Ask a Negro Leaguer

Week of August 24, 2005

Hey Joe: It looks like they will be voting to accept Negro League players in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. What other Negro Leaguers do you think deserved to be enshrined in Cooperstown?

Jamie Krock, Canton, Illinois

I'm sorry, but even as a former Negro Leaguer, I am not qualified to answer your question. So says Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, and Jim Martin, executive director of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) -- two guys who, if asked to review the history of the Negro Leagues, would be green as goose doo-doo around a country pond. In 1997, Ol' Bud and BAT, an organization fronted by MLB, did a wonderful thing by providing charitable pensions to former Negro Leaguers who played before 1947. Excluded from this group were many players who played from 1948 until 1960.

Last year a local newspaper revealed that the pension was being extended for players in need who'd played parts of at least four years. I contacted BAT's office, was sent an application, submitted it and was rejected. Suddenly the rules had changed. In spite of being disabled, I was told I didn't have four years, but neither did Willie Mays, Ernie Banks nor Hank Aaron -- all Hall of Famers. Between 1948 and 1951, I played against Mays and Banks while I was with the Memphis Red Sox and Mays was a Birmingham Black Baron and Banks a Kansas City Monarch.

With the exception of Ernie Banks, who in 1953 stepped off the Monarch bus in Chicago and went straight to the Cubs' locker room, I followed the rest into the white minor leagues. While there I sustained a career-ending knee and arm injury and subsequently joined the Indianapolis Clowns -- Hank Aaron's alma mater -- in 1955.

To make a long story short, Ol' Bud and BAT decided to compensate twenty or more handpicked players with pensions. Unfortunately, other Negro Leaguers who played until 1960 were denied, including me. Had Jackie Robinson, Mays, Banks or Aaron fallen into the above category, they would have been denied too. For the above reason, I took offense, called the press and made known my intention to expose it.

For the time being, Congress should table the steroid stuff and investigate Bud Selig and BAT for misleading the American public. After all, players of color in the majors today are byproducts of the Negro Leagues. In 2006 my vote for an inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame is cast for the Negro League Baseball Museum, which houses all the invisible stars, including the late Ted "Double-Duty" Radcliffe, the league's most charismatic, celebrated figure.

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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