Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bill Deck's exciting journey through the Negro Leagues

About two weeks ago, I reported on the death of one of the oldest living alums from the Negro Leagues, former Philadelphia Stars pitcher Bill Deck. Deck passed away in Philadelphia at the age of 95 after an extended stay in a nursing home.

In November 2007 on a Friday afternoon after a long day of teaching, I decided to drive to Mr. Deck's home in North Philadelphia to see if he would be willing to talk about his baseball career. After a few knocks on the door, a tall, lithe man with a baritone voice appeared. He briefly questioned my purpose for the visit; when I told him what I was there for, he graciously invited me inside. I understood his initial skepticism as there was a horrific shooting of a cop the day prior about two blocks away at a nearby gas station. After entering, we spent close to two hours discussing his career in baseball, his World War II service, and his life after baseball. Upon discovering the news of his passing, I decided it was best to share visions of the career of another Negro Leaguer who has taken his stories to eternal rest.

Bill Deck - Philadelphia Stars
Deck became enamored with the national pastime after moving to Darby, PA from North Carolina at the age of ten.

“That’s when I became wrapped up in baseball," he said. "I would go to the games every day. We were what you would call ball chasers. We would get the foul balls and bring them back in. That was the good part.” A few years later, his family migrated across the Delaware County border into Southwest Philadelphia. It was there where he began playing baseball. “I started playing ball when I was 13 years old. We had moved to Southwest Philadelphia from Darby. They had a little team there, it was a mixed team, black and white. I was the only black on the team. When it came time to play against the other teams in our age group, they wouldn’t let me play. They said I was too good. I only played for special occasions, so I played with kids older than myself.”

A major opportunity arose when the family moved back to Darby. His neighbor was Ed Bolden, who was the owner of the Hilldale Daises (who would later own the Philadelphia Stars).

“I had access to every game that came there," he said. "It taught you the basics of baseball, you learned everything. We had a kids team in Darby, and they would allow us to play like on a Monday, because the big time baseball was on the weekends. They would allow us to play in the park, provided we cut the grass and to put the lines down. I learned more about that than the players did. You learned how to put down a pitcher's mound, the batters box, etc. You learned a lot by just being around.”

His memories of watching the legends play in Hilldale Park were vivid. His lauded the merits of shortstop Dick Lundy, who many feel belongs in the Hall of Fame.

“There was a player with the Bacharach Giants, this was when I was still young," he said. "I used to watch him, he was a shortstop, Dick Lundy. He was the best shortstop I’ve ever seen. He was so smooth. He made hard plays look easy. His rival, Jake Stephens, played for Hilldale. I used to compare the two of them. Jake Stevens was a good shortstop. He’d make an easy play look hard, kicking up dust and everything, but Dick Lundy was the opposite. He made hard plays look easy.”

Deck also had the pleasure of watching Hall of Famer Judy Johnson operate on an up close and personal basis with the Hilldale team. While many are quick to sing the praises of Brooks Robinson and fellow Negro Leaguer Ray Dandridge as the best at the hot corner, Deck offered up the Delaware native.

“I’d rate him the number one against anybody," he said. "He was actually that good. Nothing got past him. Being a kid, I was around 13-14 years old watching guys like that play; just to have a catch with him was the highlight of your life.”

As Deck spent more time around Bolden's squad, the more he learned and matured as a player. He eventually had his shot with the Philadelphia Stars in 1939. Deck described how he made his way into the Negro Leagues.

“They way you made your way in, people would notice you playing," he noted. "I was a pitcher. Hilldale had a pitcher, Red Ryan. He taught me how to throw the curveball. I perfected it so good, it drew everyone’s attention. As I grew older, I developed a few pitches and that’s when they gave me a chance to play.”

The person that opened the door for him was his former neighbor, Bolden.

“Ed Bolden wrote me a letter, and asked me if I would come to talk to him. And that’s how I got started.”

While his stay with the Stars was brief, he most memorable moment came during a stop in Iowa.

“The best game I ever pitched was on a Tuesday night," Deck recalled. "We had played in Chicago, and we stopped in Des Moines, IA. We had a night game. I didn’t start the game. We were playing the St. Louis Stars, one of the big teams out West. In the 3rd inning, the manager came in and asked me, 'Could you come in and stop these guys from hitting?' I said, 'I just pitched Sunday, what are you talking about, that’s only two days rest!' He told me, 'They’re making us look like chumps.' I replied, 'Ok, I’ll give it a shot. I don’t know how long I’ll last, ‘cause you know I just pitched Sunday.' Anyway, it was very warm that night, and I guess that’s what did it. From the 3rd inning to the 9th inning, I didn’t give up a hit. It was the greatest moment of my life. It was in the papers. There were big write-ups in the Des Moines paper the next morning. I went to the restaurant the next day and the people asked, 'Are you the guy who pitched last night?' It was quite a crowd at the game, so I said 'Yeah, it was me.'” 

Deck found his manager Jud Wilson to be very difficult to deal with. Wilson was a grizzled veteran who was known for his short fuse. He knew his days were numbered with Wilson at the helm.

“The manager of the team was Jud Wilson," he said. "He was a great third baseman. He was very hard to get along with. He didn’t like me at all I don’t think. In those days, the jobs were hard to come by. A rookie coming in, they were very choosy about who they wanted to play with them. If I come in, they’ve gotta move one of the old-timers. All of a sudden, here comes this kid to take his place. Anyway, that’s when he said, 'I’m going to send you down to the Bacharach Giants.'”

He continued to play until 1950, playing for the lesser known all-black semi-pro teams.

“I played for the Bacharach Giants and the [Philadelphia] Stars from 1939-1942," he said. "We played all up and down the East Coast. We’d go up to Connecticut and play. I got married in between. You had to have a job to boost the money up. We’d play in New Haven, come down the coast, play different teams. Around 1950, I finally stopped. I didn’t have that high hard one anymore. I played a little semi-pro after that. When I came out of the service, we moved to a little place called Lamont. I played with them in the Suburban League, to show them how to play ball. They’ve seen it [baseball], but they didn’t understand it.”

His playing career was interrupted by his military service in World War II. Deck spoke about how he was part of one of the pioneering Marine units in the service.

“I was one of the first black Marines in 1942," he said. "When they opened up the Marine Corp for Black Marines, I went to sign up in 1942 and became a Marine in 1943. It was separate. You could go in the Marines. They took three black guys from Germantown in the Marines. We were segregated right then. We had a different training camp. We went to Camp LeJune, and that’s where we took boot camp training.”

After returning from World War II, Deck moved to Lamont, PA. It was there where he was visited by another pioneer, Jackie Robinson.

“There was much buzz going on after Jackie Robinson. Jackie came to visit us in Lamont and explained to us about baseball. One of the fellows that lived up there knew someone who knew Jackie Robinson and he asked if Jackie could come to speak to us. That was in 1947.”

He also sensed that Robinson's breaking of the color line spelled the end for Negro League baseball.

“I knew that would break the Negro Leagues down. Everyone from kids on up they were thriving to go into the majors, black and whites. That little team we started in Lamont, a lot of those kids, the big leagues would look at them, send scouts out, and send them to farm clubs.”

After baseball, Deck went into the field of masonry, which he attributed to his longevity.

“[After baseball] I took up bricklaying," he said. "I put in 25 years. When I got married, I bought a farm in Wildwood, NJ. I bought that place in 1952. We kept it until 1993. We’d go out there and spend time on the shore, Rio Grande, NJ. It was getting too much for me to keep the place looking decent. My wife told me to sell it, and we went back to Philadelphia. After that I’ve just been retired.”

At the time of the interview, the 92-year-old Deck still felt that he could get around pretty well.

“I like to go around places. I had to stop driving. That’s a drawback. I’m going back to the doctors to see if they can help my eyes to see if I can get licensed again. My doctor told me physically I am in good enough shape. The years of bricklaying helped.”

In the mid 1990s, Deck ran into a familiar face while visiting a museum in downtown Philadelphia. He couldn't believe what he saw.

“I went down the museum once, down at 7th and Arch, the Negro Museum," he said. "I saw this big picture on the wall, I said, 'That’s a picture taken at Parkside in 1939.' This lady that ran the museum at the time, she told me to come into her office, she wanted to talk to me. She asked me a lot of questions, almost like you are doing. I told her, 'On this picture there, that’s me right there! She asked, 'Do you mind if we keep this?' I said, 'Sure.' I had seen this picture before, but I hadn’t noticed it this closely. They enlarged it and had it hanging up. A few guys I knew down there said, 'Deck, do you know they have your picture hanging at the museum?' This was about ten years ago. I remember when that picture was taken. Right away, it brought my mind back to 1939.”

Long after Deck threw his final pitch, he admitted that baseball had never left him.

“You get it in your blood and it stays there forever," he said. "I watch spring training when they televise it. I followed baseball all of these years. I’ll turn away something else to get to a baseball game. And you almost know what’s going to happen. It’s instinct or something.”

Only later in his life did Deck gain some fanfare for his accomplishments almost 60 years prior.

“Lately, I get a lot of mail," he said. "I never would have believed it. When it first started, they used to send us letters from Buck O’Neil. They used to send us a check twice a year. All of the black players, the ones that were living, but they stopped that.”

When asked about how he wanted to be remembered, Deck was humbled by the thought of it.

“I just want to be remembered as being out there trying to play. The thought of being remembered means a lot.”


2 comments:

  1. Good post. I must be great to get to do these interview. I've only got to interview one ball player so far, but it gave me a great insight into the game.

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  2. Great post. I had the honor of growing up with him being my uncle and I can tell you how he will be remembered as a great and loving Uncle to all the nieces and nephews in the family

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