By Michael R. Stevens
Baseball Preview 2004
I started my car one morning a few weeks ago with the thermometer at minus two degrees and the ache of the cold immediately seizing upon my arthritic knee—but then I remembered that catchers and pitchers were reporting to spring training the next day, and the barest whisper of Springtime touched my cheek. As always, the arrival of baseball a few thousand miles away delivered a mortal wound to winter, the icy grip loosened ever so slightly by a group of men soft-tossing across some emerald infield. I knew it was time to pick up a few baseball books from the library and start reading my way toward Opening Day.
Much of the off-season has been dominated by the ugly prose and uglier sycophancy of the Pete Rose "confessional" book. I found myself floating around the issue, not quite caring, but after reading excerpts from the book in Sports Illustrated, I felt a growing sense of the indignity that Rose has brought on the sacred game, not so much through his gambling escapades as through his unapologetic apology. That impression was only furthered when I picked up a slender volume this winter called "I Will Never Forget": Interviews with 39 Former Negro League Players (McFarland & Co., 2003) by Brent Kelley. This is the third volume in a series compiling interviews (along with Voices from the Negro Leagues and The Negro Leagues Revisited). These interviews are fascinating, unpretentious, at times quite moving. Most of the players represented in the third volume played at the very end of the Negro Leagues era, after the major leagues had integrated, but the abuses of racism were by no means gone in the Fifties and Sixties.
What struck me most about these men was their quiet dignity, the very thing lacking in the whole Pete Rose conversation. Bill Bethea, who played for a number of teams in the early Fifties, offers an account of how well treated black players were in both Canada and Mexico, then reflects on experience in the American South: "I had to do one thing when I first played in Lexington. We nearly had a little riot there. They were calling me names and things my first time to pitch there, so when I went out I just pulled my shirt up to make sure that I had 'Lexington Indians' on my shirt. I said, 'I'm supposed to be with you all. This is the home team and I'm with the home team.'" Such genial diffusion of tension seems to have been a part of most of these players' approaches to the harshness of life. Many of them speak of sleeping and eating on the buses because of hotel and restaurant segregation, but few seem to be complaining. The overwhelming tone is one of appreciation for a chance to play the game they still love, albeit on barnstorming teams in hostile cities, with little financial gain.
None of the interviewees expresses resentful envy of their peers, like Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, who succeeded in reaching baseball immortality. Scoop Brown recalls a game against the Birmingham Black Barons, whose lineup included the 14- or 15-year old Willie Mays: "This guy in right field went back against the wall, jumped and caught the ball, turned and the man at third base started toward home. He turned and threw to home plate and threw him out about two or three steps. That was Junior. Willie Mays. I never will forget that."
Wonderful stuff, but Brown trumps himself when he talks about a game against the Indianapolis Clowns, who had Hank Aaron at shortstop: "This game started at 7:30. At 11:30—time to turn the lights out—it was still the first innin'. The first time Hank Aaron came up he hit one 350 feet over the left field wall. The next time Hank Aaron came up he hit one 380 feet over the left-center field wall. Next time he came up he hit one to right field 'bout 380 feet. The last time, over there where they got New Circle Road now, he hit that ball and they haven't ever found it. Four home runs. It was 11:30 and it was still the first innin' and we still didn't get up." That may be the greatest baseball anecdote I've ever read—unbelievable, but too wonderful to deny!
What also stands out, with regard to the matter of dignity, is the paths these men took after baseball. Many a major leaguer has shown himself clueless in civilian life; one thinks of Mickey Mantle greeting customers at casinos in Atlantic City. Certainly Pete Rose is a model for a drifting, self-aggrandizing post-baseball gypsy, signing and selling off paraphernalia like an erstwhile P.T. Barnum. These Negro Leaguers stand in marked contrast. Several of them settled into jobs for decades: Bill Bethea and Scoop worked in the Parks and Recreation Departments of their respective cities for 24 and 41 years, respectively. Willie Lee worked at a factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan (my own hometown, where he also played semi-pro ball) for over twenty years, and another of the guys retired from the Detroit team and worked for Ford Motors for 40 years. Something about these post-baseball lives is significant, and this sense is only augmented by the presence, among the interviewees, of some men who went on for master's degrees, and at least one, Tom Johnson, who received a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, taught in the medical school there, and later became a dean at Johns Hopkins. Here are pedigrees that are truly admirable, from men who often don't remember their own statistics (there are few record books for the barnstorming teams), and for whom the game, and not the numbers, was and is the point.