Payback time for big-timers

July 16, 2000|By Norris P. West

ANY DAY now, Ernest Burke's check will arrive. He expects the usual amount, $29. That's what he receives six months as pension for playing professional baseball in the days before multimillion-dollar contracts, charter planes and integration.

The check will be enough to buy one ticket for a good seat at Camden Yards, where he spent a recent afternoon marveling at the surroundings, if not the players.

Things weren't nearly this good when Mr. Burke played from 1946 to 1948 for the Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro National Leagues. He earned $300 a month plus meal money -- not bad in those days, but not in the same galaxy as today's salaries, even if you count inflation. Today's average major-league salary is nearly $2 million.

Orioles outfielder Albert Belle earns $12.9 million a year. He takes home more for one inning's work ($8,826) than Mr. Burke made in his Negro League career.

Mr. Burke and other African-American ballplayers in the late 1800s and early 1900s paved the way for Albert Belle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds to reach the big leagues and big money. He's 76 and not ashamed to say he thinks today's African-American stars need to give something back -- cold cash.

He was watching Orioles catcher Charles Johnson approach the batter's box in a game against Toronto. Mr. Johnson lost his salary arbitration, which means he's earning only $4.6 million this season ($3,155 an inning).

The old Negro Leaguer sits two levels and two generations from Mr. Johnson and doesn't think he'll ever speak with him or other black players. But if he could get five minutes with him ...

"I would tell him, `My name is Ernest Burke, and I played in the Negro leagues. Some of the older guys are having a hard time. If you guys could get together and give just 1 percent of your salaries to these players, to be split equally, I would appreciate it very much.'"

Tremendous debt

He's no dreamer. He doesn't think for a second that Mr. Johnson or other black players will pull out their checkbooks immediately upon hearing his pitch. "I think they would look at me like I'm crazy," he said, as Mr. Johnson stroked a double off the scoreboard in right field.

Today's ballplayers indeed owe a tremendous debt to their predecessors. Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first African-American to play major league baseball. The former Oberlin College student and his brother, Welday Walker, played for the Toledo team in 1884, when the club was a major league franchise. But more than 50 years passed before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier again, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

During that period, African-Americans played in scattered leagues before entrepreneurs -- led by player-manager Rube Foster -- assembled the Negro Leagues in 1920. The leagues showcased major league-caliber talent in minor-league settings. Josh Gibson was the black Babe Ruth; some will argue that Gibson was the superior slugger, though incomplete records and different circumstances make comparisons futile.

Another star, Cool Papa Bell, inspired legendary tales. He was so swift, it was said, that he could turn off the light and get into bed before the room got dark. Muhammad Ali later used that line. Then there was the colorful, talented Satchel Paige, probably the best pitcher of his time. Paige was so good that even at age of 42 he had enough stuff left when he finally broke into the major leagues to pitch Cleveland to the American League pennant.

Mr. Burke was not a star, but he earned a respectable paragraph in "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues," by James A. Riley, perhaps the most complete compilation of black baseball information.

Mr. Burke played the outfield, third base and he pitched. He was a role player who posted decent numbers in the Negro leagues, minor leagues and the Canadian Provincial League until he left professional baseball in 1954.

He was born in Perryville and moved with friends to Quebec after his parents died before he was a teen-ager. He returned to the United States to enlist in the Marine Corps for World War II and played baseball on segregated Marine Corps teams in the Pacific against white teams. He said he got three hits off an opponent who had played Major League baseball, and the pitcher advised him to try out for a Negro League team, something Mr. Burke -- who had become a Canadian -- had not considered seriously.

Life after baseball

He played for the Havre de Grace Black Sox, a semipro team, and was scouted at Baltimore's Bugle Field by the Elite Giants, the team of eventual Hall-of-Famers Roy Campanella and Leon Day.

Life after baseball hasn't been so bad. Mr. Burke was a heavy equipment operator at the Henry J. Knott Construction Co. for 30 years until he retired in the early 1980s and became a tennis instructor. He supplements his pension by attending trading card shows, where he signs autographs and sells Negro league paraphernalia.

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