Caught on the fly

Pullman porters gave whites a fleeting glimpse into another world

August 08, 2004|By Larry Tye

IT WAS THE only baseball they had. And now it was gone.

It was the only ball because in the Freeport, Maine, of 1918, where boys gathered every afternoon between school-out and chore-time, the town could not afford uniforms, bats, or even a ball. Not with fuel shortages, food rationing and a flu epidemic infecting the nation.

The spare change the boys could pull together totaled one baseball. One. But one ball was enough, because Freeport was a baseball town. Boys joined the team as soon as they were big enough to grip a bat. They played on the empty lot between the high school and town hall, using old sweat shirts as bases. If a batter connected hard enough to knock off the cover, the men at Dave Longway's garage stuck it back with friction tape. During the frozen winter, the boys painted their baseball yellow to see it in the snow.

Then on a lazy afternoon near the start of summer, the ball was lost. It sailed off Hank Soule's bat over second base, cresting over the iron railroad tracks that ran through the outfield, descending like a rocket on a brilliant harvest night.

Then it landed, thwap, right in the open palm of a Pullman porter on the Halifax, Nova Scotia-bound sleeping car. The porter was no more prepared to catch a ball than the boys were to lose theirs. But there it was, floating through the open vestibule of his parlor car, and he raised his open hand, instinctively, like any good American boy would. And for a moment he was as stunned as they.

It all seemed like a dream as the boys reflected back. The old Maine Central work train motoring ahead just 50 feet behind second base, an empty Pullman sleeper in tow. The porter waving with his free hand, clasping the ball with his other. The boys were mesmerized.

Then they were enraged - that the porter had kept their only baseball, and there would be no more games 'til they could scrabble together enough dimes to buy another.

Perry Taylor wrote a letter to the president of the Maine Central. The other boys added their names. Who was that porter, they asked, and could he bring them back their ball, please? Then they pooled their coins and bought a brand new hardball at the sporting goods counter of L. L. & G. C. Bean, the local department store that would make their town a destination.

By the time the sleeper came through again two weeks later, the boys had almost forgotten about their ordeal. The same porter was deadheading with the empty car, and he waved from the vestibule. Then he tossed them a new ball clean of everything except some scribbling.

The boys gathered around to read what they could see were signatures. There was Deacon Scott, the Boston Red Sox's sure-handed shortstop. Catcher Wally Schang, who during the off-season sewed covers on Pullman mattresses. And George Herman Ruth, the "Babe," who carried that 1918 Red Sox team to a world championship. It would be Mr. Ruth's next-to-the-last year in Boston and Boston's last World Series title in that still-young century, making it the stuff of legends and curses.

"It had the autographs of all the first-string players," John Gould, who was 10 at the time and had just moved to Freeport, remembered 80 years later. "It was put in a small wood box with cotton batting, and the last I knew, Perry Taylor was its custodian."

And there were more baseballs, one nearly every time that porter passed through. Some were autographed, others clean. Enough, in the end, to fill a bushel basket. "After that," Mr. Gould added, "we had all the baseballs we wanted."

They also had their only encounter ever with a black man.

Everyone was white those days in Freeport, and most of Maine. No one knew the name of the porter who brought them the baseballs, where he lived, or whether he had boys of his own. No one thought to ask. They were uncertain whether it had been his plan all along to return a signed baseball, or if that came in response to their letter. Most believed the former, especially when the balls kept coming.

To those boys, a black man was a Pullman porter, and their Pullman porter was magical. "This began an association with the only black man our town knew anything about in those days," concluded Mr. Gould, historian, author and, until his recent death, the dean of the Maine press corps.

And so it was for whites across America from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th. The Pullman porter was the only black man many of them ever saw. To some he embodied subservience and obsequiousness. To others, dignity and mystery. Whatever their notion of him, it almost always was shrouded in mystery and born of ignorance. He remained a dark silhouette passing by at 50 miles an hour, the way he did through the Freeport outfield.

And so it remains today. The Pullman Co. died nearly 40 years ago; the few surviving porters are in their 90s. But to much of white America, the black man remains as much of an enigma as he was in Freeport in 1918.

There have been gains in narrowing the understanding gap between the races, but neighborhoods and schools are slipping back into segregation, and the easy familiarity imagined by Pullman porters like the one on the Maine Central run still is elusive.

Larry Tye is the author of Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.

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