Week of December 15, 2005

Dec 14, 2005 at 4:00 am
Hey Joe: As far as you know, are the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball working together to help promote Negro League history? Or is the MLB trying to push it under the bed, to try and erase all the memories many have about the bad side of the Negro Leagues, like the racism and biased attitudes white people had for black players?

Michael Spatz, Baltimore, Maryland

My baptism in racism occurred in 1950, shortly after the conclusion of the first and only black baseball school, known as the Delta Negro Baseball School, held in Greenville, Mississippi, which I attended and which was conducted by Homer Curry, manager of the Memphis Red Sox.

Later, players that attended the school would become a part of the Red Sox spring-training season. During this phase Goose booked an exhibition game mainly between these players and a few regular members of the Red Sox. The game was billed as "The Memphis Red Sox vs. A Semi-Pro All-Star Team" and was played in a ballpark in a small Mississippi town.

The park was jammed with whites. All seats along the first-base line and behind home plate were labeled "For Whites Only." Seats near third base were designated as those for colored. Seated behind home plate was a white announcer. He related how proud the town was to bring "these two 'cullud' teams" of the "Nigra American League" there to play.

Scheduled to pitch and catch for the team billed as the Red Sox were two of the team's regular members; the same applied to the semipro all-stars. I was assigned to the Red Sox. Following the introduction of our opponents, the speaker began to call out the regular starting lineup. Lastly, he came to the pitcher and catcher, known as the battery. Our catcher stood six-foot-five, while our pitcher barely reached five-five. The announcer took full advantage of the situation to make a startling comment.

Suddenly, with a slight touch of humor in his voice, he regained the attention of the crowd. "Ladies and genelmen, the battery fo' the Memphis Red Sox tonight will be a big niggah catchin' and a li'l niggah pitchin,'" he said, adding, "y'all boys can play ball now."

The announcer's rude assessment set the mood for the evening. To make matters worse, a bat slipped out of one of our player's hands and hit a white man. He went down as if poleaxed. Blacks seated near third base exited the park by jumping the fence, because a black man had hit a white man, albeit accidentally.

This was the beginning of many such incidents during my baseball career.

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.