Breaking a Barrier: Fifty Years Ago This Year, Percy Miller Made Baseball History in the Carolina League-Part Three

By Michael Hudson
Updated: August 8, 2007

Big Leaguers Bill White DANVILLE, VIRGINIA —Two years after Percy Miller’s short Leafs career had ended, the Carolina League had another black player. The Leafs had signed on as a farm team for the New York Giants, a major-league franchise committed to cultivating black prospects.

In 1953, the Giants assigned a young infielder from Ohio, Bill White, to Danville.

It was a long season for him. “I had to put up with crap from the fans. I was called names I’d never heard,” White would recall years later. “I rebelled. I yelled back at the name callers. I was only 18 and immature.”

In Burlington, N.C., he made an obscene gesture at his tormenters and the team had to run a gauntlet of red-faced fans to get away.

White asked for a transfer to St. Cloud, Minnesota, but the team said he was playing too well to let go.

He coped by channeling his anger into his hitting. “The more the fans gave it to me, the harder I hit the ball.” For the season, he hit .298 with 20 home runs. “They eventually decided to leave me alone, which was a victory over bigotry.”

White went on to play 13 seasons in the major leagues, collecting 1,706 hits and 202 home runs. He served as president of the National League from1989 to 1994, the highest-ranking black executive in pro sports.

Other black Carolina Leaguers followed in his wake, using their talents and their determination to transform the league in the 1950s.

The Leafs’ 1956 team photo shows four black team members, including two home-run sluggers, Willie McCovey and Leon Wagner, who would become big league stars.

Still, many major leaguers who passed through the Carolina League — including Curt Flood, Rod Carew and Dock Ellis — recalled being the targets of racism.

In the league’s defense, North Carolina historian Jim Sumner notes that the league integrated long before the barriers fell in many Southern schools, and no league team ever refused to play against black players.

Today, things have changed dramatically in the Carolina League.

The shouts of “Go back South and pick cotton” ended after the first few years of integration. But even into the 1970s, some Carolina Leaguers said they were targets of racial taunts. Salem (Va.) Pirates players complained hecklers would shout “Leroy” at them when they came to bat.

Walls of fame When the Giants moved to San Francisco, they shifted their farm team locations westward with them. The Leafs went out of business after the ’58 season. The grandstands at League Park were torn down and moved to Burlington.

Like many American cities, Danville still has some racial tensions.

In 1993, bitter words flew over the flying of a Confederate Flag outside a local museum.

But there are signs of racial strides in this city of 54,000. A national study cited Danville as one of the most integrated cities in the nation. The City Council has three black members. In 1996 Harry Johnson, a black man who coached basketball at Danville’s George Washington High for 17 years, retired after winning the state championship. He was replaced by another black man, Chris Carter.

James Slade has been a keen observer of Danville’s athletic triumphs over the years. He left high school coaching in 1952 to become an elementary school principal and eventually finished his career as an assistant principal at G.W., the city’s integrated high school.

At his home on U.S. 29 Business at the north end of town, the basement walls are covered with memories — photos, trophies, autographs.

There’s a drawing of George “Tic” Price, the former G.W. basketball star who coached the University of New Orleans into the national limelight.

Other famous Danville sports alumni include Herman Moore, a University of Virginia star who became a pass-catching standout with the Detroit Lions.

In Slade’s basement, there’s a special corner for black-and-white photos of Percy Miller and the rest of the young men from his great Langston teams from the Class of 1951. One shows Miller, his leg driving high, punting the ball skyward.

Miller and the others from Slade’s great teams never got much chance to play outside segregated ball. But they were famous in Danville.

A generation of black kids looked up to them. “Oh, they were idolized,” Slade says.

Many of these admirers went on to play sports, or their children did, Slade says, and helped bring trophies back to G.W.

Percy Miller didn’t give up his dream easily. He went back to the Jacksonville Eagles in the spring of 1952. He says the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him a contract, but he couldn’t get out of his agreement with the Eagles.

His military draft notice chased him around the country and caught up with him in May in New Mexico. He missed fighting in Korea because he got a job playing baseball on an Army team, thanks to a white captain who walked up to him one day and said: “I was in Raleigh last year, and I saw a black fellow playing right field for the Leafs. Could that be you?”

But then he tore up his knee when he fell off a “half track” vehicle during maneuvers. His baseball career was over.

“I always felt like one day I would be in baseball,” he says. “There wasn’t but two things I wanted to be — a baseball player and a railroad conductor.”

Miller got his second wish. He sidestepped racial barriers to getting a railroad job up North and worked as a conductor for Conrail and Amtrak for 21 years before retiring in 1990.

He returned to Danville and lives in a comfortable brick home, with a hilly yard dotted with balls – a football, a basketball, a baseball -belonging to his 6-year-old grandson.

One day recently, he and James Slade sat in his living room and recalled the first time he put on a uniform for coach Slade. It was a football game in the fall of 1947. “The first game we played up in Martinsville,” Miller says, his speech slowed a bit because of Parkinson’s disease. “Tell ’em what you wore,” Slade says. “I don’t remember, coach,” Miller answers. Slade laughs. He can’t forget.

“Tennis shoes.”

“….and had three guys playing without helmets,” Miller quickly recalls. “We only had about six or seven helmets. Those sneakers were slippery.”

A few days later, Slade is back again for a photo session with his protégé.

They step outside under the shade of a tall evergreen. “The two of us together here,” Slade suggests.

The old coach puts his arm around his player. The photographer clicks the shutter. Another snapshot of history, destined for a place of glory on the basement wall.

THE END…… This story originally appeared in The Roanoke Times in April 1997.