Dwight Lewis, columnist, regional editor and member of the editorial board for The Tennessean. Appeared 7/11/04, tennessean.com
William Sousa Bridgeforth was born near Athens, Ala., on March 23, 1907.
When he was young, his father told him that he would walk 50 miles to play in a baseball game, and that he would walk 30 miles to see one.
''That's when I became a baseball fanatic,'' Mr. Bridgeforth said as he sat in a chair with his pajamas on and oxygen tubes going in his nose to help him breathe. ''Growing up, I was a pitcher. I started on the sandlot and soon earned the nickname, Steel Arm Red.
''In 1925, we played 24 games and won 24 at my high school. I was the leading pitcher.''
By the time he turned 18, Mr. Bridgeforth's parents had died and he moved to Nashville with an uncle, Nick Stuart Sr., who was a bricklayer. Mr. Bridgeforth learned the trade as well, and for the next 17 years worked as a bricklayer himself.
Then, about the time Jackie Robinson signed a contract that would integrate Major League Baseball, Mr. Bridgeforth purchased the Baltimore Elite Giants in the old Negro Leagues for $11,000. That included the team as well as the bus.
The next year, he sold the Baltimore team and bought the Birmingham Black Barons for $5,000. While he got the team that included later to be country music star Charley Pride, the team's bus was not included.
''When I bought those teams it was at a time when all the old smart owners were starting to get rid of their teams in the Negro Leagues because they knew what Jackie Robinson's signing would eventually mean,'' Mr. Bridgeforth said.
He added: ''I just loved baseball. And, I haven't gotten over it.''
A former businessman who also owned the New Era Club and Restaurant in Nashville for many years, he recalled the tough times that Negro League players had back in the '40s and the years before that.
''We couldn't stay in the hotels. We had to stay in rooming houses,'' he said. ''And, in Birmingham, the whites always counted the money at the ball games and handed the money out the door to you.
''But it was fun seeing a lot of the good players, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Henry Kimbro, Larry Doby and so many others. I never thought I could make too much money in the game. I was not trained to be an owner.
''I just loved running up and down the road picking up youngsters and watching them grow up.''
What a life. What a life for the man who is now the last surviving owner of a baseball team in the old Negro Leagues. And what stories he can still tell.
Thanks, Mr. Bridgeforth, and could I get your autograph before I leave? I'm sorry I didn't ask for it sooner.
Dwight Lewis is a columnist and a member of The Tennessean's editorial board.