Pants on Fire

Prince Joe dissects the firestorm surrounding Sherman George.

Sherman George

Hey Joe: What do you think about the rift between former fire chief Sherman George and Mayor Francis Slay?

Denis Leary, New York City

History provides an answer for any issue. In this particular case, my mind reverts back to 1950, shortly after I joined the Memphis Red Sox. One night in a small Mississippi town, the white male announcer made a reference to the height of our pitcher and catcher. He blared over the mic, "Ladies an' gene'men...the battery fo' the Memphis Red Sox tonight will be a big niggah catchin' an' a li'l niggah pitchin.'"

In 1975 I started a manuscript, its title taken from the announcer's rude assessment. I thought it was appropriate to point out the changing times within the black community, and also point out how, once they attained a position of power, most blacks acted the same way as whites did. This resulted in drawing much consternation from other blacks who felt they were being treated as a lesser person by those blacks in charge, just as they had been by whites.

A few years after I started the manuscript my grandson Sean, who'd been with me since he was a baby, started preschool and developed good study ethics. After hearing me speak about writing a book so often, he got the idea to write one himself. About fifteen minutes after compiling pages of chicken-scratch and clamping on a front and back cover, he jumped out of his chair and said, "I've written my book." After high school, he wound up at Lincoln University in Jefferson City on an academic scholarship and later transferred to Western Illinois University in Macomb, leaving there with credentials commensurate with teaching and writing. Currently, he has me on the Internet with his soon-to-be-released Princoirs: The Official Memoirs of Prince Joe Henry. Up until this point, he has typed every single article I have written for Riverfront Times. What's so amazing about it is that he has done it over the phone, because I can't type a lick. Our success is in unity!

Anyway no matter what the stature or position, the title A Big Niggah Catchin' And A Li'l Niggah Pitchin' reflects why blacks experience disunity. Reverse the title to A Big Niggah Pitchin' And A Li'l Niggah Catchin' and apply it to Chief Sherman George, a man with an impeccable background in firefighting; and Charles Bryson, a black man who was duped into accepting a position previously held by a white, thus leaving it in the hands of one black to discipline another. The outcome in paraphrasing the title would read: A Big Niggah Pitchin' Orders And A Li'l Niggah Catchin' Hell. Sadly, Chief George must undergo such trauma from a man who, once offered the job by his white appointer, should have said, "No thanks. You started the confusion, now resolve it and then give me the job." The end result? Black and white dissension. (Nonetheless, Chief George had nothing to do with the faulty equipment that resulted in the loss of two lives.)

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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