Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bill Greason spreads the word about Negro League baseball, World War II, and his faith

“Discover Greatness,” has been the theme for the traveling exhibit of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for the past 20 years that has showcased the history of African-Americans in baseball. An increasingly rare opportunity to witness one of the legends who played in the Negro Leagues tell their story live and in-person came to Mt. Calvary Baptist Church on Saturday in Mullica Hill, N.J.

Bill Greason / N. Diunte
Eighty-eight-year-old Rev. William “Bill” Greason, former pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons and St. Louis Cardinals, delivered an impressive sermon in which baseball, history, and spirituality were effortlessly intertwined. Greason, a Montford Point Marine who served in World War II, has been the pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., for more than 30 thirty years. He found his calling during his time in the military.

“In February 1945 on a little island called Iwo Jima, people were dying all around me. I took a little bible with me,” he said. “Two of my best friends were killed on that island. I prayed and I said, ‘Lord, if you get me off this island, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.’ It’s strange. A calling is strange. It’s a burden on you. You can’t shake it if you’re really called, no matter what you do or where you go. That’s what happened to me. I just threw up my hands and said here I am, use me.” 

He delayed his start in the ministry to pursue a career in baseball upon his return from World War II. His career in the Negro Leagues started in 1947, when he was picked up off of the sandlots of Atlanta, Ga.

“In 1947, the Nashville Black Vols heard about me and invited me to come and start play with them. I played did pretty good, I won 12 games and lost four,” he said.

Within a year, his fine pitching caught the interest of the Birmingham Black Barons.

“The next year … in spring training, I was in Ashville, North Carolina, and the Black Barons came through," he recalled. "Our pitcher started against them and they bombed him. They put me in and I shut them out in seven innings. That was on a Monday night; Saturday morning, I was in Birmingham. I don’t know how they got me, they bought me or whatever, but in 1948 I was with the Barons.”

His expertise on the mound helped guide the Black Barons to the final Negro World Series. They squared off against the Homestead Grays who were led by future Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard. Greason won the only game for the Black Barons in the 1948 series.

“To have an opportunity to pitch in that environment, it was something exceptional,” he said.

On that club, patrolling center field was a 17-year-old budding superstar in Willie Mays. Greason became close with the teenage sensation.

“Piper [Davis] brought him in and we became roommates on the road," Greason said. "We’re still good friends. He was the greatest young player [I ever saw]. He had unusual gifts. He could catch it and throw it; he did it all. He was what they called a phenom. I knew he was going to do well as a ballplayer, and he did.”

Their friendship has persisted more than 65 years.

“Willie and I are real close now. I’ve been going to his birthday parties for the last five-to-six years. I said to him, ‘I’ve gotta have proof that I’ve been here.’ I’ve got about three of those San Francisco jackets, balls, and shirts.”

He later made his way into the minor leagues by way of Mexico after serving with the Marines during the Korean War. He was signed in 1952 by the Oklahoma City Redbirds of the Texas League, where he was second black player in the history of the league. Greason shared how he converted even the toughest of fans with his artistry on the mound.

“I had one in Beaumont, a lady. Boy! It looked like every time we played in Beaumont, it was my time to pitch and she’d sit right behind our dugout,” he said. “The more she talked, the stronger I became. It was just a challenge. If you know who you are, you don’t worry about what people say. They call you all kinds of names and say whatever they want to, but you have to stay focused. That’s what happened and I kept my mind on whatever I had to do. After the season was over, she came to me and said, ‘Bill, I tried to get you, but you did well. I’m proud of you.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’” 

He compiled a record of 25-14 during his two seasons in Oklahoma City, prompting the Cardinals to trade for his services just prior to the 1954 season. Greason was called up to the Cardinals in May. Not only did he take a pay cut from his salary in the minor leagues to go to the majors, he was used sparingly by manager Eddie Stanky. He appeared in only three games during the month he was with the club. He was given a short rope on the mound by the ill-tempered Stanky.

“He came out to the mound. I’m out there trying to get the ball over the ball over the plate and he walked right up in front of me. ‘Get the damn ball over the plate!’ I said, “What in the hell do you think I’m trying to do? Do you think I’ve got a string on this damn ball?’ He turned and left. I knew I wouldn’t be there long.”

Despite his short career in the major leagues, Greason beamed with pride this weekend to be able to uphold the traditions of the Negro Leagues.

“A lot of our young people don’t know anything about the Negro Leagues. … It had a great influence on our people, baseball; this was all we had in Birmingham. On Sundays, after the game, people would leave worship service, come to the ballpark dressed like I am right now and this was all that we had at that time. Baseball was very important to a lot of people and they loved the ballplayers. And we did our best to be respectful, treat people nice and help people where we could.” 
Bill Greason giving his service in uniform / N. Diunte

His focus now with whatever time he has left is to foster a deeper sense of spirituality with the younger generation.

“Baseball had its time. The Marines had its time. I’m trying to help young people. I’m at a Bible College trying to help young ministers to really take the calling seriously and not worry about the money. It’s about people. If we can get God in the hearts of people, we could change things. If not, it’s going to remain the same.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nat Peeples, 86, broke the color barrier in the Southern Association

Nat Peeples, the first African-American to play in the Southern League, passed away August 30, 2012 in Memphis, Tennnessee. He was 86. Reports of his passing have recently surfaced, and sadly his departure has gone with little fanfare.

Nat Peeples Signed Photo
Peeples played in the Negro Leagues with the Memphis Red Sox, Kansas City Monarchs, and Indianapolis Clowns before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1951. He played a few years in their system at the low minors and in 1953, he bounced around among three different teams, as the Dodgers sold him to independent Keokuk before the Braves bought his contract and sent him to Evansville to finish out the season. He finished the 1953 season with a .331 average and 15 home runs. His combination of speed, average, and power were enough for the Braves to offer him a contract with the Class-AA Atlanta Crackers for the 1954 season.

The 28-year-old outfielder was hesitant when he received the news that he was going to be the one to break the league’s color barrier.

“I was sick about it because back in 1954, I didn't know how it all was going to work out. I played through the South when I was with the Kansas City Monarchs. I knew what those towns were like. Earl Mann said, ‘Well, come to spring training, and we'll see what happens.’ And that's what I did,” said Peeples in Bruce Adelson’s, "Brushing Back Jim Crow."

After the first six games of spring training, Peeples was batting an impressive .429 with a home run. His early performance caught the attention of the media, with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune running the headline on March 22, 1954, “Nat Peeples May Be 1st to Break SA Race Barrier.” The once reluctant outfielder warmed up to his prospects after his hot start.

“I think I’ve made it, but of course that’s not for me to say,” he remarked.

Peeples played well enough to make the opening day roster, but couldn’t stick with the team. He made his debut on April 9, 1954 in Mobile, Ala., grounding out in a pinch-hitting appearance. He played in one more game, finishing 0-4 with a walk, and was sent to Class-A Jacksonville on April 17, 1954. Rumors surrounding his demotion stemmed from complaints of the rest of the owners in the league. Others have asserted he simply wasn't ready for the pitching in the league.

Kenneth Fenster took an in depth look at Peeples’ short time with Atlanta for a 2004 article in the NINE Journal, “Earl Mann, Nat Peeples, and the Failed Attempt of Integration in the Southern Association.” Fenster concluded that Peeples was unprepared for the jump in competition.

“When Earl Mann explained on April 17 that Peeples had lost his spot on the roster to more experienced outfielders and that the Crackers had sent him to Jacksonville so he could play every day, the Atlanta owner asserted the truth. … He was an average Class-A and a below-average Class-AA player, and it took him until the end of his career to reach that level of competence. Thus, in 1954, he was clearly not ready for the Southern Association,” Fenster reported.

He stayed with the Braves organization for the majority of his career, getting as far as Triple-A before his retirement in 1960. In his 1999 interview with Adelson, Peeples took pride in his accomplishment, no matter how brief it was.

“I felt pretty good about what I did because no other black players tried to play in the Southern Association. I don’t regret what I did, but I can’t say I’d do it again. I’d have to think about it. I’d like to be remembered for what I did.”

Further reading on the career of Nat Peeples -

Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy - Jules Tygiel

Questions plague Peeples' trailblazing story. - MLB.com

Peeples first Negro in Southern Association. - Jet Magazine

Your job is going to be worse than mine because you're down south. - Federalbaseball.com

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ed Charles looks back at Satchel Paige in the Pacific Coast League

Satchel Paige was an arm for hire. Pitching well into his 50s, Paige was widely coveted not only for his pitching, but his ability to put fans in the seats. Wherever Paige appeared, there was a crowd. Owners knew this and Paige capitalized. If the price was right, ol’ Satchel would put on the uniform.

In 1961, fresh off of his appearance in the Negro League East-West All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, the Portland Beavers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League signed Paige in late August with the hopes that the legendary hurler could fill their stadium. Paige felt he could still deliver the goods. “I’m sure I could still help some major league team as a relief pitcher,” he said in an August 30, 1961 Associated Press report.

Ed  Charles / Baseball-Almanac.com
Witnessing that delivery was Ed Charles, a 28-year-old third baseman for the Vancouver Mounties. (Ironically Charles ended up as Paige’s teammate on the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, when Paige made his final major league appearance against the Boston Red Sox.) During their final home stand in Vancouver, Charles recalled a humorous incident when one of his teammates tried to show up Paige on the mound.

“The last series of the '61 season, Satchel was with Portland and we were finishing up with Portland at home. ... Satchel [was] scheduled to pitch, which he did, the final game on a Sunday,” Charles said during a 2012 interview. “He really stuck that ball up our ‘you know what,’ until I think I got a hit off him in the 7th [sic]. ... The big thing about that, we had a second baseman Billy Consolo. ... He took it upon himself to try to bunt on Satchel Paige.”

Paige quickly let Consolo know that his attempt wasn’t appreciated.

“He laid down the bunt and Satch didn't attempt to go to the ball to field the ball. Satch just stood on the mound and stared at Billy as he was running to first base,” he said.

Consolo’s home fans gave him an earful as well.

“Our fans. they took offense to Billy trying to drag [bunt] on Satch. They start booing him and saying, ‘You should be sent to the minor leagues having the guts to lay a bunt down on that old man, you bush league so and so!’”

Consolo was no stranger to the unspoken rules of baseball. He played 10 seasons in the major leagues, and later spent 13 years as a coach on Sparky Anderson’s staff with the Detroit Tigers. When Consolo returned to the dugout, Charles pressed Consolo about his motives.

“[I asked him], ‘Why would you try to bunt on that man like that?’ Billy said, ‘I'm trying to win a ballgame, I don't care who's out on the mound.’”

Over 50 years later, it was not Paige’s mastery on the mound, but his looming glare across the diamond that is etched in Charles’ memory.

“It was funny the reaction of our fans towards Billy for trying to lay down a drag bunt on Satchel Paige. ... Just to see Satch stand there and stare down Billy, that was funny.”

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Joe Margoneri's journey to the Polo Grounds

Joe Margoneri’s golden left arm was his ticket into professional baseball. Blessed with a blazing fastball, Margoneri caught the attention of the New York Giants scouts after pitching on the sandlots of Smithton, Pennsylvania.

“We had no high school baseball. I was playing semi-pro ball, working for the gentleman that ran the team. He owned a coal mine and coke oven,” Margoneri said during a December 2012 phone interview. “I was a young guy and I could throw the ball pretty good. I didn’t know how hard I could throw it. The owner got to me after the game and said there was a scout, Nick Shinkoff, from the New York Giants that wanted to see me. My boss sort of kept it hush hush and didn’t want me to see anybody else. It went on from there and that’s how I got signed.”

Joe Margoneri
Margoneri signed without a bonus and for the 1950 season made his professional debut in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

“Through the grapevine, I think somebody else got a bonus for me," he said. “I couldn’t verify it, but it doesn’t matter. All I wanted to do was play baseball at 19, 20 years old. I signed a contract for $150 a month; I thought I was a millionaire. I got by strictly on a fastball too.”

His speed overpowered the hitters in the league, as he finished the season with a 23-4 record, and advanced two levels to Class B Sunbury the next season.

“I did decent there; I had 18 wins,” he said.

Just as he was poised to continue his ascent in the Giants organization, Uncle Sam called.

“The Army got me,” he said. “Back in those days, Korean War was coming on and the draft was still in progress. They were drafting guys and that’s how I got in. I didn’t volunteer.”

He spent the next two seasons (1952-53) stationed at Brooke Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

“I was fortunate, I stayed state-side,” he said. “I played baseball down in San Antonio, Texas. It was what they called special service. They had football players, basketball players — all types of athletes down there in one section.”

His teammates included some big names that were familiar to New Yorkers.

“Don Newcombe and Bobby Brown were down there; Newcombe and I got to be pretty good friends,” he recalled. “He used to be a salesman for one of the beer companies, and we used to travel around in this big ol’ Cadillac.”

His time in the service provided him with an opportunity to stay sharp for his return to the Giants.

“I pitched pretty well in the service,” he said. “We played a lot of semi-pro teams in the oil fields of Texas, as well as the Air Force bases and Army bases. I came out and went to Nashville and won like 14 games there.” 

During that 1954 offseason, Margoneri traveled south to play for Magallanes in the Venezuelan Winter League. He led the team to a second place finish in the Caribbean Series, which included squaring off against his future teammate Willie Mays, who was playing for the powerhouse Santurce club of Puerto Rico. He handed Santurce their only defeat of the series, surrendering two runs in a complete game victory. His performance didn’t go unnoticed.

He showed up to spring training in 1955 and immediately caught the attention of Giants manager Leo Durocher. In the March 7, 1955 issue of the Long Island Star-Journal, Durocher raved about Margoneri’s prospects.

“I like everything about the kid,” Durocher said. “I like his attitude … his poise … his motion … and, above all, his fastball. He’s firin’ harder than the others because he’s ready. He pitched in one of those winter leagues.”

The Giants felt he was ready for their highest minor league competition and sent him to their AAA team in Minneapolis. Margoneri helped lead the team to the 1955 Junior World Series Championship, defeating the Rochester Red Wings of the International League in the best of a seven game series. The long season, including his time in the winter leagues, was almost a two-year stretch of non-stop pitching. Just as he was inching close to the major leagues, he started to have problems with his pitching arm.

“That’s when my arm trouble started. I was throwing 150 pitches per game and became a bit wild,” he said.

Margoneri rested his arm in the offseason, and in 1956, he was rewarded for his perseverance. On April 25, 1956, he made his major league debut against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds, pitching one scoreless inning in relief.

“It was just like a dream,” he said. “Just wanting to get there, and then I got there and hung on.”

Margoneri did more than hang on, he excelled. By mid-August, he was 5-2 with a 2.77 ERA. Things were looking up for the left-hander, and then his sore arm resurfaced. He won only one of his next five decisions, finishing 6-6 with a 4.04 ERA.

“My arm went practically went dead. I lost 30% on my fastball. That was right in the middle of my arm being bad. I didn’t want to tell anyone. [If you were hurt] you went down and you didn’t come back.”

Looking back at his rookie season, Margoneri savored the opportunity to brush shoulders with a future Hall of Famer.

“I had my locker next to Willie Mays. He was phenomenal. He did everything,” he said.

He even had a Mays moment of his own against the Chicago Cubs in New York, when he hit his lone major league home run.

“I’ll never forget that baby!” he said.  “It was in the Polo Grounds off of Warren Hacker of the Cubs. It was a fastball. [I hit it to] right field, over the short fence.”

He pitched 13 more games for the Giants in 1957, and was sent down to the minors for good halfway through the season. He continued to pitch until 1960 before moving on from baseball, where he worked in a paper mill for 30 years, retiring in 1991.

“I started practically on the bottom in 1962 went until 1991 and moved up the ladder. I was a supervisor the last 15 years making corrugated boxes,” he said.

Still popular with the fans, he often receives mail requests to sign his 1957 Topps card. He gladly returns them.

“I still get a lot of index cards and bubble gum cards, a few of those per week. I send them back all the time.”

Topps honored him in their 2006 Topps Heritage set, traveling to his home in West Newton, Pennsylvania, for him to sign replica cards as special inserts in their packs. At 83, his focus now is his family, which includes a budding pitching star.

“I raised five daughters, 13 grand children and my fifth great-grandchild is on the way. I’ve been married 58 years to my wife Helen. She went to one local high school and I went to another and she was my childhood sweetheart,” he said.

His granddaughter Nicole Sleith is an ace left-handed pitcher for Robert Morris University's softball team. So does he offer words of wisdom about facing the likes of Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, and Stan Musial?

“She doesn’t need it,” he said. She’s good; she broke all kinds of records in high school and has a scholarship now.”
Joe Margoneri pitching at 0:29 seconds

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bill 'Spaceman' Lee is no senior citizen on the mound

Bill “Spaceman” Lee, the eccentric left-handed pitcher of 14 major league seasons with the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos, still has some loose ends to tie up on the baseball field.

In 2012, pitching for the San Rafael Pacifics of the independent North American League, Lee became the oldest player to pitch a complete game and record a victory in professional baseball. One would think that after accomplishing such a feat, that there was nothing left for him to prove on the diamond; however, last weekend, Lee once again broke out his bat, glove, and spikes for the final Joe DiMaggio Legends Game in Fort Lauderdale.

Bill Lee taking batting practice at Joe DiMaggio Legends Game
He pitched and played the outfield during the charity exhibition. At 66, he travels the country frequently to appear in alumni games, as well as playing in adult baseball leagues in New England. So why does Lee continue to take the field more than 30 years after he threw his final pitch in the major leagues?

“Unfinished business,” Lee said. “I never really had my fill, especially of hitting. The bat was taken away with the designated hitter; Bowie Kuhn took that away from me. I always wanted to hit, so I’ve got ten years of hitting to make up. That’s 162 games times ten. I’m getting near the threshold of retirement, and this [the final Joe DiMaggio Legends Game] may be an omen, this may be it.”

While Lee contemplates his last trip around the bases, he continues to enjoy whatever time he has left in the sun.

“This year I’ve hit a home run already, so I have to play one more year," he said. "I hit the ball, it was a home run, but it wasn’t out of the park. It was an inside the park home run, which means I can still run. The guy outside, he had to get a respirator and his dog couldn’t find the ball because he was blind, but other than that, I still play because I love the game.”