Week of November 30, 2005

Nov 30, 2005 at 4:00 am
Hey Joe: What are your thoughts on the salaries of professional athletes?

Sean Breit, St. Louis

I wouldn't pay a ballplayer a million dollars if he strolled to the plate barehanded, stood there with his back to the pitcher, bent over with his cheeks spread and farted a ball out of the park. I say this particularly in reference to most black baseball players, especially those who are unaware of how they got to where they are. I lay out a bit of history here, hopefully to open their eyes.

In reference to blacks, the Negro Leagues was an employment agency. Team owners hired players, drivers and traveling secretaries that operated on the same level as the white baseball leagues. Most importantly, it was majority black fans that made this organization work. Within the black community, the Negro League was placed upon the same pedestal as any white team in a predominantly white community.

In spite of Jackie Robinson's greatness as a baseball player, had there not been a Negro League, his entry into professional baseball could have very well been delayed. After he joined the Dodgers' organization, however, the foundation of the once-powerful Negro Leagues began to collapse. Teams fell by the wayside. Players began to lose jobs. Traveling secretaries became smaller in number, and bus drivers who drove flexible buses — which were equivalent to Greyhounds — suffered job losses because the Greyhound lines did not employ black drivers. Team owners were never financially rewarded for their enrichment of the white baseball leagues with black baseball talent. There was a gigantic sacrifice on the part of all blacks involved.

Recently, I spoke at Washington University at the invitation of Association of Black Students historian Antonio Rodriguez. Ill as I felt at the time, this remarkable young black man refused to take "no" for an answer and even asked if I would accept $500 and spend the night prior in a hotel. I settled for $300 and no hotel. The $300 went to the people who made my visit possible. Prior to speaking there, I received an e-mail from a third-grade teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools. I was asked if I would speak to these young kids. "Regrettably," said the teacher, "the school district has no funds for these types of activities," which I thought to be despicable.

Before my appearance, I arranged for every student in the class to have two or three pictures of me. My parting words to those black history-hungry youngsters were taken from Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, it never will." In other words: Go after what you desire, no matter what complexion the opposition.

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.