September 18, 2002
Repaying a National Debt
By Dave Sheinin
They stepped off the buses at noon sharp, dressed in crisply pressed suits and ball caps with logos -- the Kansas City Monarchs, the Indianapolis Clowns, the Birmingham Black Barons -- or porkpie hats. They slowly climbed the steps of the Thomas Jefferson Building in small groups, some using canes or walkers, and some pushed up the ramp in wheelchairs.
They are living, breathing national treasures, these former Negro League ballplayers, and fittingly, they gathered yesterday at the Library of Congress to reminisce and stargaze and bask in the belated recognition and see Willie Mays cry and maybe get a little teary themselves.
"This," said Sam Allen of Norfolk, who played for the Monarchs in the late 1950s, "is one of the greatest days of my life -- as a ballplayer, as a fan of the game and as an American."
The old ballplayers came to Washington this week from all over -- Chicago and Birmingham and Tampa and elsewhere. Some flew, but many came via Greyhound, since the bus line was a sponsor. Buses, like baseball player salaries, have come a long way in the past 50 years.
"I rode some buses nowhere this nice in my day," said former Monarchs pitcher Walter "Dirk" Gibbons, 73, who rode the bus up from Tampa. "These even had bathrooms. When I was playing, you had to pull over and go in the woods."
Gibbons said he hasn't been to Washington since 1948. "We used to play at old Griffith Stadium," he said. "It's gone now, long gone."
The occasion was called "A Congressional Tribute to the Negro Leagues," and it was hosted by Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), who earlier in the day introduced a resolution in the House honoring the contributions of those who played in the Negro Leagues. A similar resolution was introduced in the Senate.
"You persevered under unimaginable hardships," Watts said when he addressed players and their guests at the luncheon.
The players basked in a recognition they had been awaiting for years. The Negro League Museum in Kansas City, Mo., holds reunions on occasion, but this one was different. "This time," said Buck O'Neill, the legendary first baseman and later manager of the Monarchs, "we're being recognized by our country, not by each other."
Had they waited another year to hold this event, they probably could have gotten by with a smaller room. Wait 10 more years, and they might as well call it a memorial service. The number of living Negro Leaguers is dwindling, a finite national resource.
"Jim Cohen. James McCurine. Pee Wee Jenkins." Sherwood Brewer, who played for the Monarchs, the Clowns and the New York Cubans, rattled off the names of teammates and friends who have died in the last year or so.
"We're losing them like mad. We're down to about 180 men."
"We just buried another one a couple of months ago," said Henry Elmore of the Black Barons and Philadelphia Stars. "Willie Young, 90 years old. We're fading out fast."
But there is no time to dwell on the dead when Ted "Double Duty" Ratcliff -- so named because he would pitch the first game of a doubleheader, then catch the second game -- is whizzing past everyone in his wheelchair. He turned 100 in July. "Hey, Double Duty!" someone yelled. "Looking good."
Lunch, in between the speeches and the presentations, took almost two hours. But it seemed to fly by. The national anthem was sung and in unison dozens of voices punctuated it with cries of "Play ball!"
There was an invocation.
"Oh, Lord," said Rev. William Greason, who played for the Black Barons back in the day, "we thank you for these Negro Leaguers."
There were too many speeches -- isn't that true of every banquet? -- and not quite enough seats, but everyone could see the celebrities up front. Celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran was there, and actor Blair Underwood and gospel performer MC Hammer.
"Today, your country remembers you," said Underwood, whose uncle, Eli, played for the Negro League team in Pittsburgh. "And you will never be forgotten."
O'Neill stepped to the microphone. "Been a lot of places, done a lot of things I loved doing," he said. "But there's nowhere I'd rather be than here, because these are my friends. . . . You don't have to feel sorry for these guys. They played with some of the greatest athletes ever."
And then Willie Mays cried.
A couple of weeks ago, when Watts called Mays to invite him to the event, Mays had never even heard of him. Mays had never been too active in Negro League functions, despite having spent three seasons with the Black Barons as a teenager before going to the New York Giants in 1951, four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Perhaps the parts he wanted to forget outweighed the parts worth remembering.
But when Mays began to understand the magnitude of what would be taking place on Capitol Hill, he told Watts, "I'll be there."
What were they exactly, those tears that came streaming down Mays's face as he spoke yesterday to the people he called "my friends"? Not tears of sadness, nor happiness. Not exactly tears of guilt, though he alone among his Birmingham teammates made it to the major leagues, where he hit 660 homers and made the Hall of Fame.
"I was 16 years old, 17, 18," Mays said, recalling that the older players on the team clearly knew then that he was the one. "They said, 'We're too old. We can't make it. You can make it.' I've never forgotten that. They might think I did, but I didn't.
"This is why I'm here," Mays said quietly, as the tears -- tears of gratitude -- came streaming down his cheeks. "So guys, thank you, thank you very much."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company