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Former Negro Leaguers Unfazed By Experiences With Segregated Game
DETROIT — Interesting, how they never seem bitter, how they rarely say they were cheated, after having been restricted to playing big league baseball in the segregated Negro Leagues.
The national pastime let them down, absolutely. Great baseball players who would have been as recognizable today as other icons of their time — Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Bob Feller — were sentenced to relative anonymity, not to mention long car rides from town to town, almost on a daily basis, because they could forget about staying at whites-only hotels.
For more than 50 years it was this way for African-American baseball players.
Last Saturday night at Comerica Park, 10 men who experienced racial prejudice, sanctioned by Major League Baseball, happily returned for their annual night of goodwill and just a splash of the limelight they should have known on the national stage decades ago.
They were on hand when the Tigers and Royals met in the 13th annual Negro League Tribute Game. The Royals and Tigers wore their Negro League counterparts’ uniforms, replicas of those worn by the Kansas City Monarchs and Detroit Stars. The men were on hand before the game to sign autographs, to pose for pictures, but mostly to visit with each other, recalling stories and experiences only they can begin to comprehend.
The Negro Leagues veterans who attended Saturday reflect the broad chain of leagues and teams, professional and semi-professional, that a black baseball player might traverse during his career in the segregated game. But all of the players, at one time or another, participated in the premier Negro League in which the game’s Mount Rushmore figures played: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck O’Neill, Buck Leonard and scores more Cooperstown-grade athletes who never saw the mainstream big leagues.
The 10 men who attended Saturday night’s game at Comerica Park are: Joe Douse, Melvin Duncan, Harold Gordon, Gene Johnson, Marvin Jones, Cecil Kaiser, Alton King, James Moore, Herb Walker and Ron Teasley.
Five of them this week shared stories from their unique baseball experience.
Harold “Bee Bop” Gordon
Gordon pitched for the Chicago American Giants, Paris (Miss.) Lakers and Detroit Stars.
His curveball was so sheer in its descent that famed Negro Leagues catcher and manager Double Duty Radcliffe named it The Mountaintop Drop.
He is 82, and still lives in Detroit, the city where he began his 35-year career with Ford, which was the practical option for a Negro League player when his daughter was born Aug. 16, 1954.
The day before, Gordon pitched his final game, at age 29, when he beat Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs, 2-1.
The problem, of course, was money. Negro League players made so little that a man with a budding family had to face facts: He needed a decent-paying job.
Life, though, was beautiful for a man playing baseball. It included meal money of $2 per day.
“In those times, that was still enough to get you by,” said Gordon, who retired from Ford in 1991 after working on the assembly lines at the Rouge and Sterling Heights plants. “You could get bacon and eggs, ham and eggs, and a cup of coffee for 35 cents. You could even buy a steak dinner for 85 cents and still have change to tip the waitress 10 or 15 cents.”
Of course, the only places that would serve them were hotels and restaurants owned by African Americans.
His nickname, by the way, was given to him during the 1940s, when “bebop” music — a type of jazz — was the flavor of the day for men whose musical heroes were Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.
Gordon wore the “bebop” eyeglasses that were reflective of the evolving jazz age.
Hence, the nickname stuck long after a fine pitcher, born in Birmingham, Ala., departed for a new life in Detroit.
An outfielder/first baseman with the Detroit Stars and native Detroiter, Johnson found out the hard way about discrimination when he showed up to play with the Stars in Birmingham, Ala., fresh from a tour in the Marines.
Johnson held out his change to the bus driver when he boarded a Birmingham bus. His hand remained extended as the bus pulled away.
Johnson did not realize a white driver in Birmingham in 1956 was not about to touch the hand of a black passenger. Protocol called for the money to be placed in a tray.
“I felt kind of foolish, standing there while we were riding down the street,” said Johnson, who is 71 and one of the youngest of the men who will gather Saturday.
Johnson was good enough to play in the final Negro League All-Star Game, in 1957, at Comiskey Park. But he was not destined to play in the major leagues and, like so many of the Negro League veterans, headed for Detroit and steady employment in the auto plants.
He went to work at Ford’s Rouge plant, from which he retired in 1978, disabled when he was struck by a car that cost him a leg.
“They’re beautiful people, they’ve treated us so beautifully down at Comerica Park,” Johnson said, speaking of Tigers staffers who are arranged Saturday night’s reunion.
Kaiser was a pitcher/outfielder/first baseman for the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Detroit Stars.
At age 91, and enjoying life in Southfield with his wife of 40 years, he is the most senior of the group that will convene Saturday.
Kaiser is also the most widely traveled of the cast. Kaiser played Negro League baseball in the United States during the summer, then headed for Mexico, Venezuela or Puerto Rico for the winter. He played with, and against, all the luminaries: Jackie Robinson, BuckLeonard, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearnes, Buck O’Neill.
He was the Julio Franco of his time, retiring in 1975, at age 59, when he was playing for a semi-pro team in Canada.
“I seen them all,” he said, speaking of the Negro League legends he knew so well. “I couldn’t say who was the best.”
He had a physical regimen that was perhaps unmatched in any tier of professional baseball. It was hard work and conditioning that kept him going.
“I stayed in good shape, because you had to,” Kaiser said. “We played every day and traveled every day. There weren’t any salons. You handled everything yourself.”
Duncan, who pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs and Detroit Stars, also saw and played with the great ones, many of whom became the first blacks to play with major league teams: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Elston Howard, Willard Brown, Connie Johnson, Lefty LaMarque, Gene Collins, , etc.
He remembers rolling up a 6-2 record one season at Colorado Springs, a Triple-A stop, but losing out on a big league call-up to a pitcher who was 4-8. That pitcher happened to be white, and never mind that he was a junkballer who didn’t have much in the estimation of his teammates.
Such was life in the pioneer days of blacks migrating to the big leagues.
Duncan, 78, lives in Ypsilanti, not far from St. Joseph’s Hospital where he worked following his playing days.
He follows the Tigers closely.
“Oh, that Inge (Brandon, third baseman), he can throw — he’s got a shotgun,” Duncan said.
Teasley played first base for the New York Cubans, Detroit Wolves and Motor City Giants.
He spent some time in the Brooklyn Giants’ minor league system in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson crashed through the wall that had separated baseball players by color.
But a major league career never developed.
Teasley, 80, still lives in his hometown of Detroit, where he attended Northwestern High School and Wayne State University.
He likewise competed with and against Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neill, Josh Gibson, and with Minnie Minoso in Cuba.
What he remembers, what all who played Negro League baseball remember, is the travel.
“Some parts of the country, there could be problems getting food and rooms,” Teasley said. “But you just looked forward at every stop to getting to the ballpark and entertaining people who were looking forward to seeing you.
“People were hungry for us to appear and perform before them.
“We seemed to inspire them when we came to town.”