Ask a Negro Leaguer Column

Week of June 21, 2006

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Ozzie Smith

Hey Joe: Why are you such a seemingly outrageous bigot?

Whitey Jones, Laguna Beach, California

You remind me of a souvenir I received many years back. It was a miniature W.C. Fields look-alike with a tuxedo, top hat — the whole bit. Inscribed on it was, "Oh, what a beautiful day. Now just watch some bastard louse it up!" Anyway, thanks for the compliment.

Hey Joe: What do you think about the Smith/La Russa saga that has caused Cardinal Nation to turn on Ozzie like one of his MLB record 1,590 double plays?

Benny C. Lewis, Ozzie Smith Diversity Scholarship Recipient

It seems only yesterday the Houston Astros embarrassed the Cardinals in last season's NL Championship Series. Ray King, one of the Redbirds' top relievers, loved St. Louis the same as Ozzie did. The media admired him for his post-game interviews. He was witty, had a pretty good sense of the game and was dedicated to the team. Then came his demise, all because he voiced his displeasure about La Russa not pitching him in the series, due to Tony thinking Ray's performance wasn't up to par. Even if true, there was no reason for King to be released for speaking his mind. The whole team performed poorly, but this was King Tony's opportunity to exercise his ego. Somebody had to be the fall guy, and King was his man. While in Houston, prior to Pujols' home run (bringing the team back from certain disaster), La Russa raced onto the field to save face by belittling the umpires in the event his team lost.

In 1996, his first season as Cardinal manager, he created what would become a long-standing problem between Ozzie Smith and himself by pitting Smith against then-rookie shortstop, Royce Clayton. Smith has been the greatest shortstop I've ever seen. Check baseball's Hall of Fame to see if I am wrong. He went after balls the average shortstop would've only waved at.

Despite his wizardry at his position, his greatest attribute was his dedication to St. Louis. At the time La Russa wanted to bench him, he wasn't ready to retire. Now the subject reappears in 2006. I am not interested in who defends Tony's position, but the way he handled the situation was classless. Smith should've been given the courtesy of making his own decision about retirement rather than being platooned with Clayton as he was. Because of this, undue pressure was placed on both he and Clayton, and there was the possibility of this causing much dissension between them. As an end result, Ozzie handled it gracefully. Personally, based upon his overall character as baseball player and person, I would love to see him return to the field — but this time as manager of the Cards. He is entitled to this and would fare as well as La Russa's replacement (he seems to cling to the job).

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

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