Wilmer Fields: A legend of stability
By LACY LUSK
(c) Manassas Journal Messenger
Saturday, June 19, 2004
Wilmer ''Red'' Fields' family members, teammates and opponents ring consistent in their praise of his life. A champion Negro Leaguer and a champion of all his colleagues as the president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association, Fields died June 4 at age 81 after battling an extended illness.
''He was a very consistent person who respected everybody and was respected by everybody,'' said Billy Fields, one of Wilmer's two sons. ''He was an incredible father. I've talked to Tom Lasorda and a lot of people who have played with or against him, but he was a better father than he was a baseball player.''
Fields and his wife of 58 years, Audrey, raised three children -- Marvin, Billy and the late Maridel Bates. Fields' body was cremated and a small private ceremony was planned in his honor. ''He wouldn't want to make a big deal out of it,'' Billy Fields said.
As president of the NLBPA, a position he held at the time of his death, Fields oversaw a pension fund established for former players and worked to bring the Negro Leagues' history further into the American consciousness. He gave lectures in the community and at sporting events.
Two weeks prior to his death, Fields was delighted to learn that commissioner Bud Selig announced that Major League Baseball would pay more than $1 million of pension money to 27 former Negro League players. Previously, MLB only provided pension money for ex-Negro Leaguers who spent at least one day in the major leagues, which were not integrated until 1947.
Fields, a Manassas native and resident, wrote a book entitled, ''My Life in the Negro Leagues: An Autobiography,'' which educated fans on the life and travels of players from his era. He spent 15 months on the book, which came out in 1992.
''When you're writing about yourself, it's easy,'' he said of the autobiography. ''I just kept writing until I came to the end.''
A pitcher, third baseman and outfielder, Fields was discovered by Washington's Homestead Grays as a 17-year-old in 1940 when he was with a semi-pro team in Fairfax. After going 30-9 as a pitcher from 1940-42, he was inducted into the Army in 1943. He served in World War II before returning to the Grays, putting up a 72-17 record over the club's final five seasons.
While playing for the Grays, Fields continued his college education during the offseasons. After his playing days, he worked for the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections, where he served as a counselor for alcoholics.
Though Fields reportedly received five offers from major league clubs, he returned the money each time. He chose to remain with his teams in the Negro Leagues because he felt more comfortable and made more money, according to author Brad Snyder in the book, ''Beyond the Shadow of the Senators.''
In 1952, though, Fields accepted a $14,000 offer to play for eventual Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke's minor league team in Toronto. He hit .299 in the Triple-A International League and also played four seasons in the Canadian League, winning Most Valuable Player awards in 1951, 1954 and 1955. He later pitched and played third base for two seasons with minor-league Fort Wayne before hitting .392 in the Mexican League in 1958. Fields, who was able to see much of the world during his baseball career, also was MVP of the Puerto Rican League in the winter of 1948-49, the Venezuelan League in 1951-52 and the Colombian League in 1955-56.
Stanley Glenn, the vice president of the NLBPA and a former rival of Fields' as a catcher with the Philadelphia Stars, said Friday, ''I've known Wilmer for 60 years. First off, he was a real fine ballplayer -- at pitcher, third base and in the outfield. He was on great teams and he was a big part of why they were great teams. He was a real nice human being, I tell you -- one of the finest human beings I've ever known.''
In his decade-long work with the NLBPA, Fields stood for ''stability,'' according to Glenn.
''He gave us real stability,'' Glenn repeated. ''He was so helpful to the players.''
According to ''The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues,'' the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Fields possessed a running fastball, a curve and a slider as a pitcher. He was the Grays' ace on their final championship team in 1948, going 7-1 in league games and winning his only decision in that fall's Negro League World Series. In all, he played for eight championship teams with the Grays.
William Pope, one of Fields' staff mates for four seasons, said, ''What I remember most was his ability to throw the ball. He had a certain quality of playing ball, where you knew he was giving it everything he had.''
Fields brought that same energy to the youth fields in Manassas, where he coached his sons. Billy played for his father for 10 years, starting at age eight.
''If he didn't know much about a subject, he wouldn't try to pretend he did,'' said Billy Fields, who starred in basketball at Osbourn Park High School and scored 1,116 points on a scholarship at Providence College from 1978-82. ''But in the things he knew, such as baseball, he touched a lot of kids. I still run into the same kids I played Little League baseball with and they tell me how much they learned from him.''
Since his father's death, Billy has been overwhelmed by the number of supportive phone calls. However, he has not been surprised by what's being said about his father.
''A lot of people right now are just finding out about it. Monte Irvin just called the house, a lot of ballplayers,'' Billy said. ''They always talk about how great of a baseball player he was -- and what kind of man he was. He had strong beliefs. All of them pretty much say the same thing because that's who he was.''