Ask a Negro Leaguer Column

Week of February 23, 2006

Negro Leagues

Hey Joe: Just wanted to let you know that JC got an A+ on his History Day report on the Negro Leagues! He's taking it on to state competition! Thank you sooo much! Do you have a photo of yourself he can remember your conversation by?

Laurie Madey, Glencoe

This is absolutely indescribable — such positive accolades weaken my knees. But the credit doesn't stop with me. I am only a component of an unselfish group of people who share in this award. Had not it been for us all, it wouldn't have been possible. I do know one thing, however, and that is I am very thankful. Additionally, since I've been doing this column, I am unable to name the numerous individuals from all walks of life whose assistance I've sought in finding answers to questions unfamiliar to me.

My only regret is that during the time I was interviewed by JC, the eleven-year-old son of Laurie Madey, most of it was focused upon the caliber of play and living conditions of black players versus those of whites. As a result, many things of interest went unmentioned. Otherwise, I would've disclosed that Jack Johnson, world heavyweight boxing champ, had ties with the Negro League, in addition to Jesse Owens, 1936 Olympic track champion, who raced racehorses every so often at Negro League games and received financial donations.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, part owner of the N.Y. Black Yankees and dancing mentor of movie starlet Shirley Temple, tap-danced atop dugouts as an added attraction for fans attending games. The nucleus of the Harlem Globetrotters came from players within the Negro League. Although blacks were prohibited from driving Greyhound buses, several Negro League bus drivers not only drove buses equivalent to Greyhounds, but whenever those buses broke down — given the parts and a little time — they repaired them. Blacks introduced the first portable night-light system, as well as the batting helmet.

I'm quite sure that either Ray Doswell or Buck O'Neil — two prominently named officials at the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri — would be overly elated to furnish more history regarding the Negro League if contacted. They stand ready, whenever available, to disclose the history surrounding the league. They, like myself, cannot say enough about the endeavors of JC and his mom in undertaking this project. Hopefully, if state competition hasn't kicked off, this added information will be of help. Finally, I leave these words: "And when the one great score has come to write against your name, it writes not that you won nor lost but how you played the game."

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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