Showing posts with label Negro Leagues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Negro Leagues. Show all posts

Monday, January 30, 2017

Baseball Happenings Podcast: Kevin L. Mitchell - Author of Last Train to Cooperstown

Kevin L. Mitchell, author of Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era, is the guest for this episode of the Baseball Happenings Podcast. In this episode, Mitchell discusses how his love for the history of Negro League Baseball motivated him to capture the careers of this most recent group of Negro Leaguers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mitchell profiles the 17 inductees who might likely be the last members of the Negro Leagues to ride the train to Cooperstown.

Last Train to Cooperstown / Black Rose Writing


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Art Pennington, last Negro League All-Star, passes away at 93

Art Pennington, one of the last true All-Stars from the Negro Leagues, passed away Wednesday, January 4, 2017 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was 93.

With Pennington’s passing, so goes the last living great who made his career primarily in the Negro Leagues. The switch-hitting outfielder made his first All-Star appearance in the Negro Leagues East-West Game in 1942 at 19, surrounded by ten future Hall of Famers including Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Satchel Paige. Speaking with Pennington in 2009, he was in awe of being in the company of such tremendous talent at a young age.

“They had some great players in that game,” he said. “I was very young. … We played at Comiskey Park; it was the first time I ever played in a big park like that.”

Art Pennington Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars Card / Author's Collection

Nicknamed "Superman," he made his entry into the Negro Leagues when he was just 17 years old in 1940 with the Chicago American Giants. His place on the club didn’t sit well with some of the veterans, especially those who were benched after he arrived.

“When I first went to that league with the American Giants, Jim Taylor was my manager,” he recalled. “Taylor [first] told me I was going to play shortstop, and then he told me I was going to play first base. One of the guys [Don] Reese didn’t like it because he had to sit. … I took another guy's job. I had a strong arm and I could run.”
Pennington in 1942 with Chicago American Giants teammates / Balt. Afro-American

Pennington exuded confidence every time he stepped into the batter’s box, posting eye popping batting averages of .359 in 1945 and .370 in 1950 for the Chicago American Giants. His cockiness at the plate was even more evident when he’d taunt the opposing pitcher with what became his trademark catchphrase.

“I had a saying, ‘Throw it and duck!’” he laughed. “We barnstormed against Dizzy Dean and I didn’t know who he was. I told him to, ‘Throw it and duck!’ He threw it and ducked, and I hit a homerun off of Dizzy Dean! I was young and goofy at that time and that was my saying.”

Pennington jumped the Negro Leagues in 1946 to join Jorge Pasquel’s Mexican League in search of fairer racial treatment and a higher paying salary.

“I faced some tough guys in the Mexican League,” he said. “They had a tough outfit in Caracas. Chico Carrasquel, said, ‘You’ll be going to the majors. I said, ‘You don’t know how it is up there. You see my wife?’ That’s why I jumped to Mexico. The conditions were better down there.”

In Mexico, Pennington met his future wife Anita. He explained how he courted her despite them both speaking completely different languages.

“She was a fine looking woman, a beautiful red-headed woman,” he recalled. “We were in the same restaurant. They had a lot of fans in the restaurants in those foreign countries. Her and her girlfriend came in the restaurant, and they knew we were ballplayers. So I talked to her, and I gave her and her girlfriend a pass to the game. From then on, they knew where I was eating. They were there all the time. Finally, we got together. In Mexico, you couldn’t take a woman out by themselves. They called them SeƱoritas. You got to have some kind of brother, sister, a chaperone; that’s how I ran into her.”

Thinking about his wife brought back painful memories of not only her passing, but the struggles they had when they returned from Mexico. The harsh realities of segregation over fifty years later resonated with Pennington.

“I look at my wife’s picture since she’s dead and I think about what she went through — all that we went through,” he said. “She couldn’t speak English. We came out of Mexico and we took a train to catch a bus out of Little Rock, Arkansas. They wouldn’t let her go to the colored waiting room to stay with me in the colored waiting room; they wanted her to go to the white waiting room. I said, ‘No way, because she couldn’t speak any English. How is she going to go with me?’ I had to call my mother and father to come pick us up from Hot Springs. He came to pick us up and we’re standing out on the curb; he’s putting my luggage in the car and he said, ‘Where is your wife?’ I said, ‘She’s standing right there.’ She couldn’t speak a word of English. I’m so glad she didn’t because when we got off the plane coming from Cuba, and we got on a sightseeing bus, I had to write her a note for her to get me a sandwich. I said, ‘Ain’t this a shame? I’m American born and she’s got to go and get me a sandwich.’”

Pennington was a pioneer himself as one of the first African-American players in the Pacific Coast League. He played there in 1949 with the Portland Beavers. He experienced rough treatment that affected his play due to his wife’s fair skinned color.

“In Portland, I couldn’t play out there the way they mistreated me,” he said. “Frankie Austin and Luis Marquez were out there with me. They stayed out there longer. I just left there; a fellow from Caracas, Venezuela paid me double the amount of money. Marquez was doing well in Portland; he didn’t have a white wife.”
Art Pennington Signed Ron Lewis Postcard / Author's Collection
When Pennington returned to organized baseball in 1952, he went on a tear, leading the Three-I league with a .349 batting average for Keokuk. He continued to annihilate pitching in that league hitting .345 in 1954. Despite his feats at the plate, no major league team called.

“They didn’t do me good, but I left my records in all of those minor leagues,” he said.

1952 Minor League Leaders / Sporting News

He left organized ball in 1955 to play with the highly competitive Bismarck, North Dakota semi-pro team, winning a league championship with fellow Negro Leaguers Ray Dandridge and Bill Cash. He had one last hurrah in pro ball in 1958 with St. Petersburg in the New York Yankees organization, batting .339. Sal Maglie, who pitched with the Yankees in 1958, lobbied for the Yankees to give Pennington a look.

“He was with the Yankees in spring training, and he told them, ‘There’s another Mickey Mantle down there! He can hit!’ he recalled. “They didn’t do nothing.”

Pennington retired in 1985 after working for more than 20 years for Rockwell Collins. He was a fixture at Negro League reunions and traveled the country spreading the word about the league’s history.

Art Pennington 2009 Topps Allen and Ginter Baseball Card / Topps

When we spoke in 2009, Pennington was at the crossroads of history. Barack Obama had just been elected President of the United States. As someone who faced tremendous discrimination and segregation, Pennington was optimistic about a black man holding the highest office in the country.

“I never thought we’d have a black anything,” he said. “I’m really glad they picked an educated black man, well educated; I’m proud. I’m hoping he does well.”

As excited as he was of the new President, Pennington was trying to put his life back together after his home was destroyed in a devastating flood in Cedar Rapids. We spoke only a few days after he was allowed back in his home. He was grateful for all of the help he received despite many significant baseball artifacts being destroyed by the raging waters.

“I just moved back into my house two days ago,” he said. “I lost one of my cars, I lost my dogs. FEMA put me over in Marion in one of those mobile homes until a couple days ago. They treated me great and gave me a little money. I’ve had help from different ballplayers. My biggest help was from Charley Pride. He sent me $1,000. One fellow in Kansas City, he gave me $750. I get [money] in most of the letters. I just appreciate all of the people that helped me a little bit. I lost everything; I’ll never get it back. I’m in a book, Unforgotten Heroes. Someone sent me a new one. I really appreciate all of the people that helped me.”

Monday, January 2, 2017

Classic Minnie Minoso one hour interview from 1993

In this 1993 interview with Minnie Minoso, Tom Weinberg talks with the Cuban great for an hour at the site of the Old Comiskey Park about his lengthy career in baseball. A relaxed Minoso speaks with his trademark candor that made him a fan favorite during his then six-decade involvement in the game.

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

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Jim Zapp, Negro League teammate of Willie Mays, passes away at 92

Jim Zapp, a star outfielder for the 1948 Negro American League Champion Birmingham Black Barons, passed away Friday September 30, 2016 in Harker Heights, Texas. He was 92.

Born April 18, 1924 in Nashville, Tennessee, Zapp attended a Catholic school that lacked a baseball team, so ironically his first real exposure to the game wasn't until he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1943, Zapp played third base for their black baseball team. His abilities caught the attention of Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones, a former All-American football player at the University of Pittsburgh who was coaching the white team on the base. Zapp made history when Jones selected him to integrate his team.


Jim Zapp with the Birmingham Black Barons / Author's Collection

After returning to the United States in April 1945, Zapp was stationed in Staten Island, New York. Due to the good fortune of a recommendation from a base teammate, Zapp had his first taste of the Negro Leagues when he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants to play on the weekends. His teammates included Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, whom Zapp recalled in Neil Lanctot’s “Campy,” that the catcher used to, “like to sit on the back wheel,” during bus rides.

Zapp played with the Elite Giants through 1946 before returning home briefly as a member of the Nashville Cubs. After one season with the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1947, he joined the Black Barons in 1948 off the strength of a recommendation of a player in the league. It was there in Birmingham in 1948 that things came together for Zapp and his teammates. Buoyed by a squad that included an outstanding double play combination in Piper Davis and Artie Wilson, Zapp provided much needed power to a lineup that included a 17-year-old center fielder by the name of Willie Mays. Zapp was one of many mentors to the talented teenager, and the news of his passing greatly touched the now 85-year-old Hall of Famer.

“Willie took it really hard,” his son James Zapp Jr. said in during a phone call Sunday afternoon. “His secretary e-mailed me yesterday; he’s going to write a letter that he wants read at my dad’s funeral.”

Zapp saved one of his greatest performances for the 1948 playoffs. In Game Three of the Negro American League Series against the Kansas City Monarchs, Zapp hit a game-winning ninth-inning home run to lead the Barons to a 3-2 victory. Unfortunately, he could not carry that magic into the World Series, as the Barons succumbed to the Homestead Grays 4-1 in a best of seven series.

At the close of the season, members of the Barons were invited to barnstorm with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars as well as the Indianapolis Clowns. Zapp was offered a spot with the Clowns, which he declined on the basis of a reduced draw. Years later, speaking with author Brent P. Kelley in, “The Negro Leagues Revisited,” Zapp lamented about his decision to leave the team.

“I told them to just give me my release,” Zapp said. “That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my life.”

He came back to Nashville to play semi-pro ball after parting from Birmingham. Not completely done with the game, he went for another round with the Elite Giants for two years from 1950-51 until he was signed into organized ball.

Zapp with the Big Springs Broncs / Author's Collection
Right away Zapp turned heads with his prodigious power while playing for the Class D Paris Lakers, crushing 20 home runs with a .330 batting average in 1952. Zapp’s terror of minor league pitching continued in 1954 when he set a Longhorn League record by swatting 32 blasts in only 90 games for the Big Springs Broncs. He played one more season in 1955 with Port Arthur and Big Springs before hanging it up for good.

Zapp stayed involved in sports after finishing his professional baseball career, serving as an athletic director at multiple military bases until his 1982 retirement. He continued to share his knowledge of the game through coaching and umpiring for an additional 20 years. With the Negro Leagues experiencing a resurgence in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Zapp frequently attended reunions and was honored with multiple baseball cards, including one in 2010 by Topps, as well as his own Hartland statue.

Within the last year, Zapp experienced a renaissance of sorts rarely seen by nonagenarians. In January 2015, Zapp Jr. sent correspondence indicating that due to his father’s advancing Alzheimer’s condition, that his grim prognosis could no longer allow him to accept fan mail. Amazingly, 18 months later, not only was Zapp alive, but Bill Nowlin reported in a July 2016 National Pastime Museum article, that Zapp’s condition had actually improved due to his family stepping in and altering his treatment.

“It’s been a little over a year since I took him off that medication and it worked out great,” Zapp Jr. said. “It got to the point where it was great to come see him because he was back to himself.”

Early in the morning on September 30, 2016, his son received a call from his father’s caregivers that his dad passed away. Sadly, the elder Zapp had premonitions that it was soon to be his time to go.

“He said he wanted to lay down awhile before he had breakfast,” Zapp Jr. said. “They put him back in his bed in his clothes and 20-30 minutes later, he was gone. He made a comment to them the night before that he wasn’t going to be around much longer. He was at peace.”

To be able to have that last year with his father’s improved condition and care meant the world to the Zapp family. They watched in amazement recently as Zapp reconstructed memories 70 years ago about his baseball career.

“He could remember things in the past that I was astonished that he could remember,” Zapp Jr. said. “A great era just came to an end.”

Funeral services will be held at Heritage Funeral Home in Harker Heights at 10AM on October 6, 2016.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How Pete Nice brought Double Duty Radcliffe into the hip hop realm

Peter Nash, known to many as Pete Nice from the legendary hip hop group 3rd Bass, posted on Twitter a copy of a letter he penned to Def Jam executives for payment to Negro League legend Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe for his appearance on Nash’s 1994 solo album, “Dust to Dust.” The track, “Double Duty Got Di**ed,” which featured Radcliffe dropping knowledge on the segregated league over a funky drum break, put some hip hop flavor behind the ruminations of one of baseball’s greatest storytellers.

Nash, whose love for baseball and collecting memorabilia extends well before the advent of his 3rd Bass days, found it only natural to involve this chapter of baseball history in his music. Speaking with Nash recently via telephone, we discussed the origins of the Double Duty track, which was spawned from an attempt to include a song about Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell on their 3rd Bass album.

“It was almost like I had two songs,” Nash said. “I changed the song to ‘Cool Papa Got Di**ed Down.’ I had the idea I was going to do a Negro League song. I pitched it to [MC] Serch and he was interested.

“We both wanted to do this song and then we got through the second album and the concept didn’t make it; then we broke up. Ultramagnetic MCs came out with their Negro League song (The Saga of Dandy, The Devil, and Day), so I was like they already did it. Back then it was competition; you didn’t want to bite. They beat us to it. That was in 1993.”

The ensuing break up of 3rd Bass allowed Nash to revisit the idea of paying homage to the Negro Leagues on his solo album. He linked up with Richard Berg, who was the President of the Negro Leagues Players Association, an organization created to help the living Negro League alumni have proper financial dealings as the league experienced a resurgence of public interest and popularity.

“I contacted Richard Berg to get in touch with him about getting in and recording something with [Radcliffe],” he said. “Richard Berg said that it was going to be really tough because [Radcliffe] was so old and not really traveling a lot. He said, ‘Hey, I have all these interviews I did with him and other guys.’ He gave me the master tapes and I listened to it and I pulled right off there. You couldn’t get any better than that!”

Double Duty Radcliffe Signed Photo / National Pastime Museum

Nash still had to wrestle with the idea of how to differentiate his effort from that of the Ultramagnetic MCs. During that era, anything considered copying or being labeled with the tag of “biting” was the genre’s curse of death. After listening to Berg’s tapes, Nash’s vision became much clearer.

“Going into my solo album, I thought how I could do this in a totally separate manner,” he said. “That’s how I came up with the whole spoken word idea. That’s how it changed to Double Duty when I got the vocals from Richard. I was looking at a lot of different players, but his was the best. You can’t beat Double Duty.”



Nash’s preservation of the letter requesting Double Duty’s payment is an important link to the Negro Leagues and the hip hop community. Nash recalled Double Duty initially balking at the amount of money involved because of Nash’s ethnicity, but when all things were settled, both sides walked away with a smile.

“When it came down to actually paying him, the record company was willing to pay $500 or $1000 out of the budget,” he said. “They were really just licensing part of this interview that Richard did. Double Duty said something like, ‘Who’s this white boy doing this?’ He said he wanted more money because I white. He said a whole bunch of dismissive stuff. I didn’t really care; I was glad that he was getting some money. He was happy that it was useful and he liked the song too.”

The ability to access Berg’s master tapes was as close as Nash could get to having Radcliffe in the studio. In some ways, it was a blessing for Nash to be able to keep Radcliffe from the studio, as he felt the nonagenarian’s penchant for chasing women would have kept him from ever reaching the recording booth.

“It would have been cool to have him in the studio, but he would have been trying to pick up every woman that he saw on the way,” he said.

When Nash met Radcliffe in Cooperstown, New York in the early 1990s, he watched as Radcliffe tried to hit on the waitresses at the Otesaga Hotel. Sports Illustrated later noted that even when Double Duty turned 100, he was trying to charm the waitresses at his favorite lunch spot. It is this colorful way that he lived his life that made the story of Double Duty even that more vivid. Radcliffe passed away in 2005 at the age of 102, but the tales that Duty spun have further spread the legend.

“You never knew what Double Duty would end up saying if you sat him down and let him roll.”

Monday, August 15, 2016

Choo Choo Coleman: Farewell to a good 'bub'

Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman, one of the venerable members of the inaugural 1962 New York Mets team, passed away Monday August 15, 2016 at the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina due to complications from cancer. He was 80.

Of all of the members of the 1962 New York Mets team, the details about the life and career of catcher “Choo Choo” Coleman remained mysterious, as he disappeared from the public spotlight after leaving baseball.
Choo Choo Coleman in 2012 / N. Diunte

Coleman, then 76-years-old, returned to New York in 2012 for the first time in 46 years for a series of appearances at various memorabilia shows and to attend the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner at the Marriott Marquis.

The usually reserved former catcher invited me to meet with him the Friday evening he arrived in New York, giving his first interview ever since his playing days. Greeting me with a, 'Hey bub, nice to meet you,' Coleman broke the ice with a term I quickly discovered he used to refer to almost everyone. Sitting in his hotel room, he explained the origins of his nickname “Choo Choo”. It was something he had long before professional baseball.

“Growing up in Orlando, I was small and fast, like a choo-choo train,” Coleman said.

He cut his teeth in professional baseball during the 1955 season, signing with the Washington Senators Class D affiliate in his hometown of Orlando, Florida.

“A friend of mine played for them and told me about it" he said. "I talked to the people, tried out and made the team."

Playing professional baseball in the segregated South, Coleman encountered his share of obstacles while traveling.

“At that time it was hard," he said. "People were different [then]. I don’t know about now, it’s a whole lot different. We lived in different places [from the team]. We lived in private homes; we couldn’t live in the hotels back then."

After two stints with the Orlando team, Coleman was picked up by Syd Pollock’s Indianapolis Clowns halfway through the 1956 season. By that time Coleman asserts, the Clowns had moved on from their Negro League affiliation to that of a traveling ball club. His escapades with the Clowns took him to far reaching parts of the country such as North Dakota.

“We weren’t in the Negro Leagues, we played all over,” he said. “I played two years. We played almost every day. We went everywhere; it was a lot of fun.”

He reveled in discussing some of the antics that made the Clowns popular at that time.

“We’d have the Clowns run down on to the field, hitting people in the crowd in the head, stuff like that,” he said.

By 1958, Coleman returned to Orlando and spent two more seasons there, waiting for an opportunity to climb baseball’s proverbial ladder. This chance came in 1960 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I went to Vero Beach and made the A ball club in Macon,” he recalled. “I played there a month or two and then I went to Montreal (AAA).”
Choo Choo Coleman with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Spring Training
The Phillies liked Coleman’s performance in Montreal enough to draft him from the Dodgers and place him on their opening day roster in 1961.

“I went to the Phillies first,” he said. “Then they sent me to Spokane, Washington. … I didn’t play too much.”

His hot bat in spring training was not enough to force manager Gene Mauch’s hand.

“I went to spring training and hit about .280, but they never played me,” he recalled. “They played Clay Dalrymple; he hit about .215 and played about every night. [Mauch] knew his baseball, but I don’t think he liked me.”

Coleman confirmed his suspicions about Mauch when he was put in to pinch-hit for Ruben Amaro with two strikes in what was only his second plate appearance in the majors.

“There was a man on first base,” Coleman recounted over 60 years later. “Ruben Amaro was supposed to lay the ball down, put him over. He never did. He did it two times and fouled the ball off. I’m on the bench all night and he called me to come take his place with two strikes. My first time in the major leagues [and I pinch-hit] with two strikes! I fouled four balls off and I hit in to the double play that night in Philly. I always remembered that. That’s tough man!” (Note - It was Coleman’s second career plate appearance and he grounded out to first to end the inning.)

The Phillies left Coleman unprotected in the expansion draft and he was signed by the New York Mets for the 1962 season.

“I never knew at that time that I’d be there on the first [team],” he said. “I made the team and I was happy to be there. I did my best. I hit over .250 my first year. I stayed hurt a lot. My shoulder was out of place, nose fractured, fractured my fingers (displaying multiple broken fingers on his right hand). It’s different now. They play now with one hand behind the back; I didn’t do that, I caught with two hands.”

Despite his small size, Coleman remained fearless behind the plate. He wasn’t going to let his stature be a factor in determining his playing time on the field.

“It didn’t make no difference,” he said. “I weighed 155; I was the smallest one. All of the fellas were over 200. I wasn’t afraid.”

When asked about the legendary Mets manager Casey Stengel, Coleman recalls very limited interactions between the two.

“I didn’t talk to him too much,” he recalled. “Most of the time, he’d be on the bench asleep.”

Coleman played for the Mets their first two seasons and made a return appearance in 1966 for six games. Taking time to reflect on his stay in New York, Coleman enjoyed his time there and its demanding fan base.

“It was nice to play here,” he said. “In order to play here in New York, you had to be good. You can’t be bad or slow; you always had to do your best.”

He had one last hurrah with the Mets organization in 1969 after leaving baseball behind for two years; however, he could not make it back to the majors to be a part of the World Series championship team.

“I took off two years and I stayed home to go fishing at the time,” he said. “I came back two years later after I wrote them a letter and told them I wanted to start back. They sent me to Tidewater. I been out two years, but I still made the team!”

While he was in New York, he looked forward to being able to see teammates such as Al Jackson and Frank Thomas, as well as Willie Mays, whom he regards as the best player he’s ever seen. He also was excited to Citi Field for the first time, a sight he would rather have experienced as a player than a spectator.

“If I was playing, I’d be more excited to see it … it would be a lot different,” he said.

After baseball, he returned to Florida and later owned a Chinese restaurant for 18 years. In retirement, the humble Coleman enjoyed the ample opportunity to go fishing whenever he wanted.

“It’s a lot of fun just to go and relax,” he said.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Clyde Parris, Negro Leaguer and Panamian baseball great passes away at 93

Jonathan “Clyde” Parris, an alum of the Negro Leagues and later a minor league MVP and batting champion in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, passed away Saturday July 9, 2016 due to complications from liver cancer at Franklin General Hospital in Valley Stream, NY. He was 93.

Clyde Parris at his home in 2011 / N. Diunte

Born September 11, 1922 in Panama’s Canal Zone, Parris quickly emerged as a rising star in the country’s rich baseball scene. Following the footsteps of his predecessors Frankie Austin and Pat Scantlebury, Parris came to the United States in 1946 to play for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues after being recruited by a local talent scout.

“As a kid I played softball, and then I played in the community leagues,” Parris recalled during our 2007 interview. “I played infield; shortstop and third base. I could always hit the ball hard. That's how I came to be recommended to play in the United States. … I can't remember the man who brought me to the Negro Leagues. I played in Panama and he saw me play so well, he recommended me to play with Baltimore.”

His stay with Baltimore was brief, as he was released from the team early in the season to make room for future Hall of Famer Willie Wells. He was quickly signed by the New York Black Yankees, giving him another chance to prove himself in the Negro Leagues.

“We played in Yankee Stadium while the New York Yankees were away,” Parris said. "I remember approaching the stadium, guys said, ’Parris, this is Yankee Stadium!’ I went inside to the lobby to see the pictures of the stars. It was something unreal. The field was just so nice to play on, thinking about all of the greats that played there.”

Despite being on a last place club, Parris still had to compete against all of the great talent that was in the league in 1946, including Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Leon Day, and Buck Leonard.

“I had to face guys like Satchel Paige, Leon Day, and Bill Byrd,” he recalled. “Byrd only pitched at home. I batted against Day the first and second year and he was hard to hit. It wasn't anything outstanding like [Bob] Gibson or [Don] Drysdale. I played with Drysdale too. I think his [Day] better years were behind him like [Josh] Gibson.”

At the time of our 2007 interview, Parris was one of the few living players to have gone up against Gibson, facing him during the famed catcher’s final season in 1946. Even though Gibson was slowed due to his declining health, Parris remembered Gibson as a threat at the plate.

“I played against Josh Gibson,” he said. “When I played against him, he couldn't even stoop down; he stooped down about halfway. Yet every time we played against him, he hit a home run or two. I remember I was playing back at third base and he hit a dribbler like a bunt, and I'll never forget that. I thought I had to play back! They also had Buck Leonard too. They were on the same team, Homestead Grays. We were the doormat of the league. What were you gonna do? We had no pitching.”

Parris also went up against Satchel Paige at Yankee Stadium. He clouted a home run off of the famed hurler, though not without controversy.

“We were facing Satchel Paige in Yankee Stadium,” Parris recalled. “They had him pitch there because he brought in huge crowds. It was near the end of the game when I hit one to right field. The right fielder in Yankee Stadium went to field the ball near the fence and it hit off of him to go over the fence. They started arguing about it. The umpire said it didn’t make a difference; it was a home run.”

After getting through his first year in the Negro Leagues, Parris didn’t want to come back. The low pay, the unforgiving schedule, and segregated conditions wore greatly on the Panamanian; however without the prospect of a job, he returned to the Black Yankees in 1947.

“After my first year in the black leagues, I didn't want to go back, but I didn't have a job,” he said. “We went barnstorming to make some money, but we didn't make anything substantial. I made $275 per month.”

Just as Parris was getting ready to return to the United States in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were stationed in Panama for spring training, faced a team of Panamanian All-Stars before they headed north. History unfolded right before Parris’eyes.

“The first time Jackie took that first baseman's glove was against our team in Panama,” he said. “They had Newcombe, Campanella, Robinson, and Partlow.”

Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Roy Partlow in Panama 1947 / Clyde Parris Collection
He stayed in the Negro Leagues through 1949, playing with the Black Yankees and Louisville Buckeyes. He returned home to Panama, starring in their winter league, where he would eventually set most of their career batting records.

Parris made his way to the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1952, signing with by Dodgers scout Joe Cicero after playing for St. Jean of the Canadian Provincial League. By 1954, he earned Class-A league MVP honors with Elmira, besting future New York Yankees World Series MVP Bobby Richardson for the title.
Clyde Parris with Elmira / N. Diunte

The Dodgers promoted Parris to AAA Montreal in 1955, pushing him ever so close to the major leagues. Making good on his promotion, he led the International League with a .321 batting average in 1956. Despite his outstanding performance, the Dodgers didn’t bring him up to get even a taste of major league life.

“I went to AAA after leading Class-A in hitting,” he said. “In 1956, I led AAA in hitting. A lot of people thought I was going to be called up. Deep down inside, I didn't expect to go to the big leagues, I guess because of my age. I was 34, kind of old, right?”

Clyde Parris with the Montreal Royals
For those that played with Parris, they knew that he deserved at a shot in the major leagues. Former teammate Evans Killeen, who played with the Kansas City Athletics, told Lou Hernandez in, “Memories of Winter Ball,” that Parris first came when thinking of outstanding teammates.

“To me, he was one of the great hitters I have ever seen in my life,” Killeen said. “He would have been a great major leaguer. But he never got the chance. … All Parris hit was line drives, and he was a tough out. … What a hitter. … Could you imagine him today? This guy was some hitter.”

Parris continued playing almost year ‘round in the minors and in the Panamanian Winter League through the age of 37 in 1960. For whatever rigors on the body the extended seasons had on Parris, he said it beat getting a job.

“As far as I thought, it was better than going to work,” he said. “A whole lot of time, I didn't have a house of my own. I stayed with my folks, so I didn't have to pay rent or a mortgage. I just kept playing. A whole lot of times, you only play six-to-seven months out of the year, five-to-six up in the USA, and two months winter ball. I didn't work.”
A custom made card that Parris enjoyed / N. Diunte

During his post-playing days, he moved to Springfield Gardens in Queens. He purchased a home in the 1960s, where along with his wife Eugenia, they raised his three children (two sons and a daughter). He worked various government jobs, eventually retiring from the MTA in 1988.

His playing career went largely unnoticed in retirement, missing the entire Negro League renaissance of the early 1990s. It wasn’t until 2007 when I was put in touch with Parris that he spoke on the record for the first time since his 1960 retirement about his life in baseball.

“I haven’t been asked about my career since I was a player,” he told me during our meeting in 2007.

Clyde Parris (r.) with me during our first meeting in 2007 / N. Diunte
What forged from that interview was a friendship lasting these past nine years, where I would drive out to his home every few months to have lunch and talk baseball. Through our conversations, I was able to get in touch with the Topps Company, who promptly honored him with an official card in their 2009 Allen and Ginter Baseball Card set.

“I felt honored for Topps to give me a baseball card. I thought they could have used a better photo, but it is nice to see one after all of these years,” Parris said. “I had a good run in baseball, I can’t complain.”

Clyde Parris 2009 Topps Baseball Card / Topps

The more we met to talk, the increasingly energized he became about sharing the stories of his playing days. For almost every significant player of the 1940s and 1950s, Parris had an exciting story of either playing with or against them. From some of the aforementioned icons of the Negro Leagues, to minor league Dodgers teammates such as Don Drysdale, Sparky Anderson, and Tommy Lasorda, Parris spun vivid yarns about many in the game.

I will remember the many afternoons spent at his kitchen table listening to him openly share his experiences with his trademark laugh after recalling a lighter baseball moment. I feel fortunate to have shared that special time with him. Checking through some old messages on my phone, I found one saved from Clyde. He kept it short and sweet as usual, saying, “Hey, this is Parris, give me a call back.”

On Saturday, Clyde finally got the call back to the big show in the sky. I’m sure he went there major leagues all the way. Rest in peace my friend, you will be missed.

Ed. Note - Parts of this article are excerpted from a Times-Ledger story I wrote about Parris in 2011, "Batting average? You are thinking about surviving."

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Joe Durham, 84, first African-American to hit a home run for the Baltimore Orioles

Joe Durham was a bona fide All-Star well before he made history as the first African-American player to hit a home run for the Baltimore Orioles. Playing in 1952 for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues, Durham was selected to the East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park. For a rookie in the league, it was a thrill to be on such a prominent stage amongst the veterans of the league.

Joe Durham
“It was kind of exciting,” Durham said to me during a 2010 phone interview from his home in Maryland. “The All-Star game was good; we had a fairly decent crowd. We had a chance to play against one another and participate against guys from the East and the West. Most of the guys on those teams were older… There were several veterans that got my attention. I saw them play when I was a kid. Henry Kimbro and Doc Dennis… these guys had been playing for ages.”

Durham passed away Thursday, April 28, 2016, at the Northwest Hospital Hospice Center in Randallstown, Maryland. He was 84.

The outfielder found himself in the Negro Leagues after signing with the St. Louis Browns in 1952. The Browns wanted to place him on their farm teams in the South, but racial tensions at the time prevented that from being an option for Durham. Luckily Browns owner Bill Veeck was able to use a long-standing connection to place Durham on one of the flagship franchises of the Negro Leagues.

“Everything they had in the farm system where they wanted to start me was in the South and I couldn’t play there,” he said. “Abe Saperstein who owned the Chicago American Giants and Bill Veeck who owned the St. Louis Browns were very good friends. So that’s how I got over there [to Chicago] for just one year.”

As major league teams signed more players from the Negro Leagues, these prospects served as agents of change across the minor leagues. In 1953, Durham along with future Baltimore Orioles outfielder Willie Tasby helped to break the color barrier of the Piedmont League as members of the York White Roses. Even though Durham grew up in segregated Newport News, Virginia, that still didn’t prepare him for the taunting he received in some of the towns of the league.

“Hagerstown was the worst team in the whole damn league,” he said in Bruce Adelson’s book, Brushing Back Jim Crow. “They were really bad. I used to hate to go there. We opened the season in Hagerstown. I’m telling you, I never heard so much stuff in my life.”

Tasby further explained the degree of insults they faced while playing in Hagerstown. They retaliated against the hateful slurs by taking it out on the opposition.

“That was as bad as Mississippi,” Tasby told Adelson. “That was one of the worst places I played in my life. It wasn’t even in what you’d call the South. It’s in Maryland. But you see, Baltimore and Washington used to be bad too.

“We got called everything except our names there, all of the derogatory names. Of course, we beat the hell out of them every time we played there. But we still had to hear them.”

Durham responded by batting .308 with 14 home runs, earning a promotion to San Antonio in the Texas League in 1954. Still deep in the South, Durham had to figure out a way to keep his performance on the field unaffected by the social conditions at the time.

“Black ballplayers of that era had to have a little something extra to go along with their playing talent because of things you had to endure,” Durham said to Adelson. “You had to tell yourself not to let anything get in your way or distract you. There was nothing you could do.”

After another standout minor league season, where he hit .318 with 14 home runs and 108 RBI, Durham earned a September call-up to the Baltimore Orioles. Upon his arrival, he was immediately inserted into the lineup, and in his fourth major league game, he became the first African-American to homer for the Orioles, hitting a circuit blast off of Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Al Sima.

“The first night I got here, I played,” he said in during our 2010 interview. “I played out the season and then I had to go into the Army. I was scheduled to go in July, but I got a deferment until October.”

Durham spent two years in the Army, serving first at Camp Gordon in Georgia and then later with the Seventh Army in Germany. Upon his discharge in October 1956, he went on to play winter ball with San Juan in Puerto Rico, preparing him for major league spring training in 1957.

He responded to his two-year absence by leading the team in batting during spring training. Finally, Durham felt that he proved his worth as a full-time major leaguer. However, Orioles manager Paul Richards thought otherwise.

“The strange thing about it, I led the Orioles in hitting in spring training,” he said. “I had tremendous spring training. The prejudiced manager Paul Richards, the last day he told me, ‘If we go to Baltimore, you are only going to play 20-30 games and you are going to get rusty. We want you to go down to San Antonio.’ I asked him about going to Triple-A Vancouver and he said the roster there was full. He said, ‘Go on down there for a couple of weeks keep hitting, and we’ll bring you back up here.’”

A dejected Durham returned to San Antonio, determined to prove Richards wrong in his decision to keep him in the minor leagues. Upon his return to Texas after a three-year absence, Durham encountered greater indignities than when he left in 1954. The city of Shreveport, Louisiana enacted a law barring white and blacks from playing on the same field together. Rather than forcing the Texas League to remove Shreveport from competition, the league allowed the rest of the clubs to carry an extra player to compensate for keeping their players of color at home while they traveled to Shreveport.

“The first year I played at Shreveport, you could go in [and play],” he said. “I went in the Army and came back out. I started in 1957 and no blacks or whites could participate on the field, arena, or against one another in Shreveport. We would go to Houston and the team would go to Shreveport; we would go back to San Antonio.”

Showing tremendous character in the face of adversity, Durham’s on-field performance was at its peak. Durham maintained a .400 average during the first two months of the season, finally forcing the Orioles to call him up in the middle of June after he hit .391 in 50 games.

“I didn’t get recalled until June 10th and I was hitting over .400 until the 1st of June,” he recalled. “I came up and played the rest of the season in Baltimore.”

Unfortunately, Durham couldn’t duplicate his minor league success, hitting only .185 with four home runs in 77 games for the Orioles in 1957. Save for five at-bats with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959, it would be his last foray in the major leagues.

“I really hate to say it, but I never got a good chance to play,” Durham lamented. “They would tell you that they wanted to have you on the team and you were doing well, but he [Richards] was playing all of his boys. In 1959, I went to the St. Louis Cardinals. I had another tremendous spring, made the team and I got five at-bats before they decided to send me back to Baltimore.”

Durham continued to play in the minor leagues at the Triple-A level until 1964 and continued his involvement with the Orioles organization until his passing. A link to the franchise's birth, Durham’s six-decade association with the Orioles made him the longest-tenured employee in the team’s history. He spent 20 years as a batting practice pitcher after he hung up his spikes, and then served as their community coordinator for baseball operations, as well as a minor league coach, instructor, and scout.

“I do clinics and go around to some of the schools, community relations they call it,” he said in 2010. “I’m not on the regular payroll. I’ve been on their payroll in some capacity since 1954. I used to do a lot of traveling, hitting schools and private organizations; that was part of my job. I worked in the front office as the community relations director. I scouted one year. That was the last year I worked.”

As with many of his African-American counterparts in the early 1950s, Durham’s major league stats fall short of explaining the totality of his story and skills. His ability to stand tall in the face of Jim Crow segregation to become the Orioles’ most respected employee demonstrates Durham proved his All-Star status long after he left the diamond.



Wednesday, February 10, 2016

James 'Red' Moore, 99, fancy first baseman in the Negro Leagues

In 2007, James "Red" Moore regaled reporters at Newark Bears stadium with his tales of playing in the Negro Leagues during the 1930s with the Newark Eagles. At the time, the 91-year-old former first baseman was accompanied by three of his junior alumni from the Eagles franchise, Benny Felder, Monte Irvin, and Willie Williams. Moore outlived them all, including the Hall of Famer Irvin, who passed away in January at the age of 96.
James "Red" Moore (second from left) at 2007 Negro Leagues tribute in Newark, NJ / N. Diunte



Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Monte Irvin (1919-2016) - A true gentleman of baseball

To meet Monte Irvin was to become his friend. At least that’s how I felt back as a teenager in high school when I first met Mr. Irvin at reunion of Negro League alumni back in 1994. Those feelings compelled me to write the following memories of my encounters with Irvin upon the news of his death at the age of 96 on January 11, 2016.

Choosing to sit at a table in the room with the other thirty lesser known players instead of the main room where Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Willie Mays were signing, Irvin’s table had little fanfare compared to his Cooperstown counterparts. Despite the ability to affix “HOF 73” next to his name, Irvin relished blending in with everyone else, a theme that would repeat during future encounters.

Milling around the room talking to each player about their careers, I spotted Irvin by himself with nobody waiting at his table. Growing up I heard my uncle tell me stories of Irvin’s tremendous abilities as a member of the New York Giants from his view at the Polo Grounds. Eager to start a conversation with him, I showed him a photo from a Hall of Fame yearbook that I had recently purchased on a school trip to Cooperstown. He quickly asked me if I wanted him to sign it, and when I informed him that I had spent all of my money already at the show, he told me not to worry about it and put his autograph right on the page. I thanked him profusely; he smiled and posed for a photo.

Monte Irvin circa 1994 / N. Diunte

I went back the next year armed with money I earned from digging out cars and driveways from shoveling. This time, I made sure that I paid for Mr. Irvin’s signature. I told him of the story from last year and he kindly thanked me for coming and supporting what was going on.

Monte Irvin with the author / N. Diunte
As the end of high school approached, I shifted my focus from researching and collecting artifacts on the Negro Leagues to pursuing an opportunity to play baseball in college. I put keeping up with Monte and his aging counterparts on hold to walk a little bit in their shoes as I explored how far I could advance my skills on the diamond.

It wasn’t until well after my college playing days were done that I renewed my interest in baseball’s forgotten league. Surprisingly, Irvin outlasted almost all of his contemporaries and I looked for an opportunity to meet once again with him, hopefully to capture one last firsthand account of the Negro Leagues from arguably its last living superstar.

My chance came in 2007 when I was invited by a friend Lauren Meyer, who was working on a Negro League documentary, and had been hired by the New Jersey Historical Society to film an all day tribute to Irvin and three of his former Newark Eagles teammates in Newark, New Jersey. I accompanied her to the day’s events, and despite his limited mobility, at 9AM Irvin was bustling with an energy one would expect from someone much younger than 88 years of age.

Irvin (third from left) with fellow Newark Eagles teammates / N. Diunte
Seemingly everywhere Irvin turned that day, there was a camera taking photos, a reporter asking for an interview, or a fan handing him an item to sign. Every time, his answer was, “yes.” He even eschewed his daughter’s request to eat more during a meeting at the Historical Society, as he felt it was more important to finish the story he was telling an eager baseball fan. He gave this type of attention to just about everyone he met that day, as his genuine persona became more apparent as I shadowed him at each event just hoping to catch a mere fraction of the jewels of knowledge he was dropped along the way.

A year later, while interviewing Ernie Harwell, he eagerly recommended that I give Irvin a call, as he felt that Monte was someone who could help me with my research. The late Tigers broadcaster went out of his way to mention his warm persona.

“Monte Irvin would be a great source,” Harwell said during our conversation in 2008. “[He's] very personable, a very intelligent guy; I'm very fond of him.”

I called Irvin shortly after speaking with Harwell and after telling him of the Hall of Fame broadcaster’s recommendation, we spoke for thirty minutes. Irvin shared stories about many of the legends he played with and against in the Negro Leagues, beaming with positivity throughout the entire call. He encouraged for me to send him some correspondence, which I did, but what followed further illustrated his tremendous character.

A popular figure with baseball fans and autograph collectors, Irvin frequently received mail requesting his signature. He asked those who wrote to him to send a donation to his alma mater, Lincoln University, in exchange for his autograph. Over the years, Irvin raised tens if not, hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the HBCU. In our correspondence through the mail, I too donated to Irvin’s cause to have some of my own items signed. When my envelope came back a few weeks later, only one of the items were returned, with my harder to find personal photos missing. I called Irvin to ask if he remembered seeing them, as they were pretty unique, and he told me that he gets a substantial amount of mail, but he would look to see if he misplaced them.

A few weeks passed by, and I return home one day to find a large envelope in my mailbox addressed in Irvin’s handwriting. I open the envelope not only to find my missing items, but a note apologizing for misplacing them, and almost a dozen additional signed photos. I called to thank him again and he said he felt it was the least he could do for making me wait to get my things back.


A sampling of the items Irvin sent / N. Diunte
Irvin was a Hall of Famer, but he didn’t expect special treatment because he had a plaque in Cooperstown. His treatment of others was duly noted not only by baseball fans, but by other players as well. While Jackie Robinson is immortalized for breaking the color barrier; however, Irvin will be remembered for his status as a gentleman ambassador of the sport for his 96 years on earth. Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Jean Pierre Roy precisely summed up the feelings of how many of his peers viewed Irvin.

“I adored this guy as a ballplayer and a human being,” Roy said during a 2011 interview. “When I started talking with Monte, I could tell he was of the right vein; you could tell why he could communicate so well with the people in general.”

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.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Mahlon Duckett, 92, a Philadelphia Negro League legend dies

Mahlon Duckett, one of the last living members of the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, passed away Sunday at a Philadelphia area hospital. He was 92.

Duckett was a Philadelphia native who starred in track at Overbrook High School, where he was recruited as an infielder by the Stars after playing semi-pro baseball for a local team. He shored up their infield for a decade from 1940-49 and finished his career in 1950 with the Homestead Grays as the league was on its decline. He was signed with the New York Giants in 1951, but his major league hopes were derailed by a case of rheumatic fever right before he was to head out to training in Arizona. Sidelined for a year by the illness, his career was over.

Mahlon Duckett (center) at the 2008 Judy Johnson Tribute Night / N. Diunte

I first met Mr. Duckett in 2007 at the Wilmington Blue Rocks annual tribute to the Negro Leagues. Gregg Truitt, one of the chairs of the Judy Johnson Foundation, graciously had me as his house guest for a pre-event ceremony with the players and their families. I sat down with him and after being greeted with a smile and handshake, we immediately connected. At the time, I was playing for the Roxborough Bandits, a semi-pro team in Philadelphia’s famed Penn-Del League. Once we started talking about the intricacies of playing the middle infield positions, I knew that I had made a friend.

Mahlon Duckett (r.) with the author in 2007 / N. Diunte

For the rest of the evening, I became Mr. Duckett’s go-to-guy, helping him get around the ballpark and through the on-field ceremonies. After the pre-game honors ended, I accompanied him to the autograph area. I sat with him as he signed autographs for seven innings as a continuous stream of fans approached the table. During breaks in the action, we continued to talk baseball, as Duckett took pauses from signing just so he could finish telling me some of his vast encyclopedia of stories.

We stayed in touch after that evening, exchanging some photos from the event, a few letters in the mail, and subsequent phone calls. When I returned the next year, he told me that people who visited him at his assisted living home would always remark about the young gentleman in the photo with him. He said he was proud to display it.

In the following years, it became more difficult for Duckett to travel and slowly he watched his crew of fellow Philadelphia Stars dwindle with the passings of Bill Cash, Stanley Glenn, and Harold Gould. He made his final public appearance last month at the opening of the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Philadelphia.



We last spoke in 2013 and our talk returned to his career. Only 17-years-old when he joined the Stars, he told me that he was left to figure out most of the game by himself.

“In the Negro Leagues, you just played on your natural ability, that’s all,” he said during our 2013 telephone interview. “A couple of guys told me a lot of things that they thought would help me, but I never had any one individual say, ‘I’m taking you under my wing and teaching you this that and the other thing.’”

Some seventy years later, he chose to share one of his favorite stories that involved the great Satchel Paige. At an age when most ballplayers were trying to figure out graduating high school, an 18-year-old Duckett approached the plate with the game on the line against arguably the best pitcher in baseball history.

“I hit a game-winning home run off of Satchel in Yankee Stadium in 1941,” he said. “I’ll never forget that; it was a great day, Yankee Stadium, about 45,000 people there. There were a lot of great things that happened in the Negro Leagues that a lot of people don’t know about. It was a great league with great ballplayers.”

For an excellent in-depth interview with Duckett, check out Brent P. Kelley's, "Voices From the Negro Leagues."