by William “Duke” Smither
“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me … All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” (Jack Roosevelt, a.k.a., “Jackie” Robinson, Jan 31, 1919 – Oct 24, 1972, First African American to play in ‘Modern Era’ Major League Baseball)
Once Upon a Time… Before Integrated Baseball
Way back when African-Americans were conveniently called “colored,” during the pathetic and disgraceful Jim Crow chapter of American history, we had our own baseball heroes and they sure in heck weren’t white—not because we were prejudice, but because we were proud.
Of course, it also had a little somethin’ somethin’ to do with de facto segregation’s— so-called Separate but Equal—“law of the land.” Back then, the term “colored” wasn’t all that offensive and “black” was on the way to being beautiful, like the 1960s culture shock paradox that shook the nation when I was in high school—not because we were prejudice, but because we were learning to be proud, again.
The Eurocentric version of major league baseball history usually suggests that Jackie Robinson was the “first African-American major-league ballplayer.” He was not—not even close! There’s a long line of African-American and other so-called “colored” Americans after Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker— a purported “Quadroon,” a person with one-quarter black ancestry in slave society’s offensive caste system. He was college-educated (Univ. Of Michigan) and arguably the first African-American to play in the ‘majors,’ on May 1, 1884 (the Society for American Baseball Research claims that another African-American, William Edward White, played one game as a substitute for the National League’s Providence Grays, on June 21, 1879).
When I was a child, baseball was king in black neighborhoods all over America. Other than the black church, it was part of what united us, in the eerie shadows of sophisticated, lily-white justice and a rigid racial caste system, like some newfangled twist on religion, straight out of the same King James Bible that we all read. The unique style of black baseball flowed through our streets, backyards and whatever vacant fields or sandlots we could find, similar to the ancient bloodletting rituals of the great African Maasai warriors. And, we craved for more because it nourished our bodies, as well as our minds.
Wherever we played, we often tried to emulate black baseball’s traveling barnstorming teams. Their entertaining style of play allowed our psyche to soar, punctuating our hopes with spiritual closure, like the aftermath of some passionate, Pentecostal tent revival. Simply put, it was sustenance for the soul. Many times, the only thing white in those games was the doggone ball, consisting of two strips of firmly stitched, bleached-white horsehide, wrapped around a 9-inch cork center, measuring some 3 inches across. That’s when times were good.
When times were bad, its substitute might have been a wad of most anything, wrapped with black electrical tape or no wrapping at all. Just goo-gobs of yarn or rubber bands often served the purpose. Yet, in downright defiance of bigoted white adults’ racist demands, for racial separation in all things, we occasionally played against white kids, in ‘secret’ neutral areas– out of sight and out of mind of grownups. Years later, a few of those kids became good friends and teammates of ours, when school integration shook up the neighborhoods. That’s when white grownups were in a constant tizzy, stirring up trouble and throwing hissy fits all over the place, mostly because white kids would be going to school and socializing with black kids. Surely, Old Jim Crow was dead and gone– at least, we thought so.
Mo’ Better Black?
Integrated baseball became opportunities lost, or aborted, similar to the way many black schools were closed down and black teachers lost careers, as schools began to integrate in the South, still stuck on stupid, longing for the past where only “white is right.” Yet, on the cusp of significant racial and social change, many of us hung on to our belief that baseball was simply mo’ better black, anyway. But, that was only until we became acquainted with bubblegum baseball cards (trading cards) and players like “Pee Wee” Reese, Duke Snider, Ted Kluszewski, Alvin Dark and other white players that we thought had “skillz”— “got game” as we use to say– just as good as some of our black heroes, when we were kids, in the segregated world we came from.
As a child, I recall seeing at least four all-black teams from the old ‘Negro Leagues’ playing in Columbus and/or Cincinnati, Ohio, down the road from Zanesville where my grandparents lived. They were the Indianapolis Clowns, and whomever they were playing, during the time they won back-to-back Negro League Championships, in the early 1950’s. Usually, they played in some white stadium that we traveled to, on the days the white teams were not playing. Other than the Pentecostal church, to which my grandparents belonged (I was their little ‘delinquent’ Baptist), or the occasional tent revivals they attended, it was the only time I recall their joyfully experiencing any outside social function, beyond the area farmer’s collective efforts to help each other out, around planting and harvest times, out of reach from the humiliating insults of Old Jim Crow. Back then, black people found relief and comfort within each other’s trust and company.
The “Indy Clowns” were top-notch, with clowning-around action similar to basketball’s Harlem Globe Trotters. But, they were good– reeeal good. Plus, I recall seeing a couple of women players, too, whom I later learned were “Toni” Stone (infielder) and “Peanuts” Johnson (pitcher). They clowned and cajoled with the fans, just like the guys, and were probably even more entertaining within their choreographed brash and sass. It didn’t matter that they were females. I was more concerned with practicing some of the techniques I saw.
But, imagine my surprise, while watching the recent 2014 Little League Baseball World Series, televised from South Williamsport, PA. When I saw this young black girl, an articulate hazel-eyed, 13-year-old, named Mo’ Ne Davis—in front of some 15,000 stadium fans–pitching strikes to the boys, for Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons’ team, my mind raced back to the old days. I was shocked. When I played Little League ball, in my home town, little girls weren’t allowed to play and you probably couldn’t find but maybe 2 or 3 that even wanted to. But, throwing curves and zipping 70-mph fast balls, this pony-tailed little girl reminded me of our 13-year-old granddaughter’s aggressive style of playing basketball, as she smoked some fairly talented boys, with ‘big bats,’ with such class and confidence that simply glued you to your seat. This gurl can hurl! ‘Nuff said!
According to sports reporters, Mo’ Ne was merely one of about 18 girls who had played in the Little League World Series. She was ‘baad.’ Reportedly, she was the 5th female of all-time to pitch for the Little League World Series, but the first to win a game, hurling a 2-hit shut-out in the series’ opening game. She was also the first little leaguer to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine. She was thrilling. She was even more impressive, after the Little League World Series was over. That’s when I saw her again throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, a perfect strike, just before the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Nationals, at Dodger Stadium (on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014), later autographing a baseball, herself, for one of the Dodger outfielders. Yet, in spite of all the fanfare, her Taney Dragons had lost, 6-5, to the all-black Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago, Ill, in yet another exciting Little League World Series game. It knocked them out from further World Series play, but brought back childhood memories of seeing black women playing in the Negro Leagues.
Muffled Glory, Collective Dignity
This was the team- the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars— that probably resembled our childhood little league team (in Kentucky) the most, except for our tattered, makeshift uniforms. Overnight, this hustling, all-black squad simply flipped the news script, from negative to positive, on kids from the streets of Southside Chicago, where they hail from. I’m certain they made the nation proud. And, the way they represented themselves, even in their heartbreaking, 8-4, loss to South Korea in the Little League World Series championship game, certainly made me proud. But, it was their plain ole grit and style of play which brought tears to my eyes in the preceding game, when they whipped Las Vegas, Nevada, 7-5, making them the first Chicago squad to advance to the championship game since 1967. Settling for the U.S. Little League Championship title, after their losing bid for the World Championship title, was definitely nothing to sneeze at.
Even in their losing bid, these guys were cucumber cool. Coming out of the chute as underdogs to just get to the championship game, they had to really listen to themselves, as well as their coaches. But, the thundering chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A…,” filling the stadium when rallying from being behind by 6 points (8-1) in the bottom of the sixth inning, couldn’t help but kick them in the pants, even more. As my eyes began to swell from tears and painful memories of times past (in little league and high school sports), I saw a bunch of little black kids beat back their own tears with a never-say-die spirit, before some 29,000, mostly-strangers crowd of spectators, as they fought like the little Nubian warriors they were, to me. They scored three times but the potential game-tying run died with their hopes, on deck, as the final out slipped into history.
“Even in defeat, they won,” I thought. But, the crowd noise I heard was more like lingering stadium echoes from the Negro Baseball Leagues. It was deafening, drowning out all of the humiliations suffered by African-Americans, within their stifled quests for peace and happiness, on the playing fields of a nation undeniably filled to the brim with institutional racism and blatant economic inequality. Yet, the beat goes on.
It doesn’t matter that the disease of racism lingers, still. What matters is how you handle it, what you do to neutralize the ignorance outside ourselves. It begins with us. What we do matters. Our actions not only strengthen us, it emboldens others—like the little Jackie Robinson All-Stars, as well as teams from black baseball’s gloried past, like: (1) the Atlanta Black Crackers, and the Birmingham Black Barons, or (2) the Chicago American Giants, the Cleveland Buckeyes and the Cuban Stars – East, or (3) the Detroit Stars, the Memphis Red Sox and the New York Black Cubans, or (4) the Newark Eagles, the Philadelphia Stars and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, just to name a few.
‘Canon Street’ Pedigree
Yet, much of the Little League black experience remains an untold story, like the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars Baseball Team, from Charleston, S.C. They forever formed a part of my childhood memories, during the time I was playing little league ball. They were a bunch of scrappy 11-12 year old kids who also went to the Little League World Series, in Williamsport, PA, in 1955, but became the only team ever which was forbidden to play for the title, once they arrived. They simply sat there, in the doggone stands, and painfully watched the white teams play, listening to the ground swell of chants, “Let them play, let them play…” Some say it was because they were black. It was also because Jim Crow and Massive Resistance shenanigans allowed white teams to refuse in taking the field to play against them. That’s what I remember the most. And, some four years later, I carried those memories with me as I began to play high school football and run track, sometimes with vengeance, during the often hostile years of school desegregation in Kentucky, on a racial landscape where black grownups continually reminded us to remain non-violent, since the issues were much bigger than ourselves.
Newspaper archives reveal that the Cannon Street All-Stars were the only black Little League team in the Charleston City Championships, as well as South Carolina State Championship (in Greenville) and the Southern Regional Championship (in Rome, GA). They did not lose a game, but won all of their earlier titles—by forfeit—because about 75 white teams refused to play them, because they were black. This was a year in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Of course, “Brown…” was the milestone U.S. Supreme Court decision which clamped down on state-sponsored segregation and sanctioned discrimination and bigotry. But, still, the Little League’s South Carolina affiliate was demanding an all-white tournament, in order to exclude what was felt to be a superior, all-black Cannon Street team, with excellent chances to win it all.
To its credit, the Little League’s national office rejected the South Carolina office’s demand, which would have benched the Cannon Street squad. According to Little League Baseball archives, in enforcing its long-standing non-discrimination policy, the Little League’s national office explained to the South Carolina affiliate that it was a new day in youth baseball and no place for their Massive Resistance tactics. It said, “For the boys of these teams there are no barriers of race, creed or color. . . . For the boys, baseball is a game to be played with bat, ball and glove.” However, citing adherence to a rule which prevented teams from World Series competition after “advancing by forfeit,” the national office invited Cannon Street to attend as guests, only.
Much of the hushed history and forgotten cruelties for this period have been recounted by a former Cannon Street All-Star, William “Buck” Godfrey, within his 84-page recollections, in the book, “The Team Nobody Would Play” (Dorrance Publishing Co. Inc., Paperback, April 2008). It was published around the time I had retired and returned to coaching youth track and field at a local middle school (Fairfield Falcons) to assist my daughter, then a track coach and teacher. After years of my coaching in AAU competition, it was felt that I might also have some helpful perspectives to share from the time I competed in high school. Sometimes, before practice started, I was invited to give some motivational talks to the team on that period and I often talked about track and football.
Fruits of the Vine
However, one afternoon, as all of the different teams (i.e., track, baseball, soccer, tennis, etc.) spilled out of the locker rooms, heading to practice fields, my thoughts turned to baseball. I overheard a couple of black track team members teasing a couple of black baseball players for playing a “white man’s game.” Ironically, I was even wearing my Negro League Baltimore Black Sox cap, at the time. Shocked at what I heard, rather than interfering, I simply tried to ignore it, realizing that their world was quite different from my childhood, when baseball ruled. The juxtaposition of the moment made me realize that I had become part of the problem I’ve accused others about, in not sharing enough of our rich, storied past in athletics, during those awful Jim Crow years and school desegregation. And, here I was, sporting my Baltimore Black Sox hat, decidedly tight-lipped!
That very moment, coupled with dealing with some medical issues of my own relatives, caused me to think of the dwindling numbers of living Negro Baseball League members, as well as the fading memories (due to Alzheimer’s, Dementia, etc.) of some still living,
I recalled the death, a couple of years earlier (October 29, 2006), of one of the oldest living Negro League players, “Si” (Silas) Simmons, rumored to have memory problems. He was 111! He died just two weeks after the Center for Negro League Baseball Research had staged a special party for him, at a Florida nursing home, attracting some 300 people, including 39 former players of the shrinking, untold number of Negro Baseball League members.
Expected attendees had included a couple of my own aging heroes from Negro League ball. They were: (1) Monford “Monte” Irvin, from the Negro League’s Newark Eagles, who later played for MLB’s New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1973, based mostly on his play in the Negro Leagues and (2) Johnny “Lefty” Washington, from the Negro League’s Chicago American Giants and the Houston Eagles, who later served in the U.S. Marine Corp in Korea, where he received two Purple Hearts and the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest military decoration for combat valor. He also played on the Marine Corp’s national championship baseball team in 1952. Their stories, and other stories I knew, merely punctuated my thoughts that day.
Like rare grapes for fine wine, withering on the vine, Negro League ball players are the “grapes” and we have become the “vine,” the way I see it. From working on the farm most summers in my youth, I’m acutely aware that vines need attention, since they nourish the branches which bear these fruits of the vine.
In a sense, the African-American community were the vineyards which yielded some vintage “fruit,” Negro League baseball players. And, time is nigh that we all help cultivate these “vines” for our children– and our children’s children– not because we’re biased, but because we’re proud…