Ask a Negro Leaguer Column

Week of May 5, 2006

Bob Gibson

Hey Joe: I am doing some research on Bob Gibson and the racial tension that might have been there for him as he entered the major leagues. As a former Negro League player, what did you feel watching Gibson dominate major leaguers? Did most Negro League players feel fulfillment when they saw the black athlete spurn the Negro Leagues for the Major Leagues? Thank you for your time.

Kris Miller, Edwardsville

There was no doubt about Bob Gibson's pitching ability. However, by the time he reached his peak, the biased atmosphere had been softened by guys like Leroy "Satchel" Paige, Don Newcombe, Sam "Toothpick" Jones, Dan Bankhead and others. During their careers, they could have stepped off their respective team buses and gone straight to the so-called majors rather than being sent into some minor-league farm system (Satchel Paige is a prime example). They were preceded by Jackie Robinson, who started the procedure, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella.

In 1950 I became a Negro Leaguer with the Memphis Red Sox, the former team of Dan Bankhead. During the year, I played against Joe Black. He was pitcher for the Baltimore Elite Giants and would later become a Brooklyn Dodger. Two other guys I played against were Willie Mays and Ernie Banks; both would follow Robinson, Campy and Doby to the beginning of the authentic major league. As the list grew longer, pitchers, outfielders and more all became part of the major-league makeup. Therefore, upon Gibson's arrival, he just became another major-league ballplayer.

My recollection of Gibson's most prolific pitching dominance appeared during his 1968 World Series performance against the Detroit Tigers, when he struck out seventeen batters in one game. Quite frankly, after my playing days, I saw no more dominance by Bob Gibson than I did from other pitchers like Newcomb, Koufax, Don Drysdale, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Juan Marichal and others. In 1959, after Pumpsi Green joined the Boston Red Sox (the last major-league team to hire a black player), the Negro League was at its end. But this did not preclude blacks in the farm system from undergoing racial tension.

At the time Robinson was sold by the Kansas City Monarchs to the Brooklyn Dodgers, based upon much literature I read and stories I heard from players I met after joining the Memphis Red Sox, many things occurred. The literary work disclosed how some white team owners tried to get over by claiming the Negro League constituted racketeering because several team owners were policy czars. As a result, white team owners wanted to get black players for free or as meager purchases. Numerous players told me about being sent to farm clubs on a look-see basis. However, when Gibson arrived at his peak, a major leaguer was a major leaguer.

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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