home a stranger; the former teammates with whom he kept in touch informed him that his friends and colleagues at him still remembered from his sprightlier days on the ballfields of New Orleans.

“They’d say, ‘Don’t you know they still talk about you?’,” Sazon said.

As a result of his lingering renown in his hometown, Sazon still played on a semipro basis once a month or so while he paid the bills by working at a power plant. At one point he’d saved up enough money to purchase a limousine and launched his own chauffeuring service. In his later years, Sazon worked as an administrator in a private school in Westwego, a suburb of New Orleans across the Mississippi River.

But he still remained active and visible among the graying men of the old New Orleans Negro Leagues. He played in a few reunion games put on by the local Old Timer’s Baseball Club, which was founded in 1959 by Walter Wright, a native New Orleanian and a star pitcher in 1930s and ’40s Louisiana Negro Leagues.

Gerald Sazon. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

For many years the Old Timers threw an annual banquet and awards dinner, followed by a game at Pontchartrain Park (now Wesley Barrow Stadium) that was preceded by a Little League all-star game. The Old Timer’s Club and its annual celebrations became so popular that they regularly attracted living legends, including National Baseball Hall of Famers Bill Foster and the one and only Satchel Paige

Sazon also attended several of the Negro League reunions that took place annually in Birmingham, Ala. These reunions, most of them organized by Dr. Layton Revel, a passionate Negro Leagues historian and founder of the new Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham, often included a day at Rickwood Field, the oldest functioning baseball stadium in the country. The stadium was the site of the annual Rickwood Classic, an official Double-A game hosted by the Birmingham Barons.

“I think about going to Birmingham,” Sazon said. “All the fellows would meet, and we’d be up all night talking.”

During our conversation, Sazon also mentioned the names of several star Black players would excelled in the Majors following integration, singling out one-time Negro Leaguer Dan Bankhead, one of the five ballplaying Bankhead brothers who became the first African-American pitcher in the Majors while slinging for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-51; ex-Baltimore Elite Giant Joe Black, a key part of the Dodgers starting rotation in the 1950s who went on to a successful career in the corporate world; and Dominican Juan Marichal, who was a 10-time All Star for while with the San Francisco Giants from 1960-73 who eventually made it into Cooperstown.

These days, Sazon stays close to the game by following the various college teams in New Orleans, especially Tulane. He also catches major league games on TV, and like many “old timers,” he’s flabbergasted by the massive salaries, but, he adds, “the talent is there.”

He also finds the domination these days of pitch count limits for pitchers, which he feels are a little ridiculous, especially if a pitcher is doing well on the mound.

“As long as they don’t start hitting him,” he said, “they should just leave him out there.”

Plus he has the memories of his own career and experiences. As one of a rapidly dwindling number of living Negro Leaguers, making the stories he unspools and the wisdom he dispenses more vital than ever in preserving the histories and legacies of Black baseball.

And on that note, one more sound, one more story that remains crystal clear in his memory …

When his team traveled to Alabama to play the Prichard Athletics, Sazon and his mates faced Tommie Aaron, the younger brother of home run king Henry.

Tommie had similar power at bat as his brother, and during this particular game, Tommie crushed a long drive that smacked against the outfield wall, which was made of galvanized aluminum. The impact produced a thunderous “Bang!”

Sazon’s birthday cake. Photo courtesy Amy Sprout.

Not a bad memory to have, all these years – and fastballs – later. As he sits outside in the nursing home’s back courtyard recently, a gentle breeze swaying the landscaped bushes and trees and a bright blue sky overhead, Sazon – who began playing professionally at the age of 16 – recounts that and other tales that made his life exhilarating, rewarding and satisfying.

“I think about [his career] all time,” he said.

Despite all the challenges and rigors he and his teammates faced almost daily – racist police in small Southern towns, having to scrape up food whenever they could, sleeping in flea bag hotels or on the bus all night as they plunged toward their next game – Sazon recalls it as the thrill of his life.

“Hell,” he said with a sly grin, “I was young. That was all fun to me.”

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