Players from Negro Leagues remember good--and bad--old days

August 18, 1991|By Wayne Coffey | Wayne Coffey,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- It was a long trip, but when did that ever matter? It's about 40 years late, and so many fellas are gone now, but what are you going to do? These men understand, far more than most, that some things don't happen until it's time. They were together again, and isn't that what matters most?

For three days in Cooperstown, starting Monday, the Baseball Hall of Fame held its first official reunion for players from the Negro Leagues. Some 75 players were expected.

There were former members of the Kansas City Monarchs, Memphis Red Sox, New York Black Yankees and many other teams, including the Homestead Grays, winners of nine straight titles, 1937-45. Each man was banned from the major leagues because his skin wasn't the correct color, a victim of American apartheid. It's a shameful legacy, but these are men with forbearance beyond measure.

Gene Benson was a line-drive-hitting outfielder for the Philadelphia Stars. He's still in Philadelphia, soon to be 78. Benson played in annual barnstorming games in the 1940s, Satchel Paige's All-Stars vs. Bob Feller's All-Stars. He did well against Feller. "He used to call me Cousin," Benson says, chuckling. "He said, 'The way you hit me, you must be in my family somewhere.' "

Benson says: "Everywhere you go, people want to know, 'Why aren't you bitter?' When you're bitter, you're the only one who gets hurt. In those days, segregation was prevalent. If we worried about that, we couldn't have accomplished what we did, or enjoyed what we did."

"There was a joy that seemed to exist among players in the black leagues," says Max Manning, a lanky hurler for the Newark Eagles who just retired after 28 years of teaching sixth grade in Pleasantville, N.J. "We suffered under some bad conditions, but we shared it together. You can always find something to make your burden lighter."

Former Negro League stars shared their memories with the New York Daily News.

Former Dodger Joe Black pitched seven years for the Baltimore Elite Giants, six more in the majors.

Says Black: "At least half the guys I played against in the Negro Leagues could've played in the major leagues." There were 400 games between white and black teams over the years, according to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). The black teams won 60 percent.

The first fully organized black league was launched in 1920. In the 1930s, there were the six-team National and American Leagues, which met in the Negro World Series. An annual East-West All-Star Game in Chicago's Comiskey Park regularly drew more than 40,000 people.

Some clubs played in their own parks; others rented big-league parks when the primary tenants were on the road. Salaries averaged $200 per month, though the biggest stars -- Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige -- earned about $1,000 a month.

The regular season lasted 60 or so games, but that was just the beginning. The barnstorming was incessant, before, after, sometimes during the season.

Teams would play local outfits, white and black. The whirlwind schedule was one reason accurate records haven't always been easy to find.

"If it wasn't raining, we was playing," Leon Day says with a laugh. On July 4, 1935, Day played four games with the Brooklyn Eagles, starting with a morning doubleheader at Ebbets Field.

Day, 74, a stocky fireballer who also played second base and outfield -- not uncommon for Negro League pitchers -- now lives in Baltimore.

Some of his best memories are not the games, but the getting there, the endless, bouncy bus trips, snaking over back roads, rattling through strange towns. Edsall Walker, who lives in Albany and pitched for the Grays, remembers logging 36,000 miles one year.

In the South, the players weren't allowed in hotels, so they'd sleep on the bus or stay in private homes. There were some black restaurants, but more common were so-called Jim Crow places.

"There was a little old window in the back for the Negroes, [but] we wouldn't do it," Day says.

Day laughs softly. "The tires humming on the highway, the cool summer breeze blowing through the bus, guys singing, telling lies, playing cards in the back. Those are fond memories, oh yeah."

There were also not-so-fond memories. At a game in Meridian, Miss., Gene Benson was shocked when the hundreds of blacks in the stands disappeared as the game began.

"They'd get put in jail if they were out after dark," Benson says.

Once, Day was returning from winter ball when a customs agent in Miami ransacked his suitcase and threw his clothes all over the floor. "He wanted me to say something," Day says. "Then he could lock me up or beat me up or something. If you were black, you were wrong. You just had to grin and bear it."

Paige was the single biggest draw, but there were plenty of others. Pitching for the Grays, Edsall Walker had legends all around him. Catcher Josh Gibson, one of 11 Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame, had the proverbial cannon arm and a bat to match.

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