Ask a Negro Leaguer Column

Week of March 16, 2006

Mar 15, 2006 at 4:00 am
Hey Joe: Do you think Buck O'Neil not being accepted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame is another slap in the face to baseball and an attempt to once again deny Negro Leaguers their rightful place in the Hall?

Abdul, University City

Dating back to early 2005, if I had charged $1.50 for each person who called or wrote me asking who I planned to vote for to be inducted in the Hall, I could purchase myself a pretty good secondhand car. Anyway, my answer to all was "the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum."

Flashback to 1950: the Memphis Red Sox vs. the KC Monarchs in Kansas City. "Atta way to hit that ball, kid." These words came from Buck O'Neil, complimenting me on a fortunate day at the plate for Memphis. He said things like this regardless of the team the player played for. For two years during games against the Monarchs, that's the Buck I remember: personable, lovable and one of the greatest people I've ever met. The same applies to his managing.

As great as the history of the Negro Leagues was, in 1946 I was completely oblivious to it (much like blacks today, who are oblivious to their overall history). However, in all probability had there been no Effa Manleys, J.L. Wilkinsons, Cum Poseys, W.S. Martins, Gus Greenlees, Ted Rasberrys and a host of other owners, there would have been no Negro Leagues. Collectively, over a period of years, such executives operated as an employment agency for blacks shut out of the white world of baseball. And the jobs weren't limited to baseball players alone.

Seemingly, O'Neil and Manley are being pitted against each other, but this is no case of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. These two people are class acts. The thrill of victory is that as Manley is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, it could also be a stepping stone for all the other great Negro League team owners. After all, the owners of so-called MLB at the time destroyed their leagues. Of all the current teams in the American and National Leagues, there isn't one black franchise owner. Commissioner Bud Selig and the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT)'s executive director Jim Martin continue this destruction by cutting off the Negro League in 1957, thus refusing to give former Negro Leaguers who played until 1960 a pension. This is what should have been attacked.

The name of Buck O'Neil shall forever live. In this instance, there is no such thing as the agony of defeat.

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.