Wilson Field in Anne Arundel County was once the home of the Hot Sox and the foundation of a proud community

Diamond memories

October 11, 2006|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

His windup is a touch slow, but Tommy Sesker still looks as if he belongs on the pitcher's mound. At age 78, decades past his playing prime with the Galesville Hot Sox, he can hurl a pitch past a former teammate at their old ball field.

"You still got a little dip in it, boy," Chester Turner said to Sesker, after whiffing at home plate.

"I can still throw it pretty good, but I ain't got the wind," Sesker, of Edgewater, assessed. "I was in there with the big boys. They threw the little boy in there because I was a good pitcher."

Though Sesker is not out on the field that often these days, his memories of no-hitters and extra-inning wins that earned him a tryout with the Baltimore Orioles keep him coming back to Galesville. Sesker played out those feats in the 1940s on a southern Anne Arundel County baseball diamond called Wilson Field. Back then, sandlot baseball was central to black life in Galesville, creating sportsmen out of watermen, and community out of play.

Now, six decades after Sesker made his start as a pitcher, the field where he met and sometimes outplayed Negro leagues greats, is being sold.

Turner, whose family owns the land, is a descendant of Henry Wilson, a former slave who bought the property in the 19th century. He envisions senior housing on the field where people still drive by on a lazy weekend in hopes of catching a pickup game.

"It's time," he said of the field, recently featured in a Galesville heritage brochure. "It's been here, and we feel like we can bring something to the community."

The field, with its green cinderblock dugouts and rickety wooden stands, will go away, but the memories and former teammates stay close.

"During my time, this field meant something," said Turner, a former first baseman who lives in Bowie. "All we had was work and baseball, and the baseball team was the community."

Like other sandlot teams, the Galesville Hot Sox provided an opportunity for black players to perfect their game and become local heroes at a time when major league baseball was closed to them. Sandlot teams served as informal farm clubs for the Negro leagues, the first of which began play in 1920.

Formed in 1915, the Hot Sox moved to Wilson field in 1926.

The team rented the grassy 26-acre lot for $50 a season and played from April to September.

At season's end, players earned $50 to $100 and bonuses for outstanding play during the season - income that often was a supplement to their work as watermen. In the meantime, Negro leagues clubs barnstormed across the country, bringing elite players to humble towns and big cities alike.

"African-Americans were picking up on the entrepreneurial spirit in the game," said Raymond Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

For many, sandlot baseball was an introduction to the game - a chance to emulate the legends they followed. "Independent black teams were booking themselves as if they were a traveling group of entertainers, competing against each other so they could proclaim colored champions," Doswell said.

In Galesville, the Hot Sox also played against a local white team, but segregation held fast for a time.

"You just had that feeling that you wanted to be playing with your own color," Sesker said. "But we all got along."

The team integrated in 1967, when Billy Redman joined the roster. It folded in 1997.

Teams such as the Hot Sox and players like Sesker kept blacks excited about and interested in a game that on the national level shut them out. Jackie Robinson - a Negro leagues star -didn't join the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup until 1947.

In Maryland, a young John Makell Jr. would take a picnic lunch to Bugle Field to watch the Baltimore Elite (pronounced EE-light) Giants - champions in 1939 and 1949.

And in time, he could see and even be on the field with those players - the likes of Joe Black, Leon Day and Larry Doby - in Galesville.

"I remember as a boy sitting on the bench being thrilled by them," Makell said. "We always held our own when Negro League teams came down. They'd throw their second-line pitchers at us - they weren't going to put Joe Black out there."

Black, a Morgan State alumnus, later became the first black pitcher to win a World Series game in 1952 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Hundreds paid two quarters at the gate to watch Galesville's band of brothers play, often against men who entered the majors when the dividing line fell.

They saw Jim Gilliam, eventually of the Brooklyn Dodgers, play too deep in their shallow outfield. And they saw all 130 pounds of William "Dooley" Booze push curveballs by Willie Wells, the Negro leagues home run king.

The Hot Sox were among the best around - outplaying rivals like the Drury Giants, Parole Cubs and Davidsonville Clowns. Their field was a near-regulation diamond. And often the players were so eager to compete, they'd show up on Saturdays and jump in and pinch-hit, work clothes and all.

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