Against All Odds
Two former Negro League baseball players share their stories about what life on the road was like while playing in the Negro Leagues.
On July 16, the IronBirds will celebrate the legacy of the Negro Leagues at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium. Thanks to Ray Banks, The Negro League Goodwill Ambassador and the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball will present “Shadow Ball,” a pre-game pantomime used by the historical Negro League team, the Indianapolis Clowns.
In addition to the long bus rides from game to game, these Negro League players lived out of their suitcases and had to resort to sleeping on their team bus, or on the side of the road, since most public accommodations including hotels, restaurants, and even restrooms were off-limits to these black ball players due to the segregation laws in place at the time.
I sat down with Luther Atkinson and Jimmy Bland, two former Negro League baseball players, who both barnstormed in the 1950s, to learn more about their experience playing during this era.
Could you tell us a little bit about what it was like playing for the Satchel Paige All-Stars?
When I played for the Satchel Paige All-Stars, that’s when we were barnstorming all around the country. The purpose of this team was that they would showcase us to the Major League scouts. Over my playing days with the Satchel Paige All-Stars, I got drafted into the military. During this time, I played in the military for their baseball team. Lots of Major Leaguers (white players) were also drafted into the military at this time — Negro League players had the opportunity to play with these white players due to the integration of the military.
I remember throwing the baseball around after classes one day when the manager of the Army team asked me if I had played before, and I told him that I had indeed; that I played baseball in the Negro Leagues. I guess that he really saw something in me — he asked me to try out for the team that they had then — I’d end up making the team after trying out.
How were you able to deal with the challenges of being a black baseball player back then?
There were a lot of hard times back then — lots of tough conditions to deal with. The buses we traveled on were very small dingy old things, with no air-conditioning. The toughest part of traveling on the road for so long was dealing with the Jim Crow laws that were still in effect. For instance, we couldn’t use the bathrooms when we stopped at rest stops because they tended to be ‘white only.’ Lots of times we’d have to wash ourselves out on the road since teams wouldn’t let us use their showers either. They would tend to tell us after a game that “their showers weren’t working,” but we knew they actually just didn’t’ want colored folks using their facilities. We also couldn’t go into restaurants to eat food since those segregation (Jim Crow) laws were still in effect. Whenever we wanted to eat somewhere, we had to have our food brought outside to us.
The hostilities were especially tough when we played southern all-white teams. Satchel would always remind us before playing these teams to, “just let it go over the top of your head, go out there and play your game and beat ’em. We’ll go in, beat this team, get our money and be on our way.” He would always preach this mindset to us of just focusing on playing the game, and focusing on what we could control. At the end of the day, playing the game was great, it was so much fun. While the conditions that we had to deal with off of the field weren’t great, we really didn’t care, because we were getting to play the game that we loved.
What was the difference between playing for the Carolina Tigers and the Satchel Paige All-Stars?
The Carolina Tigers were an independent team where we played against a set division of opponents in a more localized area. When I played for the Satchel Paige All-Stars, that was when I got to travel all over the country playing ball. For example, one night, we’d play a game in Washington DC, the next day we’d play a game in Richmond, Virginia, after that we’d play in the North Carolina, then South Carolina, gradually making our way down south, and eventually out to the Western states.
Back when I played for Satch our team tended to draw larger crowds, because at that time Satchel still would pitch in addition to managing the team. His legacy would be the main calling card that got crowds to come out and watch us play. Satchel told us when he signed us that he was going to showcase us to the Major League teams. He told us not to get our hopes up, because not all of us were going to be offered major league contracts. The odds were a lot tougher back then; there weren’t nearly as many teams back then as there are today. Back then there were only 16 teams in the Major Leagues, versus today where there are 30 teams. As a black ball player, you really had to be a standout player in order to get signed, like on the same level as Hank Aaron or Willie Mays.
What was it like playing for Satchel Paige? Did he play at all for his own team?
Satchel was still a very good pitcher by the time I got to play with him. At that point, he was in his 50s and could still go out there and throw an inning or two. I think that if he hadn’t gotten sick that he would still be playing today — that’s just the type of person that he was. He was very durable; he had a rubber arm and never seemed to get tired. He kept his body in immaculate shape — to his credit, he was a very well-conditioned man.
In addition to being a very talented player, he really knew the game of baseball inside and out. If he was still around today he would make a great manager. When we were playing, if we were to make a mistake out on the field, he did not just come down on you and chastize you. He would take you aside, tell you what you did wrong and tell you how you can fix it. He wouldn’t just jump right in your face — he wasn’t that kind of manager. He understood that nobody was perfect and that mistakes were going to be made.
What did Satchel teach you that really stuck with you throughout your life?
He would always say while we practice, “Let me tell you boys, you aren’t ever going to be perfect, but if you practice being perfect long enough, you will be excellent, and you will become excellent ballplayers.”
He would talk with us about disappointment a lot and how to deal with disappointment. He would always tell us that some of us players would get signed and a lot of us wouldn’t get signed but, whatever you do, don’t get disappointed about whether or not you get signed — just go out there and play your game, and play as hard as you can — then good things will follow.
He was simply great man to be around — not only was he a terrific manager, he was a great mentor. As a young man at the time, getting to play for Satchel was a true blessing. I’m the man that I am today because of some of the things that he taught me.
How did Satchel teach you how to deal with all of the adversity you faced, both on and off the field?
He would explain this to us, “For every black player that they sign, that’s one more white player that’s out of a job. That’s why they won’t sign more black ball players — because they can’t be putting too many white players out of a job.”
This would really help me understand what was going on at the time, and it really helped me deal with the disappointment that you sometimes felt from not getting signed to a Major League contract. A lot of great ballplayers ended up quitting and giving up after all of the stuff they had to put up with while playing in the Negro Leagues. They just didn’t want to go through the hardship and the humiliation that we endured.
I never let all of that stuff get to me; I was determined to play this game. Had I not gotten drafted into the military, I truly believe that I would have been signed by a major league team. But, unfortunately after I had served my country, by the time I got out of the military, I had to get a ‘real job’. I still love the game, and I still love watching the game to this day.
Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like playing for the Indianapolis Clowns?
I still remember to this day when I tried out for the Indianapolis Clowns. Me and Freddie Battle, and Robert Hall, a friend of mine since high school at the time, took the Greyhound Bus all the way down to St. Petersburg Florida to try out for the team. That ride took us a day and a half.
What do you remember from that tryout?
Freddie Battle was a pitcher, and he was a good, good pitcher at that. He had no problem making the team. The other guy that journeyed down to St. Petersburg with us, Robert Hall, wasn’t so lucky. He had to take that Greyhound Bus all the way back up to Washington D.C.
I remember being so nervous on that bus ride down because I didn’t know whether I was going to make the team. I was fortunate enough to make the team. One thing that I could always do was hit, I could flat out hit the baseball.
Who managed the team when you played?
A man by the name of Ed Hammond oversaw the booking of our games. He was also the man in charge of selecting players for the Indianapolis Clowns. Immediately after finding out that I made the team, we were on the road, and I mean on the road. We traveled throughout the United States — in my first year with the Clowns we played in 40 states.
Did you get any attention from Major League scouts?
I did. I didn’t know at the time, but apparently a scout from the San Francisco Giants had been following the Clowns on the road for a while. I learned that they offered to buy my contract from the Clowns, but our management couldn’t come to an agreement with the Giants. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t regret anything about my time playing with the Clowns.
What was life on the road like? Did you encounter much hostility in towns you traveled to?
We had a good time. We ran into a lot of segregation — we couldn’t stay in certain hotels, we had to sleep on the bus sometimes, and we couldn’t eat at the restaurants. Ed Hammond, since he was white, would go up to restaurants and order a whole bunch of sandwiches, then bring all of them onto the bus for us to eat, since we weren’t allowed in. But we didn’t care, because we wanted to play ball.
Who were some well-known Major League players that once played for the Indianapolis Clowns?
There were a lot of guys who made it the Major Leagues, but a few that fans would probably notice are Paul Casanova, who played for the Washington Senators and the Atlanta Braves; Hank Aaron who went on to play for the Braves as well, and Haley Young, who played for the White Sox.
If you would like to learn more about the Negro Leagues, make sure to stop by the IronBirds games on July 16. Jimmy, Luther and several other former Negro League baseball players will be at the game selling memorabilia, and sharing stories about their playing days. Tickets to the game are still available, and can be bought online here.
Not able to make it the game Sunday? The Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball, located in Gwynn Oak, Maryland is the perfect destination to learn about the Negro Leagues.