A historic lineup nearly gone

September 09, 1999|By James H. Bready

ONE BY one, the guys are leaving. Buck Leonard, Frazier Robinson, Leon Day -- this summer, Henry Kimbro, our Elite Giants' star center-fielder and leadoff man, died at 87 in his home town, Nashville, Tenn.

By now, any former regular in the Negro Leagues must be past 70. As far as the records show, no player for the Baltimore Black Sox, who preceded the Elites, is still alive. Before long, there won't be any former Elites, either.

What, if anything, will be their memorial?

The very sites of their home games -- respectively, Maryland Park at Bush and Russell streets in South Baltimore, an interlude at old Oriole Park in Waverly, Bugle Field off Edison Highway in East Baltimore, and a final year at Westport Stadium off Old Annapolis Road -- are hard to make out. Each terrain looks very different now.

Material objects are most scarce. No Baltimore game uniform has survived, apparently; collectors lack identifiable Negro Leagues balls, bats, posters, tickets, printed score cards or programs.

The autograph craze was still in the future. The Babe Ruth Museum proudly owns a genuine felt, foot-long Elite Giants pennant (not one of today's commercial reproductions). At the 1993 All-Star Game's FanFest exhibit, a yellow school bus lettered Elite Giants was on display.

At the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Mo., the main strength is old photographs, team and individual, and modern print. The museum, widely promoted, draws crowds; Buck O'Neill and Ernie Banks, formerly of the Kansas City Monarchs, give it living heroes.

An event that will shake the world of baseball memorabilia is this month's auction of the Barry Halper collection, at Sotheby's in New York City; the mere catalog costs $100. But, once again, meager is the word for Negro Leagues material.

The original Negro National League was organized by Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants in 1920, with franchises later in Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis and Birmingham, Ala.

The Eastern Colored League formed in 1923; Baltimore's Black Sox were a pillar, alongside the New York Lincoln Giants; Atlantic City, N.J., Bacharach Giants; Hilldale (from Darby, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb), later, Philadelphia Stars; Cuban Giants (East), Newark, N.J., Eagles; the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays (Pittsburgh, later Washington, D.C.).

Rocky early years

During the Depression, franchises foundered; leagues dissolved. Baltimore was unrepresented for several years; then in 1938 the Elite Giants of the Negro American League (previously representing Nashville, Tenn., Columbus, Ohio, and Washington) were persuaded to move here. By 1953, integration had put the Negro Leagues out of business.

Both the Black Sox (white-owned) and Elites (black-owned) put their money into player talent, not ticket-buyer comfort, as the historian Robert Leffler testifies. The grandstand was nonetheless usually cheerful -- nay, raucous. (White turnout? Largely the routine police detail.) The players were from all over, not just local semi-professional teams.

Black Sox lineups included Satchel Paige, briefly; Martin Dihigo, later Cuba's minister for sports; the hitting superstars John Beckwith and Mule Suttles; Ben Taylor, Jud Wilson, Laymon Yokeley, Doc Sykes, Crush Holloway, Pud Flournoy, Rap Dixon, Mack Eggleston, Scrip Lee.

Among many Elite standouts: Bill Byrd, Jonas Gaines, Eggie Clarke, Felton Snow, Pee Wee Butts, Biz Mackey, Sammy Hughes, Bill Wright, Hoss Walker, Bill Hoskins, Butch Davis, Lester Lockett, Lennie Pearson. Baltimore won three evenly spaced championships, in 1929, 1939 and 1949. How much of the population celebrated is unrecorded.

These guys were winners. Members of the Society for American Baseball Research, reconstructing games for all league years, have put the Black Sox totals at 220 wins, 193 losses; the Elites, 309 wins, 248 losses.

A scene in Brooklyn, later on, may have been the Elites' (pronounced Eee-lights) greatest moment. Long live the 1955 World Series, with one-third of the Dodger batting order raptured up from the Elites' oblivion: Jim Gilliam, third base, from Nashville; the incomparable Roy Campanella, catcher, from Philadelphia; Joe Black, pitcher, from Plainfield, N.J., and Morgan State University. "At last! Brooks Crush Yanks!"

Another scene: Baltimore, 1993. For All-Star Game Weekend, Major League Baseball rounded up a host of old-timers, including some two dozen Negro Leaguers. Up from Tennessee came Henry and Erbia Kimbro -- he had met her during one winter's Cuban League play. Mr. Kimbro was 13 years an Elite -- the longest service of anyone.

He played in six of the annual East-West games (the Negro Leagues equivalent of the All-Star Game). Kimmy, to his friends; strong, not large, he could bunt or homer, as well as tear around the bases, judge a fly ball and peg it the whole way home. "In his prime, the best center-fielder in the Negro National League," says the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues.

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