Ask a Negro Leaguer

Week of August 10, 2005

Hey Joe: Would you rather be a Hall of Fame player, rich beyond your wildest dreams but never a part of a championship team (à la Karl Malone, Dan Marino or Barry Bonds), or a role player who has had moments of greatness, is rich but not excessively rich, but has won championships (like "Big Shot Bob" Robert Horry, Jermaine Wiggins or Craig Counsell)?

Frank Bishop, Seattle

The two guys named last -- Wiggins and Counsell -- must have starred quietly in their respective athletic circles, because I have never heard much about either -- not to say that other people haven't. Now the playing field is level. Well, if I must make a choice, I'd choose to be like Malone, Marino and Bonds. I'm not a betting man, but I'd be willing to bet that none of these guys ever missed a meal because of not playing in a championship.

These three will certainly be inducted into their respective Halls of Fame, but I refuse to bet that the role player will be as successful. Yes, I suppose winning a championship is nice, but not nice enough for me to give some of my hard-earned money back in exchange for a championship ring. In reference to legends, rookie athletes perceive Malone, Marino and Bonds as such now.

Hey Joe: What factors have caused Latinos to overtake African-Americans as baseball's dominant athletes of color?

Tito Landrum, Joplin

This question mirrors the greatness of the Negro Leagues in relation to the phrase "Liberty and Justice for All." Not only did it pave the way for Latinos, but also white promoters and white team owners during a time when such collaboration between blacks and whites was prohibited by the law. Ironically, the only Latinos accepted in the white leagues were those with a complexion comparable to that of my best friend, Gene. However, in Cuba -- or other places similar -- one brother might have a color like Gene while another might be as dark as Edgar Renteria, because there was no color line.

Blacks traditionally have been forced to pursue areas in American life where the most money was accessible, because it was their means of survival. Boxing was a prime example. For those outside boxing, it was the Negro Leagues. Once it was destroyed by unmerciful white baseball moguls, nothing was left for the scouting of black talent in baseball other than sandlot and semipro teams. By this time basketball and football had gradually opened their doors to blacks. Thus, places such as the Dominican Republic were ripe for baseball scouts to solicit talent. Today the versatility of blacks is magnified. They are the dominant force in basketball and football.


Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn’t know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman’s Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white. Perhaps Henry’s most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they’d arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts. Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards. After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'. Direct questions on any and all topics to heyjoe@riverfronttimes.com. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

 
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