Connecting again

An old photo helps reunite two Colts teammates and friends 53 years later

October 08, 2008|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Look at the picture, taken in a dime-store photo booth in 1955. What do you see? A black-and-white snapshot of black and white buddies hanging out - in black-and-white, segregated times. They seem an odd pair. One wears a wide smile, a starched shirt and a bow tie. He glows with the naivete of Barney Fife. His friend, dressed casually, is smiling, too. But his is a weathered, worldly smile, a look born, perhaps, of the day. Both men, then Baltimore Colts rookies, would leave their mark on pro sports.

Bow Tie, aka Raymond Berry, helped lead the Colts to two world championships during a stellar career as a Hall of Fame receiver.

Teammate Leroy Vaughn left football after one season. His son, Maurice "Mo" Vaughn, became a big league slugger and the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1995.

And the photo? It lay tucked away in Berry's belongings, forgotten for more than a half-century before he discovered it last year.

Finding the picture led Berry to search for Vaughn, whom he hadn't seen in 50 years.

Back then, racism was still rampant in America. Had the picture been taken in the deep South - had a white man and a black man entered a coin-operated photo booth, shared the single stool and closed the curtain - there would have been hell to pay.

But it was during a road trip to Chicago or New York that two first-year players stepped into a Woolworth's, spent a quarter and forged their friendship on a wallet-sized keepsake.

Last year, when they reconnected, they spoke by phone, shared memories and vowed to reunite this summer. Soon after that conversation, a letter arrived at Vaughn's home in Midlothian, Va.

Inside was a copy of the vintage photo. Vaughn placed it on the coffee table in his living room. Berry's picture sits on the desk of his office in his house in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Vaughn is now a retired high school principal; Berry is the spokesman for a national insurance company. Both are 75.

But in 1955, they were a couple of low-grade, 22-year-old rookies determined to stick with the Colts.

Each arrived in camp unnoticed. Berry, myopic and slow afoot, was a 20th-round draft pick out of Southern Methodist University. Vaughn, a native Baltimorean, was a free agent from Virginia Union, where he had starred at quarterback - a door then closed to almost all black players in the pros.

They met during training camp at Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College in Westminster: a country boy from north Texas and a steelworker's son from a working-class neighborhood in South Baltimore. Both single, Berry and Vaughn played catch, met for chow, shot some pool, shared some laughs.

"It was as if we'd been drawn together by a magnet," Vaughn said.

Occasionally, in their free time, the two would drive to Baltimore in Berry's black 1950 Chevy to see the sights or maybe catch a show. Vaughn took Berry with him on a visit to his alma mater, Carver Tech, an all-black trade school on the city's west side. Once, Berry and several other Colts invited Vaughn to a movie at the Hippodrome Theater. Turned away because of Vaughn's presence, the players went instead to the Regent Theater in a black neighborhood on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"We hit it off real good," Berry said of their relationship. "Who would have thought, back then, that the best friend of a guy from Texas would be a black quarterback?"

Vaughn remembered Berry for his character and drive. Bigotry, he said, was absent.

"I'd been around long enough to smell it," Vaughn said, "but I didn't smell it at all. Raymond and I really became friends."

Times were changing in Baltimore. In 1954, the city had been among the first to desegregate its public schools. A year later, had they wanted, Berry and Vaughn could have sat together for the first time at the lunch counter at a Read's drug store. Or played tennis on the same court at Druid Hill Park without risk of arrest.

But integration came in fits and starts. In 1955, if a black woman tried on a hat in a Baltimore department store, she was expected to buy it. Overt racism died grudgingly. Not until 1963 would Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Woodlawn or the Northwood Theatre (near then-Morgan State College) admit black patrons.

Pro football was changing, too. By 1955, black players had gained a toehold in the NFL. Three blacks made the Colts' roster that season, and though Vaughn wasn't one, he did make the team's taxi (practice) squad.

Berry? He caught 13 passes that season, a measly sum on a 5-6-1 club that finished 10th in passing yardage among 12 teams.

But Berry was developing a quirky work ethic that would soon become legend. Resolute and obsessive, he sought perfection. And the strong-armed Vaughn helped him in that pursuit.

"Raymond and I worked out every chance we got," Vaughn said. "On Mondays [the players' day off], he'd pick me up in that beat-up old car at my parents' place on Franklin Street, and we'd go to Druid Hill or Clifton Park to practice his pass patterns.

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