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BASN Negro League Spotlight: Miles, Duckett Share Their Experiences In Hartford
By Tony McClean
Updated: February 17, 2007
HARTFORD, Ct. — When Frank Thomas hit six homers in six consecutive games last September, BASN re-told the story of a former Negro Leaguer who nearly six decades ago almost doubled Thomas’ feat.
Playing for the Chicago American Giants in 1948, John “Mule” Miles hit an amazing 11 homers in 11 straight games. The tall Texan set the mark eight years before Pittsburgh’s Dale Long set the original major league mark of hitting eight home runs in eight consecutive games between May 19-28 of 1956.
Last weekend, Miles and fellow Negro Leaguer Mahlon Duckett were part of a lively discussion about the history of the Negro Leagues entitled, “Those Who’ve Gone Before: A Public Discussion of Negro League Baseball.”
The discussion, hosted by ESPN’s Stuart Scott, was held by the Hartford Stage, who was staging its own production of August Wilson’s play, “Stages”.
The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning production focuses on former Negro Leaguer Troy Maxson and his son, who has an opportunity to play in the major leagues.
Both Duckett (who played for the Philadelphia Stars in the 1940′s) and Miles talked about the struggles and hardships that they endured during their playing career. “We didn’t have a hotel to stay in or restaurants to eat in, so we just slept in the bus,” Duckett said.
“Every so often, we’d go to a gas station that had a grocery store attached to it, and they’d let us pull around to the back and buy lunch meat and bread and things like that and we’d take it back onto the bus.”
While the struggles were constants for Negro Leaguers, Miles said what kept a lot of the players going was genuine a love of the game. “I tell my grandchildren now, it wasn’t about where I ate or where I stayed, I just wanted to play baseball,” Miles said.
“[God] blessed me, and now I’m still able to be here to talk about it. I’m not complaining, I’m just explaining. I made about $300 a month, and I was able to raise five boys and a girl.”
The appearance at the discussion was a “homecoming” of sorts for Miles. The 84-year-old talked about playing a barnstorming game in New Haven in 1947. The game was scoreless through seven and a half innings until Miles came up to bat in the bottom of the eighth.
“We were going up against an all-white team of semipros and they were playing us tough”, Miles said. “The pitcher threw me a perfect ball right down the middle and I hit outside the park.”
Miles’ homer was the game’s only run in his team’s victory. He was also greeted by several fans after the game. In fact, one husband and wife gave the slugger $2.00 as a token of their appreciation.
Ironically that same season was the year that Jackie Robinson became the first modern-day black to play in the major leagues. As more players like Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, and others began to be signed, it would lead to the decline of the Negro Leagues.
“I’ve always believed the reason Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson when he did was because we were outdrawing the major leagues in 1945,” said Duckett.
“They figured they’d better take somebody [from the Negro Leagues]. Once that happened, it was like fans were getting two for one, the major leagues and the best players from the Negro Leagues, and they took a lot of our fans away.”
Luckily for some players, the end of the Negro Leagues didn’t mean the end of their playing career. In 1950, Miles became the first black to play in the Texas League.
Unfortunately, Miles still had to deal with bigotry and prejudice during his playing days in the league. “The players on the team treated me well,” Miles added, “but the fans in the stands used that N-word every time I came up to bat.”
Miles continued his minor league career with the Laredo Apaches in the Gulf Coast League. Presently, Miles travels around the country talking about his experiences to youngsters.
“What I try to stress to them (the youngsters) is where I’ve come from”, Miles added. “It was hard for me, but I made it and they can do the same because it’s a bit easier for them now.”
“They have opportunities that I didn’t have. I tell them to put your mind into your books and try to be somebody. I tell them to have a positive mind and stay in school.”