Ask a Negro Leaguer

Week of August 31, 2005

Hey Joe: I was always interested as to which of the two men, Josh Gibson vs. Babe Ruth, was: 1) The best hitter? 2) The best player overall? 3) The best role model for up-and-coming players?

I wish that they could have had real playoffs against the greatest teams of both the Negro Leagues and the major leagues.

J.E. Horst, Dittmer

Questions 1) and 2) will be forever debated without answer, thanks to a black and white society that was separated at the time. In answer to question 3): In 1950, when I tried out for the Memphis Red Sox -- the team I started with in the Negro Leagues -- every regular member was my "role model." My focus on them was as baseball players and not their personal lives. Again, in regard to Gibson and Ruth, society then prohibited such fraternizing.

However, the subject surrounding the Negro Leagues and the major leagues is a pretty good topic. If I recollect my historical memory correctly, there was only a Negro League and a white league. The so-called major leagues never became major until after 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke the barrier. That's when the best ballplayers in the country -- black and white -- began collaborating. But then, the late Curt Flood, a black former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, took it a step further. He did it by hammering away at the reserve clause previously monopolized by white team owners, until the walls came tumbling down, which ushered in free agency -- thus making ballplayers millionaires and the game of baseball big business.

Hey Joe: Most of my baseball-knowledgeable friends tell me they think Bret Boone was using steroids in 2001, though he denies it. I like Boonie and want to believe him when he says he wasn't. My (slim) argument has been that everyone on the team did great that year -- for Pete's sake, they won 116 games. Am I just engaging in wishful thinking?

Melissa Nakamura, Seattle

In most cases, even the guiltiest of offenders denied charges filed against them until proven guilty. As yet, Bret Boone is innocent, because nothing pertaining to the allegation has been proven. Anyway, from reading your question, I gather that your knowledgeable baseball friends say they think he used steroids. The word "think" won't hold up in any court of law. Until you find out definitely, there really isn't a case, because your information is only hearsay.

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 didnt 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 Sportsmans Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henrys 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, theyd 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 [email protected] If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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