Beverly, Sauget, Illinois
Until the Friday before last, I'd always wondered why radio broadcasters wore headsets. Joe Pott, a broadcaster for the Gateway Grizzlies, resolved that. But before meeting him, several things happened. As a former Negro Leaguer, I was invited there in honor of the Negro Leagues, and man, what an honor. It started at the desk of Adam Cooper, the charismatic park coordinator. He was wearing a New York Cubans uniform, which completely surprised me. What was so coincidental about it was that I had a newspaper article from 1950 that talked about me collecting three hits against the New York Cubans when I played with the Memphis Red Sox. I also brought along a picture of me with the 1952 Mississippi-Ohio Valley all-star team and a poster for a 1955 game between the Indianapolis Clowns and New York Black Yankees.
By the time I left, I had struck up friendships with Paul, the team photographer; Dwayne Isgrig, historical researcher of the St. Louis Browns; and Chris Gibson, son of Bob Gibson. He was the only Grizzly I was familiar with and I made a special request to meet him, and when he did, he extended his hand and introduced himself as Chris Gibson. Offering my hand in acknowledgement, I asked him if he would push me to the mound in my wheelchair to assist me in throwing out the first pitch. With a smile on his face, he nodded and said, "I sure will."
Later, I found myself outside the park in a golf cart being chauffeured by a gentleman named Jason, and we eventually entered the field through a large gate near the centerfield area. On the way there, I waved to the fans (I was told it was the largest crowd of the season). While sitting there, I thought how it'd be much easier for Jason to drive straight through the center field grass to the pitcher's mound, because Chris would then be spared from pushing my wheelchair there. I echoed this idea to Adam. He answered by asking me if it was difficult for me to walk without my cane. I acknowledged it was and he said, "Remember, we didn't bring your cane, and if we go out on that field, we would have to outrun the groundskeepers to keep from getting injured." Chris Gibson, his manager and several teammates nearly surrounded home plate, all wearing a variety of Negro League uniforms. Upon Chris and I reaching the mound, I raised my right hand as if to deliver the ball to the plate, but he took it out of my hand and delivered it for me.
After meeting commissioner Bill Lee, I was transported to the radio booth to be interviewed by Joe Pott. Once he adjusted the headset, everything was blotted out but his voice. It was the greatest broadcasting I'd heard since the days of Mel Allen, Red Barber, France Laux and the like. I was the only fan in the park surrounded by nothing but stars. But just think, had it not been for my grandson, Sean, and three of his children, Yusey, Aquil and T'Asia, I probably would have missed the event. My great-grandchildren kept asking me, "Papi Joe, when are we going back?"
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'.
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