Showing posts with label Buck O'Neil. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buck O'Neil. Show all posts

Friday, December 2, 2016

Melvin Duncan, 87, pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues

Melvin “Buck” Duncan, a former pitcher and outfielder for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, passed away November 29, 2016 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He was 87.

Born March 31, 1929 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Duncan joined the Monarchs at the tender age of 20. The watchful eyes of a future Negro League manager steered him towards one of the Negro Leagues most powerful franchises.

Melvin Duncan / Author's Collection
“I joined the Monarchs in Monroe, Louisiana,” Duncan wrote in a letter to the author in 2007. “I was scouted by Sherwood Brewer, who was from where I was raised.”

Managing the Monarchs was the legendary Buck O’Neil, who took over the helm in 1948 after Frank Duncan (no relation) retired. With O’Neil serving as a player-manager, the young hurler found that Monarchs’ skipper still took an interest in nuturing the rookies on the club.

“He was strict, gentle, and very nice to be around,” Duncan wrote. “He was like a father to the younger players; full of knowledge and would give to you. I love him very much.”

One teammate he considered a close friend was fellow pitcher Gene Collins. He found Collins special for the camaraderie they built on the road.

“Eugene Collins, he was understanding and like a brother with me, for we were roommates,” he wrote. “Whenever he pitched, he was like the fifth infielder, for he was a good fielder.”

While Collins’ name came to the forefront when recalling his favorite teammate, Duncan hesitated to choose the best player he played with in the Negro Leagues. Instead, he chose to focus on the team aspect of the game.

“It takes nine men to play the game,” he wrote. “Each man has a position to play. I was a pitcher and not a catcher, so [therefore] I was not as good as Elston Howard.”

Duncan played with the Monarchs and Detroit Stars through in 1955 while the league was in decline. Closing his 2007 letter, Duncan had a simple request on how he wanted the memory of his career to survive.

“[I want it to be remembered] that I played in the Negro Leagues and I gave all I had to give.”



* - Video Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Dan Bankhead's MLB debut nearly incited a riot

The pitching mound in Ebbets Field shouldn’t have been a source of angst for Dan Bankhead when Brooklyn Dodgers manager Burt Shotton summoned him from the bullpen on August 26, 1947. The righty hurler had been playing professionally in the Negro Leagues since 1940, had four other brothers who played in the league, and served as a Montford Point Marine during World War II. Yet despite all of the formidable opponents he faced, it was the possibility of a race riot that he feared most if something went wrong on the hill that day.
Bankhead signs autographs before his 8/26/47 debut

“See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch,” Buck O’Neil said in Joe Posnanski’s, ‘The Soul of Baseball.’ “He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it. Dan was from Alabama just like your father. But Satchel became a man of the world. Dan was always from Alabama, you know what I mean? He heard all those people calling him names, making those threats, and he was scared. He’d seen black men get lynched.”

Bankhead's famous windup
Bankhead made history as the first African-American pitcher in major league history on that day in 1947, following his teammate Jackie Robinson in the record books who had broken baseball’s color barrier earlier that season. Pitching in relief of Hal Gregg who gave up six runs and only lasted one inning, Bankhead didn’t fare much better against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He was charged with eight runs in three-and-a-third innings, ending the day with a 21.60 ERA. To his credit Bankhead homered in his only at-bat, but what was almost prophetic was an incident that occurred in the top of the fourth inning.

Bankhead's first MLB home run

With the Pirates leading 8-2 with two outs, outfielder Wally Westlake approached the plate. Like Bankhead, Westlake was a 26-year-old rookie and World War II veteran trying to find his place in the game. Westlake hit a home run earlier in the game and looked to add another to his totals. Bankhead wound up and fired off one of his patented fastballs for the first pitch of the at-bat, but as it left his hand, his worst nightmare unraveled before his eyes.

He hit Westlake squarely in the upper arm.

“It was like the fans held their breath waiting for the reaction,” the now 94-year-old Westlake wrote in a 2008 letter. “He was just another dude trying to get me out and I was trying to whack his butt.”

The first game an African-American man pitched in the majors and he hit a white batter. The crowd waited for Westlake’s next move. Was the pitch retaliation for his home run earlier in the game? A split second decision by Westlake to charge the mound or take his walk down to first base would have a significant impact the fate of African-American pitchers in the majors. Fortunately, Westlake chose the latter, with little regard to what the fans expected him to do.

“I think I disappointed the rednecks,” he said.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Brian Giles 21-year baseball career sparked from grandfather's NegroLeague legacy



Brian Giles didn’t have to go any farther than his own household in search of baseball lessons. His grandfather George Sr., was a legend in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and 1930s, and his father George Jr., was a farmhand in the Cincinnati Reds organization in the 1950s. It was only natural that his immediate family members became his most effective teachers as he made his own path to the major leagues.
Brian Giles makes a leaping grab for the Mets

“When we’re talking about the best instructors I’ve had, I have to stay in the family,” Giles said during a 2015 phone interview from his home in Las Vegas. “My grandfather instilled that work ethic; making sure you’re practicing, doing it right, and staying in shape. My father instilled the fundamentals with ground balls, throwing, fielding, and hitting.”

To better understand Giles’ 21-year journey in the family trade, the lesson starts with his grandfather’s mark in the Negro Leagues. The elder Giles was known as one of the top first basemen in the history of the league while playing primarily with the Kansas City Monarchs and the St. Louis Stars.

“George Giles … could hit the ball to all fields and run like the wind,” Buck O’Neil said in a 1990 Seattle Times article. “No lie. He was as good a first baseman as you'd ever want to see.''

Standing 6’3”, his grandfather had a rare blend of size and speed, especially at first base, a position not known for the fleet of foot. His speed was comparable to his teammate Cool Papa Bell, one who many regarded as the fastest in the league. Giles made a more modern comparison of his grandfather to Dave Parker, in terms of a baseball player who gracefully blended such size and athleticism.

As Giles matured, he sought the counsel of his grandfather who was living in Manhattan, Kansas. Going through his teenage years, they shared many conversations on the phone, not only about the game, but the harsh realities that Negro League ballplayers encountered due to segregation.
George Giles Sr.  - Author's Collection

“Their traveling was chaotic and ongoing,” Giles said. “[They played] three games a day and [at night] they would travel. I don’t know how many different times they did that. He told me of all of the travel, the long days, sleeping on the bus, their problems finding hotels, and places to stay.”

Later in Giles’ major league career, playing in the American League provided him the opportunity to visit his grandfather in person, to tighten a bond that was formed mostly over the phone. Those face-to-face meetings focused more on what his grandfather told him he needed to do to be successful on the field, rather than his tales of traversing the country playing in the Negro Leagues.

Giles started his own journey in 1978, when was drafted by the New York Mets in the third round from Kearny High School in San Diego. After cups of coffee with the Mets in 1981 and 1982, he was finally handed the keys to the Mets second base position in 1983. Playing alongside 19-year-old Jose Oquendo, they formed one of the youngest double play combinations in the league.

The Mets had been mired for years in mediocrity, ten years removed from their 1973 World Series appearance. The aforementioned duo, alongside Rookie of the Year Darryl Strawberry, and a young right-hander from Yale, Ron Darling, represented a glimpse of hope for the stagnant franchise.

“We finished last that year, or just close to it,” he said. “We just didn’t hit. We played defense. … We had a nucleus of young talent that came from a winning type of feeling [in the minors].”

With a full year in the major leagues behind him, Giles was optimistic about his chances for the 1984 season; however, his hopes were quickly dashed when the Mets replaced manager Frank Howard with Davey Johnson, who was fresh off of a minor league championship with their AAA team in Tidewater. The new skipper had plans to bring in his guys from the minors, which didn’t include Giles in the infield.

“The Mets sent down [Wally] Backman and Ron Gardenhire, and kept Brian Giles and Jose Oquendo, and I thought they improved my ball club and hurt theirs,” Johnson said in a 1985 interview with the Star-News.

Giles felt that the Mets had too much turnover with their managers to have a clear vision for their franchise in the early 80s, starting with the firing of his first manager, Joe Torre. With the Hall of Famer's guidance, he envisioned Torre taking the Mets to World Series victory the same way he did with the Yankees in the 1990s.

“I just wish Torre wouldn’t have left because that team would have probably stayed together,” he said. “We had a passion to win. … We just need somebody, we needed Joe Torre! We could have been like the Yankees. He left way too soon. He was going to have the best team and he was going to have a nucleus of guys around that fit roles like he did with the Yankees. We had it. We had the veteran savvy guys and some young talented infielders and pitchers.

“I just wanted to be a part of it because I thought I belonged. We had Oquendo, [myself], Gardenhire; we could have all rotated, but they had different plans.”

As a member of the Brewers
With the emergence of Wally Backman, Kelvin Chapman, and Rafael Santana, the Mets had a logjam of middle infielders in their system. They left Giles unprotected in the 1984 Rule 5 Draft, and he was signed by his former manager George Bamberger, who was now piloting the Milwaukee Brewers. His new boss was ecstatic about his acquisition.

“I think it might be one of the best deals in baseball for just $25,000,” Bamberger said to the Milwaukee Journal in 1985. “I’ll tell you how I classified him with New York; an excellent second baseman, a good shortstop.”

Stuck in a crowded infield with mainstays Jim Gantner and Paul Molitor, Giles was relegated to filling in as a late-inning defensive replacement. He was unfamiliar with the intermittent role, and his performance suffered as a result of his lack of time on the field, hitting only .172 in 58 at-bats. The Brewers parted ways with Giles at the end of the season, leaving him to sign with the Chicago White Sox in the winter.

Playing with his third team in three years, Giles had difficulty establishing himself in Chicago. He spent most of 1986 in the minors, only playing nine games for the White Sox. Suddenly, he went from a courted prospect to a journeyman trying to prove his major league worthiness. Unfazed by his demotion, he continued to put his nose to the grindstone, batting .274 and .296 at AAA in 1988 and 1989 respectively; however, he couldn’t find an open door to return to the majors.

Kevin Mitchell (l.) w/ Giles (r.) as a member of the White Sox
“I went to spring training for a little time and then I was supposed to get called up or traded in ‘88,” he said. “In ‘89, I went to Cleveland and got a couple of spring training games in and had a good year in Colorado Springs. I thought I was going to get in because [Mike] Hargrove really liked me, but it didn’t happen.”

Giles found his angel in an old friend, Roger Jongewaard. The vice president of player development for the Seattle Mariners at the time, Jongewaard was responsible for scouting Giles when he was drafted by the Mets in the late 70s. A dozen years later, he was encouraged enough by Giles’ performance in 1989 with Colorado Springs to offer him an invite to spring training with the Mariners in 1990. Finally, Giles’ refusal to give up paid off.

“I made the big league team out of spring training,” he said. “That was the year Omar Vizquel broke his leg. I had a good spring and halfway through that spring training, [Jim] Lefebvre called me in and told me I made the team.”

After a four year hiatus, Giles relished the opportunity to once again wear a big league uniform; however, Lefebvre had him platoon with Mike Brumley in Vizquel’s absence. Giles struggled to find his swing during the first month of the season, going 0-16 in April. Getting a fresh start in May, Giles redeemed himself during a May 17, 1990 game against the Toronto Blue Jays, when he went 3-4 with two home runs and seven RBIs. Lefebrve rode Giles’ hot hand at the plate after his breakout game until Vizquel returned from his leg injury.

Needing room on the roster for their budding star at shortstop, the Mariners sent Giles down to their AAA club in Calgary. At season’s end, the Mariners granted the 30-year-old infielder free agency, effectively ending his big league career. Most ballplayers at this stage of their career are faced with the tough choice of moving on from their playing days; however, for Giles, it opened up an entire new world of possibilities.

“I went to Italy in 1991 for a year, and in 1992 I went to Mexico. After that year, I went to Taiwan. I was trying to get to Japan or Korea. I played [in Taiwan] there from ‘93-‘95. ... Going abroad, it’s a lot different for Americans. I got treated pretty well. It’s like you’re in the big leagues. You’ve got the Superman on your chest. You go 3-4, drive in four runs, but if you lined out or flied out, you didn’t do enough. I enjoyed it. It was quite an experience. I got to meet other American players that didn’t really make it and help them out. We all helped each other because of the culture difference.”

Giles returned to the United States in 1996, foregoing a few offers to break the line during the spring of 1995. He played independent ball with Minot in the Prairie League, winning a championship in 1996. Holding on to the faint hope that he would receive another offer to return overseas to play ball, he spent two more seasons playing in the Prairie League and the Atlantic League, finishing his career with the Newark Bears in 1998.

After 21 years in professional baseball, few thought that the length of Giles’ career would outlast all of the young talent he paralleled in the Mets organization, including Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. While his exploits were not as loud as the aforementioned duo, Giles felt that if he was given the opportunity to play a few consecutive seasons full-time after 1983, that he would have been well on his way to a notable major league career.

“If I got my time in, I just know in my heart I could have easily gotten 3,000 hits with my longevity,” he said. “I didn’t get hurt that much. When I got back to the big leagues, I played part-time. I wasn’t using my body. That’s what I had to do at the end. It was hard to get in the groove.”

Now the 55-year-old former big leaguer is passing on his experience to the fourth generation of Giles men exploring the family trade, his son Garrett. The youngest member of the Giles baseball clan is a freshman at Basic High School in Henderson, Nevada, and is already a starting member of their varsity team. When he isn’t working with his son, he runs his non-profit ICE Youth Program, where he helps to train youngsters on the finer points of the game. One of his prized pupils is Oakland A’s outfielder, Coco Crisp.

"One of my first players that I started training was Coco Crisp," he said. "I had him at 12 years old, taught him how to switch hit. The way he played, I embedded that in him. … When I was playing, I would come home and train him 3-4 days per week and then it would be every day. … He’s my prodigy.”

The hallmark of Giles’ training is to help the young players find a love for the game and a devotion to controlling their mental focus on the field at all times. It is this level of heightened awareness that he feels can push these aspiring athletes towards to reach their fullest potential.

“I use ‘ACCE’ — attitude, concentrate, confidence and effort,” he said. “I try to use that to have a guideline. … Have the right attitude to finish the play with effort.”

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Jean-Pierre Roy, former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher and master storyteller dies at 94

Often a major league baseball player’s statistics do not even come close to telling their baseball career in its entirety. Looking at Jean-Pierre Roy's three major league appearances and 9.95 ERA, one might assume it was a career short on depth and substance. Those who passed over his career as a mere cup of coffee missed a truly fabulous journey. The Montreal native died Friday at a hospital in Pompano Beach, Florida, taking his fabulous stories of playing all throughout North America, Central America, and the Caribbean with him. He was 94.

Jean-Pierre Roy w/ Nicholas Diunte in 2011 - M. Lemieux
In February 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Mr. Roy at his home in Florida and spend a glorious afternoon discussing a baseball career that started in 1940 and lasted over 40 years. Knowing that he played in a variety of countries like Cuba, Mexico, and Panama, in addition to the United States and Canada, I expected that he had a few hidden gems to unravel. What I did not expect from the 91-year-old Roy, was a raconteur in the essence of Buck O’Neil; a man who could deliver his memories not only with clarity and precision but with an elegance that drew you in from the first words and left you feeling that you had been long lost friends.

A short meeting arranged by a Canadian reporter Michel Lemieux turned into a three-hour long history lesson, with Roy pulling out meticulous scrapbooks along the way. He evoked the names of baseball legends from the 1930s through the 1950s, coming up with a story or an encounter for virtually every significant baseball figure from that era.

I could regale you with details of his minor league triumphs, a map of all of the places he played, or a list of all of the superstars he befriended; however, telling those details wouldn’t do justice to the essence of Jean-Pierre Roy. To meet him was to know him, and I can’t say that about every ballplayer I’ve interviewed. He immediately expressed an excitement about his career from the start of our talk, most evident from his recall of what hooked him into the prospects of a professional career.

Jean-Pierre Roy shares a laugh - M. Lemieux
“The reason why I enjoyed playing ball and going away from the city of Montreal to travel—I got to learn part of the language,” Roy said during our 2011 interview. “You meet all kinds of people, you do all kinds of things that you shouldn’t be doing. I tried them all! I met people that I wouldn’t dare associate with if I were a ballplayer today. I was so happy to play the game; I loved the game. I put things aside for baseball. Of course, today, I regret some of them. I missed the opportunity in certain other fields. That’s what I had in mind, play the game, travel and meet people and everything, so that satisfied me.”

Playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, one of the most eccentric characters Roy met was Branch Rickey. Throughout his many dealings with Mr. Rickey, he was most impressed with the executive's ability to read people.

“He was a very intelligent man,” he said. “He was a university product. He had been a teacher, manager, and player. He had a good knowledge of humanity. A human for Mr. Rickey could have been a ballplayer, hockey player, a raconteur; he knew each one and why they would make an excellent selection.”

Roy had the reputation of being a ladies' man, which didn't sit well with Mr. Rickey. He fondly recalled an exchange between the two of them where Rickey offered him a bonus if he would get married. It wasn’t until much later that he understood why Rickey made the request.

“One time he wanted me to get married,” he said. “It was 1944. I wasn’t the marrying type. I wanted to meet girls, yes I did. That wasn’t on my mind. He said, ‘Jean (with his eyebrows going down this way and his cigar in the corner), I’m going to give you $2,000 if you get married before or on the first of November.’ Before or on the first of November, why not the second or the fourth? That boggled my mind. Of course, I didn’t get married. I didn’t tell him why.”

Branch Rickey's insistence to marry before the first of the month weighed heavily on his conscience. Roy chose to remain single but felt compelled to inquire as to why Rickey gave him a deadline.

“Why did he say this, on the first or before,” Roy asked. “He wanted me to get married before. It wasn’t the $2,000. He knew if I did, I’d get paid after, not before. Mr. Rickey was very selective in his own way. This is very vivid in my mind. Later on, I had the audacity to ask him, ‘Why did you say the first?’ He said, ‘What do you mean Jean? What did I say?’ So I told him, ‘You wanted me to get married on the first of November. Why the first?’ He said, ‘If I said, about the first, that wouldn’t change anything, because I wanted you to get married. That was the first thing, not to play ball, but to play better ball, to understand the game better and yourself. You cannot play well when you have several things on your mind at once, and you have that. You were not the ballplayer that I wanted. You had the ability that I wanted, but you had to do so much more to make yourself available not only to me but to other people.’ That was Mr. Rickey.”
If he adhered to Rickey's request to get married, he might have gone to the big leagues sooner than his 1946 debut. He started the season on Brooklyn’s roster, but it was almost a month before he saw action in a major league game. Even though he only appeared in three contests, he viewed it as an honor just to be there.

“It was thrilling,” he said. “My big fault … if I had established myself as a human being, if I listened to things I heard and Mr. Rickey, I could have done much better than I did. Not only for one particular game but for several games.”

Soured by his performance with Brooklyn and Leo Durocher’s seemingly quick hook, Roy contemplated going south for greater riches. Jorge Pasquel, who knew Roy from his days in Cuba, attempted to lure the Canadian to Mexico for his fledgling baseball league.

“I did not go,” he said. “[Pasquel] was a friend of mine because he used to come to Cuba. If it pleased him, he’d take us out to eat together and give me a watch. I was close to him. He comes to New York and tells me, ‘I’m going to bring you to Mexico City. You are going to play for our club and our league. I’m going to send you the money.’ He offered $3,500 for the trip. I went down and the money was $15,000, big money at the time. I was not worth $15,000 as a pitcher in Mexico. Today I say I wasn’t, but at the time it touched me.”

Roy followed the money, hoping to earn his riches in front of the Mexico City crowds. Once he set foot on Mexican soil, he discovered that Pasquel had a different destination in mind.
“He was a friend,” he said. “Of course, I needed the money. My mother was not well and I had my mother on my mind. I jumped and as soon as I got to Mexico, I went to Jorge and said, ‘Jorge, I do not see anybody.’ He’s sitting on a bench facing the window. He says, ‘I send you to San Luis Potosi.’ That was a little city he was sending me to. At the time, the commissioner of baseball in Cuba was a guy named Pittman. He told me I was going there. That’s not what I wanted; I thought it was Mexico City. I came back and went to Montreal.”

He returned to the Montreal right in the middle of Jackie Robinson’s historic debut season. On April 18, 1946, Robinson broke the color line in the minor leagues when he played in Montreal’s season opener against the Jersey City Giants. Roy spent the rest of the season with him and built together a kinship that lasted the remainder of his time in the Dodgers organization. This relationship allowed him to gain insight into Robinson’s character both on and off the field.

“He’s everything that has been recommended,” he said, “a complete ballplayer. [He was] a fellow who can create according to his ability and put it together at the right time to help somehow. That’s something that I remember about him … Jackie used to do it on his own. He was so strong, mentally, that I still believe, he died from this—he got hurt so badly by not being recognized as a future manager. He wanted to be a manager; that he told me.”

Throughout his global baseball travels, Roy had many opportunities to play against the stars of the Negro Leagues in their prime. He shared vivid stories about all of the greats who were held back and excluded due to segregation. What he admired most was their ability to play the game despite the harsh conditions they faced.

“They didn’t care,” he said. “They played the game and that was it. I spoke with them very often. They would say, ‘We’re playing the game. We get paid for it because we’ve got to eat. Take this apart, it doesn’t matter. We want to play.’”

Roy never returned to the major leagues, bouncing around minor league teams everywhere in places like Ottawa, Hollywood, and Mexico City. He hung his spikes up for good in 1955 while playing for Sherbrooke in the Provincial League. At 35, he knew it was time to move on.

“I was too old for that organization,” he said. “I didn’t care too much for it because when you are through, you are through.”

Jean-Pierre Roy comfortable behind the microphone - M. Lemieux
However, he didn’t stay removed for too long, as Montreal Expos executive John McHale selected Roy to do radio and television analysis when the franchise started in 1969. He remained involved as part of their broadcast team until 1983.

“I was there from day one,” he said. “This is it in Montreal. This is a childish dream. I played in Montreal; I knew they would accept it. In that ballpark, that Double-A ballpark. Mr. John McHale, I owe him a great deal of recognizance. He was the type like Branch Rickey, but there is only one Branch Rickey as far as I am concerned.”

Broadcasting in an era far away from the reach of the hypersensitive media outlets of today, Roy said that the on-air personnel face far greater challenges with what they can say and how the fans interpret their words.

“They’ve gotta be very careful because you have many writers who are knowledgeable and they have friends,” he said. “Today’s sports are so influential on people. It is a big business to start with. Big business means big dollars, and when you have big dollars, you have everything else that is big or will become big. You’ve gotta be careful how you say your ideas whenever it comes up.

“That doesn’t mean being transparent doesn’t mean having to say the truth; you have to be careful. You have to say the truth in a certain way. It’s said in a business way. At the same time, you have to communicate to who is listening to you. You have to communicate honestly and show you have the knowledge. Having all this is a plus and a minus. You know, they used to say ‘off the cover,’ but that doesn’t exist anymore. … Everything is seen by the listener as a truthful communication. It might not be complete as the communication is concerned. You cannot say everything that is on your mind to millions of people at once. This is something very fascinating to me.”

As our interview progressed during that sunny Florida winter afternoon in 2011, Roy assumed the role of a broadcaster during a rain delay, detailing his vast baseball experiences with tremendous pride. I listened with wide ears as he professed his love affair with the game.

“My pleasure and the best memory I have of the game is what I know about it,” he said. “The little I know about it, the people I have known, and the people I see on television. Today it’s baseball to me.

“It’s the answer I would have given you yesterday and the day before yesterday. What I like about baseball is not the players; it’s the life, the life of a human being. This is how you should accept it. Do the best you can in the things our boss has asked us to do. By boss, you can call it God, the manager, the Lord, but that’s it. This is what I want, what I like to see.”

At the end of our conversation, we thumbed through scrapbooks of sixty-year-old photos that depicted the travels of a young handsome pitcher. As we reviewed the images, Roy expressed contrition for the transgressions of his earlier days.

“Why should I go back 50 years and regret things that happened at that time?” he asked. “I made mistakes in baseball, made more mistakes than I was allowed to. That was my choice; let it be, it’s my fault. That’s the part I have to read to the public. If they want to know the rest, they can. If they like me now for what I can express as far as the game myself, I hope they accept it.

“Baseball is a great game. If we can take advantage of all of the ingredients of the game and the minds that commanded the game for years like Mr. Rickey. … He is the God of baseball as far as I’m concerned. There are so many names took birth with that gentlemen. [By] birth, I say the first day they played the game was an account of Mr. Rickey. That’s a gift from him.”

Thursday, November 22, 2012

1962 Chicago Cub Tony Balsamo shares the gentlemanly spirit of Buck O'Neil 50 years later

In 1962, Tony Balsamo was a 25-year-old rookie pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. One of his mentors that season was Buck O'Neil, a long time player and coach in the Negro Leagues who was a rookie of his own sorts, breaking the color barrier as a coach in the Major Leagues.

Buck O'Neil - Wikimedia Commons
Last week, Balsamo, speaking at a charity dinner in Long Island, N.Y., reflected upon his experiences with O'Neil, whom he described as, "a true gentleman."

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Review: The Negro Leagues Revisited: Conversations with 66 more baseball heroes

The Negro Leagues Revisited: Conversations with 66 More Baseball Heroes

Brent Kelley
McFarland Publishing, 2010
389 pp.

"The Negro Leagues Revisited"
is Brent Kelley's follow-up to his successful collection of Negro League interviews "Voices from the Negro Leagues". Originally published in 2000, McFarland is celebrating its 10 year anniversary by releasing it in paperback form. Sadly, as of this writing less than one-third of the 66 players interviewed for this collection are deceased. The interviews span the careers of Negro League players from the 1920's through the 1960's.

Even though many of the legends are no longer with us, Kelley has managed to capture an important time in both baseball and American history by letting these men who played in the Negro Leagues tell their stories of competing in an era of segregation. Many are unaware that the Negro Leagues had a collection of veterans that made the league run in addition to the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard.

He brings to life the voices of such colorful players as Buck O'Neil, "The Human Vacuum Cleaner" Bobby Robinson, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Andy "Pullman" Porter, and Buster Haywood who was Hank Aaron's manager in the Negro Leagues. Listen and enjoy their tales of traveling the United States and the Caribbean playing against all of the greats of baseball. It's a compelling look into the lives of the men who for most of their career, played in obscurity solely due to the color of their skin.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum experiencing financial problems

For years Buck O'Neil held court for the legions of fans and enthusiasts that passed through the doors of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, MO. A walking billboard for the history of the Negro Leagues, Buck was part retired player, part ambassador and part humanitarian. Starting in 1990, he helped to build the museum from a small office in Kansas City to the 10,000-square foot cathedral that exists today.

When he passed in 2006, baseball and the museum lost it's biggest advocate for the greatness of the Negro Leagues. Without O'Neil, the voice became quieter and the message didn't resonate the same way with fans across the country. O'Neil tirelessly traveled the United States to spread the word not only about the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, but those such as Hilton Smith, Willard Brown, "Wild" Bill Wright, Henry Kimbro and other Negro League stars who came along prematurely. For many, he was the living and breathing image of the passion that the Negro Leagues encompassed.

Now that there are only a handful of Negro Leaguers still alive, most of them over the age of 80, they are no longer able to travel the country the same way O'Neil did to connect with the public about the lore of the Negro Leagues. The lack of attention is having a profound effect on the attendance at the museum in Kansas City. As Doug Tucker of the Canadian Press reports, the NLBM is facing a $200,00 deficit, and may be on the verge of moving or closing if they cannot raise more funding.

This announcement is on the heels of the 10th Annual Legacy Awards, which honors Major League players in Kansas City with awards bearing the names of the Negro League greats of the past.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A pair of 10 year-old Boston twins discover the Negro Leagues

It is always endearing to find out when the next generation of baseball fans discover the Negro Leagues. A recent Boston Globe article details the journey of a pair of 10 year-old Brookline twins (Max and Lucas Kerman) into the history of the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues experienced a rise in popularity in the mid 1990's when Ken Burns put Buck O'Neil on a worldwide stage in the epic series Baseball. O'Neil captured the minds of many, including this writer, with the clarity and vigor he displayed in telling the story of the Negro Leagues. While the stories of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige are retold by many, to loosely quote O'Neil, "there were many other Satchel's and Josh's that played in the league." It was the story of those "other" superstars that made me further investigate the great talents of the Negro Leagues.

During the 1990's, there were many of the league's great stars alive to share their experiences of playing in an era of segregation. Many of them wrote books, attended reunions and card shows, and gave countless interviews to authors and reporters. As many started to pass, the public started to lose their connection to the Negro Leagues, even though literature was plentiful.

Currently, there are approximately 30-40 living Negro Leaguers who played before 1950 (the last year that most historians qualify the league as having widespread major league talent) and a handful of others who played in the league through 1960. They are our last living connections to a league that provided some of the greatest baseball talent in the world while enduring the hardships of segregation.

I commend these youngsters for actively seeking out the players to hear their stories. Hopefully they will be advocates for the memory of the Negro Leagues to their generation of baseball fans. My only hope is that we will see not only white youth take this kind of interest in the Negro Leagues, but that we will also see African-American youth doing the same.