Bill Byrd, Negro Leaguer, dies at 83 Baltimore pitcher trained big-leaguers

January 07, 1991|By Bill Glauber

Bill Byrd was a pitcher who threw spitballs and a pioneer who helped pave the way for the integration of baseball.

Others were more charismatic, and brought greater talent to the game, but Byrd was a seemingly indestructible master who became the symbol of the Baltimore Elite Giants during a Negro League career that spanned two decades.

Byrd, who died Friday at the age of 83 at the Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was the fourth-winningest pitcher in Negro League history, with a 114-72 record. But he also will be remembered as a teacher of future major-leaguers Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam and Joe Black.

"I had a gift," Byrd said in an interview last year. "That's about all there was to it."

Byrd, who was born July 15, 1907, in Canton, Ga., learned to hit and pitch by breaking off tree branches and swinging at small rocks in the woods near his home. He began to play organized baseball with the Columbus (Ohio) Travelers and eventually won a job in 1933 with the Columbus Blue Birds of the Negro National League. After several stops, the franchise eventually moved to Baltimore and was renamed the Elite Giants in 1935.

Byrd's gift was his spitball, a legal pitch which he learned in 1934 after spending a few minutes on the sidelines with a veteran named Roosevelt Davis.

"A lot of pitchers tried it," Byrd said. "But few could control it. I saw a bunch of guys throw the ball into the stands. I prided myself on pitching the spitter. I'd always think about the catcher. I always kept it where the catcher could handle it. I didn't believe in bouncing the ball into the dirt."

Despite suffering an arm injury early in his career, the right-handed Byrd rarely missed a start, playing during the summer in Baltimore and spending parts of three winters pitching in Puerto Rico, where he was nicknamed "El Maestro."

"In Puerto Rico, it wasn't black, white or gray," he said. "It was just baseball."

Byrd, who was called "Daddy" by his Baltimore teammates, made his greatest contribution to Negro League history by teaching his professional craft to future major-league stars. Campanella, an eventual Hall of Famer who played with the Brooklyn Dodgers, began his baseball career as a teen-ager with the Elite Giants. Campanella often has credited Byrd with showing him how to play and act like a big-league ballplayer. But a major-league career eluded Byrd, who retired after his 17th season with the Elite Giants in 1949.

"Bill was born 20 years too soon," his wife, Hazel, once said. "If the break had come in his prime, he could have made it. The only one out of his prime to make it in the majors was Satchel Paige. And no one knew how old he was."

Monte Irvin, a Hall of Famer who played in the Negro Leagues and the major leagues, once said: "Byrd was a master. There is no doubt that Bill Byrd would have been a star in the major leagues."

Byrd worked 20 years as a raw-stock expediter for General Electric in Philadelphia. In recent years, he received publicity as researchers began publishing Negro League history. Byrd was to be honored at an old-timers' game in Baltimore in April 1990, but was unable to attend because of health problems.

In addition to his wife, Byrd is survived by four children, 18 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. A viewing will be held Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon with services following at the Bruce R. Hawkins Funeral Home, 6828 Old York Road, Philadelphia.

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