Why so lukewarm about baseball, Joe?

Week of October 26, 2006

 Hey Joe: You say you don't really care about baseball anymore. Why's that?

Joe Buck, St. Louis

Baseball was never my thing — not even after becoming a member of the Memphis Red Sox in the Negro Leagues. I played it because the Negro Leagues gave me the opportunity to travel far and wide throughout America. What I mean about it never being "my thing" is that I did not eat it and sleep it, like I have seen and heard so many other guys do. I could take it or leave it.

My thing at the time was stickball, a game played with the long handles of old mops and brooms used as bats. With these, we had three choices of ball-like objects to swing at. They were either a rubber ball, a small Pet milk can or tops from beer or soda-pop bottles. The latter game was called "tops." With the rubber ball, no catcher's mask was necessary. Usually two or three guys played it at the same time. Imagine: playing games like this when on both sides of the Mississippi River and in other areas, semipro baseball teams were in abundance.

In addition to being "hooked" on stickball, the same applied to twelve-inch fast-pitch softball, a game I played until after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers. Prior to this occurrence, I followed baseball on the radio and even attended games at Sportsman's Park for free, as a knotholer. I was never enthused about paying to see a game, and if I did, it was after blacks became a part of it. My previous idea concerning the game was that it was off-limits to blacks. Not until joining Memphis did I become educated about the great history of the Negro Leagues.

The beginning of it commenced when I began meeting great players like Willie Wells and Oscar Charleston. Baseball was so far out of my mind at a young age that I was oblivious to the great black players and teams right across the bridge from me. After my baseball career, not in my wildest dreams did I suspect that a few decades later the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum would emerge. From this humble beginning, pensions would be eventually given to former players, which highlighted the league's existence. The contribution stemmed from the major leagues.

From the initial group of men who engaged in this historical undertaking, one was named John "Buck" O'Neil. He headed the Negro League banner. With a spokesman's persona, he carried the message about the Negro Leagues across America. He emphasized the great stars of the league. He spoke of how blacks and whites worked together back then, when the country said it was forbidden. Buck left no stone unturned. He generated love and was loved.

So loved was he, that dislike throughout America was voiced in many different forms about him not being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Buck left us recently, hopefully to arrive at a Heavenly home. Since I've known Buck, I can think of but two milestones he fell short of: the Baseball Hall of Fame and ensuring that every former Negro Leaguer received a baseball pension.

My personal feeling: I'm sure that one day he will be voted into baseball's Hall of Fame, and I am also sure that Bud Selig (unless he changes his mind about giving former Negro Leaguers pensions) will live in the Hall of Shame for cutting short the history of the Negro Leagues by refusing to give pensions to all former players.

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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