The remembrances of two old-timers

November 05, 1996|By James H. Bready

HENRY IN Tennessee, Dick in Maryland -- now and then, one old-timer phones the other. Some weather notes may follow; some how're-you-feeling stuff. But underneath, what they keep alive is the Baltimore Elite Giants. They're about the last ones able to.

In Nashville, where Henry Kimbro was born and did his first baserunning, there's a Negro Leagues Baseball Store. In Baltimore, Richard D. Powell hopes to be around for the opening of the Babe Ruth Museum's Camden Station annex, with its promised black baseball displays. Reminders, though, hardly compare with the real thing.

Recently, the subject was New York vs. Atlanta. Each a 9: 30 bed-timer, neither thought the series worth staying up for. "I was for Baltimore and St. Louis," said Mr. Kimbro.

When he wore the uniform, Henry Kimbro volunteered words less often. His bat, his glove, his arm did the talking. Centerfielder and leadoff man, he was a basic asset -- 13 years a Baltimore Elite, more than any other player. Indeed, Mr. Kimbro was with the team longer than that: from Nashville where it was founded to Columbus to Washington to Baltimore (1938 to 1951) to its Nashville ending. Right-handed, 5 feet 8 and 175 pounds, powerful of arm and shoulder, Kimbro would line a pitch past or over the shortstop and, once again, there he was standing on first. The same speed showed when, in the field, he went after a fly ball.

Richard Powell goes back farther still. He was there -- at Maryland Park, in south Baltimore, long gone -- for the Baltimore Black Sox. His father and the team's white owner were friends; as a boy, Mr. Powell guided a newcomer, the famous slugger John Beckwith, to the park via streetcar. Home grown, the Black Sox began in World War I, perished in the Depression.

The dwindling Elite

In the 1930s Mr. Powell helped persuade the peripatetic Ee-lights to move here; and, as local agent for black Nashville owners, became business manager and then general manager, with offices in the York Hotel at 1200 Madison Avenue. Altogether, Baltimore was home to three Negro League champions, in 1929, 1939 and 1949.

Why, in the old days, was Mr. Kimbro so silent? Because, he told a recent visitor, never having gone to high school, "I couldn't always find the right words for what I wanted to say." In 1996, taking his ease in a suburban bungalow, he cherishes Baltimore for a reason unrelated to the old days at Bugle Field off Edison Highway, where the Elites played home games. It was the happy time three years ago during All-Star weekend. The Orioles brought in a raft of old-timers, including 20 or so Negro Leaguers -- too many for individual press interviews, though the Afro-American published a photo of Henry and Ebria Kimbro.

Mr. Kimbro, a successful, retired business man, bonded with the likes of Buck O'Neil and Leon Day. Afterward, for the first time, he began attending the annual Kansas City roundup at the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame.

Sometimes when the phone rings it's Joe Black. After integration, three of the younger Elites made it big in the majors, all with Brooklyn: Roy Campanella; Jim (Junior) Gilliam, from Nashville; and Mr. Black, who earlier pitched for Morgan State. Mr. Black went on to a corporate career and lives now in Phoenix. Recently his news was of the death, in Mexico, of Burnis Wright, called Bill, who set hitting records as an Elite.

No complete player roster exists but almost half a century after integration and the ensuing Negro Leagues shutdown fewer than 250 of those 2,600 players are known to be alive. Lester Lockett, Elites outfielder, lives in Chicago. Dick Powell, born downtown and still there, is three times a great-grandfather.

Henry Kimbro also talks of winter baseball in former-times Cuba. Fifty years ago he was introduced to a good-looking young spectator and married her. A happy sight later on, their children and grandchildren excelling at sports and going to college. Cuba also meant a grubstake: buying a DeSoto in Florida, he drove it home and was in the taxi business. In time, he had a fleet with a garage.

Dick Powell wintered in France 50-odd years ago as an Army topkick. Now, in telephone repartee, he pulls rank: "Next month, Kimmy, start calling me Mr." Why? Because on November 29 the long-ago baseball executive will be 85.

Henry Kimbro's 85th birthday isn't until February.

James H. Bready is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer and author of "The Home Team," a history of the Baltimore Orioles.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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