ANOTHER STAR of the old Negro leagues died last week. Lorenzo ''Piper'' Davis was 79. Never heard of him, you say. Probably not. Few of today's baseball fans knew of the former Newark Eagles pitcher Leon Day before the Baltimorean's 1995 election to the Hall of Fame (six days before he died).
Once their barnstorming ended, most of the Negro-leaguers who were never called up to the desegregated major leagues finished their lives in relative obscurity, finding occasional moments of fame at baseball-card shows or other events promoting nostalgia.
So let me tell you a little bit about Piper Davis. It would be enough for some to say Davis discovered Willie Mays. But that that's just part of the story.
As player-manager in 1948-49, Davis added teen-age phenom Mays to one of the best Birmingham Black Barons teams ever. He helped Mays hone the attributes that made him one of the most feared hitters and exceptional outfielders in the majors.
But don't judge Davis by his pupil, who was signed by the New York Giants in 1951. Those who saw them both play say Piper was better at every position except center field. Davis had all the skills to make it in the major leagues. But he never got the call.
In 1950 he became the first African-American player signed by the Boston Red Sox. Davis was leading the Red Sox farm squad in Scranton, Pa., in every offensive category when he was cut because of ''economical conditions.''
It was 1959 before the Red Sox finally called up a black player, Pumpsie Green. Boston was the last major-league team to desegregate and even now -- after having past African-American stars such as Jim Rice and current favorite Mo Vaughn -- the Red Sox have a reputation for prejudice.
It was Piper's luck that the Red Sox drafted him. After being cut he played in Latin America and became a star for the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League, once playing all nine positions in a game as a promotion.
Davis also played some basketball for a Harlem Globetrotters satellite team and eventually became a scout for the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos. Like most of the Negro-leaguers who will talk about it, Davis never expressed bitterness about what might have been.
A broader lesson
But his story and the stories of Leon Day, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and even Satchel Paige, who made it to the majors when he was at least a decade past his prime, provide a lesson that goes far beyond the sport they played.
It is an important lesson now that the courts have decided special efforts are no longer needed to provide opportunity to African Americans and other minority groups. Affirmative action is dying fast, but some people are slow to get the message.
Donald G. Gifford, dean of the University of Maryland Law School, has watched the number of first-year African-American students drop 50 percent in one year after UM affirmative-action programs were diluted by court rulings. He fears there will be a new ruling that any consideration of race by the law school, no matter how minute, is wrong.
The most vocal opponents of affirmative action have convinced themselves that such programs are no longer needed, that all playing fields are level and everyone can expect to be judged on his abilities and not by how he looks. But it's hard to believe that.
Examples today may not be as clear as the ignoring of most black baseball players after the major leagues became integrated. But there are still too many instances where prejudice remains the obvious obstacle to opportunity, and nothing short of a strong shove in the right direction is going to change the outcome.
Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/31/97