They are almost all gone. Only a few remain, maybe less than twenty. Most are in their late eighties with a few lucky enough to reach ninety. Because of their age, they now leave us more often than before. It seems that we lose one or two every month. The last five years have suddenly taken their toll on the professional Negro League players. I’m not talking about the guys who played in the Negro Leagues after 1950, but the ones who played before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the Major League color barrier in 1947. Those are the real Negro League players. A talented group of men of color, who never let the word “No” get in the way of a ballgame. These players did not have the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, no matter how talented they were. So for nearly forty years, they played hard and often the game they loved. Some baseball historians believe that this group of men may have been arguably the greatest and most innovative baseball players of their day. Players with names like Verdell Mathis, Joshua Johnson, Whit Graves, and Rick Laurent excelled at this game. Have you ever heard of John Beckwith, Dick Lundy, or John Donaldson? Believe me, these guys were ballplayers. They played everywhere, on any kind of field, in any country, and invented the word “barn-storming.”
With the vision and money of men like Andrew “Rube” Foster in the 1920’s, and “Gus” Greenlee and “Cum” Posey, Jr., in the 1930’s, the Negro Leagues were created; and teams from Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and other cities began to compete for baseball fans of all races. The players came from Cuba, Venezuela, The Dominican Republic and almost every state in the union, including the Mexican Leagues and other outlaw leagues, to form some of the greatest teams of all-time. The Birmingham Black Barons, Homestead Grays, New York Black Yankees and the Pittsburgh Crawfords had a deep and successful tradition of great baseball by great players. The Kansas City Monarchs, Memphis Red Sox, Philadelphia Stars, and Baltimore Elite Giants also attracted huge crowds and big-time players. Although times were tough and money scarce; the talent on the field and the quality of their play never wavered. It has been documented that all-black teams played all-white teams a total of 438 times during the off-season, with 309 victories to their credit. Players like Webster McDonald, Frazier Robinson, Connie Johnson, and Sam Bankhead never failed to excite the crowds with their hard-nosed play. Remember, anything went, in the Negro League’s style of ball. Every player in the league could hit the fastball and run to first base in under four seconds. Negro League pitchers were forced to be creative with their pitches, to be successful. They threw shine balls, spitballs, cut balls and the bowtie pitch with regularity, to keep the hitters off balance. The knock-down pitch was expected if you hit a home run in your previous at-bat, and the art of bunting and stealing bases was an everyday part of the Negro League game. There was lots of talking and bragging on the field, while little tricks of the game became commonplace. All in all, the Negro League game was exciting, entertaining, and on the cutting edge of professional baseball. Other players who have had their last at-bat recently are Garnett E Blair, Sr., Toni Stone and “Nap” Gulley. They continue to leave us at a rapid rate. It’s human nature to want something that you can’t have; and before long, the Negro League players and their game will pass before us like the wind through the branches of a tree. Only a few outspoken players shared the stories of their times. They helped document the accomplishments of their peers and the struggle of their game. They reminded us of a time when race was an obstacle in sports, yet you heard no bitterness in their voices. Players like Bill “Ready” Cash, Sammie Haynes, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and the most famous and outspoken, John “Buck” O’Neil, told us about a remarkable group of men and their love for and contributions to the game of baseball. They told us of Henry Miller, Wallace Guthrie, and Amos Watson. O’Neil explained the clever nicknames that tell a story or remind us of where these players were from. Players like Bill “Fireball” Beverly, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Edsall “Catskills” Walker, “Crush” Holloway, and Burnis “Wild Bill” Wright are examples of players with great nicknames, who have passed on recently. Davis’ and Walker’s nicknames hint at where they were from, like Piper, Alabama, and the Catskills of Albany, New York, while “Fireball,” “Crush,” and “Wild Bill,” attest to Beverly, Holloway and Wright’s competitiveness and abilities.
You have probably noticed that I have not mentioned the Negro League Hall of Famers. That is not what this article is about. Those players will be remembered because they have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, but they only make up a very small segment of the Negro League games and its glory. This article is about the other guys, like Jimmy Crutchfield and Armando Vasquez. Stars like Max Manning, Willie Pope, and Wilmer Fields should not be forgotten. These are the gentleman who rode the buses, played in two towns on the same day, and brought the National Pastime to non-Major League small towns all over the South and Midwest. They may not have played in the Major Leagues but they did play professional baseball. If you ever have the opportunity to meet or talk with a Negro Leaguer in any setting, please do. You might not recognize the names, but the stories will scream the universal language of baseball. This is their last at-bat. Do the names Gene Benson, Mahlon Duckett or Quincy Trouppe ring a bell? They should; but if not, look them up. You will be surprised.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.