Mills calls on history for lesson in perspective


May 04, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

To even the casual baseball fan, Satchel Paige, the ageless pitcher, and Josh Gibson, the power-hitting catcher, are familiar names.

PTC To some, the name Cool Papa even rings a vague bell. "Cool Papa" Bell was the center fielder who claimed to be so fast that he could flick a light switch and be in bed before the room grew dark.

The same name recognition factor does not hold true for Willie Wells, a fleet shortstop adept at stealing bases and signs.

Or "Double Duty" Radcliffe, the pitcher/catcher whose chest protector bore the warning "Thou shalt not steal." He would catch one game of a doubleheader, pitch the next, and still have enough energy left to sample the night life. Or "Smokey" Joe Williams and "Lefty" Williams, teammates on the powerful 1931 Homestead Grays.

Negro Leagues superstars, every one of them. Yet, blips on the screen of baseball history, thanks to the conditions under which they played. For the most part, learning about pre-Jackie Robinson stars requires going out of the way to search for information about them.

Orioles reliever Alan Mills figures it's worth the effort.

His interest began when a cousin of his father's told him he was named after an uncle, first name Alan, who pitched in the Negro Leagues.

"More and more information is starting to come out about the Negro Leagues," Mills said. "That's nice, but I really can't say they are getting their due because their time has passed."

Last season, when the Orioles were in Kansas City, Mills searched in vain for the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame. He plans to resume his quest this season.

MA Mills has met former Negro Leagues star Buck O'Neill, but for

the most part, he meets the players through books, the most recent being "When the Game Was Black and White" by Bruce Chadwick.

"I try not to take for granted the opportunity I have because a lot of black players didn't have the same opportunity," Mills said. "It's unfortunate they didn't get a chance to play in the major leagues. Although I can't really say it's unfortunate because I can't say their league wasn't the same. It had to be competitive."

Asked to name his favorite Negro League player, Mills didn't hesitate:

"Satchel Paige. I read a lot of interesting stories about him. I would have loved to watch him pitch."

Unflappable Lee

Closer Lee Smith's daily routine calls for him to get a rubdown about the sixth inning and make his way out to the bullpen by the eighth inning.

"It's a good thing he doesn't get out there until then," bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said with a smile. "He's a little too relaxed. But that's good. Too many people in baseball don't know how to enjoy themselves."

How relaxed is Smith?

When the Orioles were playing at Texas on April 16, the phone rang in the third inning. Smith's wife, Diane, was on the other end.

"She said I had to come home right away," he said. "Our house was broken into. I told her there was nothing I could do that night; besides I might get a save. Sure enough, I got the save."

Smith returned to his home in Castor, La., two days later.

"You know how when your house gets broken into, they usually trash it?" he said. "These guys just took what they wanted, except the big-screen TV; they couldn't get that out the door. It was too wide. They didn't mess the place up or anything. I told my wife we had some nice robbers. She thought I was crazy when I said that."

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