When baseball Giants `could move mountains'

A Negro Leagues pitcher remembers good times and bad

February 10, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Sharing images clear as day, Ernest A. Burke seemed to have nothing but good memories of being a Negro Leagues baseball pitcher from 1946 to 1949, playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Burke, 77, spoke yesterday near an exhibit on the Negro Leagues at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, a display often on loan throughout the year, museum officials said.

"We want to make sure [segregation] never happens again," said John Ziemann, the museum's community outreach coordinator.

Burke's conversation cut through his athletic career including the rough patches and the chuckles over techniques for throwing knuckleballs, palmballs, sliders and forkballs.

"We never had any trainers to teach us how to slide or pitch," Burke said, "but each team was like a family. We would help and correct each other if needed. That's what made us so good. We could move mountains."

Playing in a segregated league meant being treated generally as second-class citizens at home and on the road, all for $250 a month. The Elite Giants were not allowed to play in the 33rd Street municipal baseball park, which rankled Burke, who had recently returned home from serving in World War II as a Marine. Instead, they played at far-off Bugel Field on Federal Street and Edison Highway.

Away games were another story. "We rode in a school bus 200, 300 miles," he recalled of their travels along the East Coast. "You'd get out of the bus and stretch, and your bones would crack."

Prejudice, he told the group, was often waiting at the other end. Some towns and cities did not allow blacks to use changing facilities, so his team often dressed in their uniforms behind highway billboards. One listener, Jamie Patterson, 14, of Randallstown, found that scenario "embarrassing."

At an Atlanta restaurant, an ugly scene once underlined the hostility in the air. As the players were leaving, Burke said, "we saw people break the dishes, glasses and teacups on our table."

Jackie Robinson, who broke through baseball's color barrier in 1947 to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was not someone Burke ever saw on the diamond, but still he spoke with feeling about the taunts Robinson endured: "There's not a pedestal high enough for Jackie Robinson, but his wife, Rachel, is the one who licked and bandaged the wounds."

Robinson, he told Rick Manick, the sports director of WYRE-AM who moderated the informal talk, fused the white and black worlds of baseball: "When Jackie Robinson went to the major leagues, he took the Negro Leagues with him, including stealing home." He also mentioned Josh Gibson, a black catcher and hitter who legendarily slugged a ball out of Yankee Stadium.

A Perryville native and a Towson resident who worked as a tennis professional at area clubs until back surgery sidelined him, Burke speaks at schools and colleges to give younger generations a sense of the obstacles he has surmounted.

Manick said, "You have a tremendous gift, just being you."

Burke would like to see more African-American major league baseball players help youths and adults in need: "I see them make all this money, walk around like they own the world, instead of giving back to the neighborhoods."

A firefighter from Prince George's County, John K. Chambers, 42, said, "Listening to him, he doesn't retaliate, and he has every right to."

Burke gently explained that after what he witnessed, he does not carry slights or grudges with him, but remembers the good times back in his ball-playing days.

"I have no bitterness for what I went through. I chalked it up to experience."

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