Of Michael Jordan, Baseball, and Potatoes

Claudia Stack
May 9, 2020 · 6 min read
At the age of 12 Michael Jordan was named Dixie Youth Baseball Player of the Year. Picture from August, 1977. (Note: this picture appears on many different sites, with many different attributions)

In southeastern North Carolina, where many of Michael Jordan’s extended family still reside, the sweet potato holds a special place in gardens and in the cuisine. I still recall my astonishment when I gave a friend some fresh eggs, and her husband made me a delicious sweet potato pie.

North Carolina is the largest producer of sweet potatoes, and in 1995 the General Assembly selected it as the state vegetable. The name is actually a misnomer, because sweet ‘potatoes’ belong to the root family, while true potatoes are tubers. Regardless, sweet potatoes have maintained their regional importance through centuries. NCPEDIA reports that native Americans used them, and that:

“While sweet potatoes are indigenous to North America, the yam comes from West Africa and Asia. The African word for this vegetable is nyami, and according to legend, the early enslaved Africans in America mistook the sweet potato for their homeland’s vegetable, dubbing it the ‘yam.’ Today, most ‘yams’ marketed in the United States are actually sweet potatoes.” (see https://www.ncpedia.org/symbols/vegetable)

By contrast, white/yellow potatoes are known in southeastern NC as “Irish potatoes.” Although Irish potatoes are not a commercial crop in southeastern NC, they grow well enough here to figure prominently in home gardens. In the course of my oral history interviews with older neighbors, I learned that families used to grow large amounts of both kinds of potatoes, and store them by mounding them up and covering them with dirt. In agricultural texts this kind of mound is called a “clamp,” although locally I have never heard anyone use the word clamp to refer to potato storage.

To be honest, it’s hard for me to imagine that the clamps worked well, because our winters are so wet. I would have thought the potatoes would rot but, as you will see, this storage method must have worked. It plays a part in a story I heard from my neighbor William Jordan, older cousin of Michael Jordan.

William Jordan at the Pender County Training School gymtorium in 2009. The building burned down in 2019. Picture by Claudia Stack, all rights reserved

William Jordan is an accomplished educator and a dedicated family man. I called him recently to see whether he needed anything due to the COVID-19 stay at home order. He said they were well supplied, but just talking with him reminded me of stories he told when I interviewed him for my documentary Under the Kudzu. The film traces the history of historic schools that African American communities in my county built during the segregation era. William Jordan was raised during that era, and he in turn became an influential local educator. He embodies an ethic of service and sacrifice for education that was common in those schools, especially in North Carolina. I discuss all this and more in my post:

William Jordan is featured in Under the Kudzu because he is an alumnus of the Pender County Training School (PCTS). In the film he shares many stories and insightful comments about the influence of the school on its students and the larger community. Michael Jordan’s mother, Deloris (born Deloris Peoples in 1941) also attended PCTS. She met James Jordan, Sr. there in 1954 at a basketball game when his team from Charity High School, in neighboring Duplin County, came to play PCTS.

Funny aside: William Jordan mentioned to me that, no matter whether it was hot or cold out, PCTS would fire up the heaters in the gymtorium (the large wooden building behind him in the picture) to raise the temperature inside. In this way PCTS gained a home advantage, because their players were used to the heated gym, while visitors were not.

Both William Jordan and Deloris Peoples Jordan attended PCTS during the period of time encompassed by the thirty year (1931–1961) tenure of PCTS principal John T. Daniel, Sr. As I noted in my article “The Daniels: Leaders in Excellence at an NC Rosenwald School:”

John T. Daniel, Sr. Principal of PCTS 1931–1961. Picture courtesy of Dr. Ida Daniel Dark

“Under Mr. Daniel’s leadership, the percentage of PCTS students who attended college increased to 25% in 1956. This was a remarkable achievement for a segregated school in a rural county.”

During our interviews, William Jordan told me some wonderful baseball stories about himself and also about Michael Jordan. Those stories didn’t fit the film, but I relay them here.

In William Jordan’s youth, family budgets often didn’t allow for the purchase of sports equipment, but he and the other boys still competed fiercely in all kinds of sports and activities. They ran races down dirt roads, and played crack the whip. They climbed trees, fished, and helped their families in farm fields. And they played baseball — lots and lots of baseball. The bat was often just a broomstick, and when they needed a baseball, William Jordan said he would reach into the mounded up potatoes and pull out the roundest one he could find.

Decades later, by the time William Jordan’s younger cousin Michael was playing in youth leagues, the problem of accessing real sports equipment was a thing of the past. The family could focus on young Michael’s talent. At that time, William Jordan recalled, “everyone assumed he would be a professional baseball player.”

One reason for that was how hard and fast Michael could pitch. William Jordan never mentioned any numbers, so I don’t know whether the speed of young Michael’s pitches at that point (mid to late 1970s) was ever measured by a radar gun. It seems doubtful, given that radar guns were just coming into use in professional baseball in 1973. (A 2014 article from bleacherreport.com notes that: “Danny Litwhiler is generally credited with adapting the modern radar gun to baseball. Litwhiler was the coach at Michigan State in 1973, and when he saw campus police using radar to time speeding cars, he quickly understood that the devices might be applied to baseball. Litwhiler saw it mostly as a teaching tool, one that would allow his pitchers to measure the velocity difference between their fastballs and changeups.”)

In any event, the apprehension the other boys felt about playing against Michael is probably more telling than any abstract number could be. William Jordan told me that the other boys, including his own son, were reluctant to go to bat when Michael was pitching. Not only were his pitches difficult to hit, but if by chance you were unlucky enough to get out of place and be struck by one, his pitches hurt. A lot.

As fans know, Michael Jordan would soon turn his focus to basketball, although he revisited his baseball dreams in 1994. His agent, David Falk, was quoted by Anothony Castrovince in the recent article “The real story of MJ’s baseball career” on mlb.com as saying “Michael Jordan gave up everything he had earned as the king of basketball to play Minor League baseball and subject himself to criticism. He put everything on the line to compete, with nothing to gain. That is the essence of sports.”

In the end, then, it comes down to culture and character. Michael Jordan’s deep roots in southeastern NC gave him the values and the work ethic for which he is still known today. He didn’t have to make do with potatoes and broomsticks, but if he had, somehow I think he would have still played just as hard.

To learn more about PCTS and other historic schools built by African African communities during the segregation era, please visit stackstories.com and/or stream my films for free if you have Amazon Prime Video: Under the Kudzu and Sharecrop

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