Friday I had the privilege of being invited to spend a portion of the day a number of former Negro League players, Minor League players and a couple of former Major Leaguers including one veteran of the 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series Championship team, Trot Nixon. In addition to the ballplayers I met Carl’s lovely wife Ella as well city officials from the City of Kinston and regular folks, baseball fans and parents with their children.
It was a day to honor one of the few remaining veterans of the Negro Leagues. Carl Long played with the Birmingham Black Barons alongside Willie Mays and Country and Western singer Charlie Pride. He played against Hank Aaron and spent time in the minors with Willie McCovey and Roberto Clemente. He was the first black to play in the Carolina League and still holds the record for the most RBIs in a season inKinstonwhich has also seen such sluggers as Jim Thome, Alex White and Manny Ramirez play at Historic Grainger Stadium. Carl did not have a long baseball career, he injured his shoulder and his wife of over 50 years Ella, a local Kinston girl stole his heart. In Kinston he became the first black commercial bus driver in the state, the first black Deputy Sheriff in North Carolina, and first black Detective on the Kinston Police Department. Carl was presented with a certificate from the Mayor of Kinston during the
That evening the Kinston Indians hosted Carl Long Appreciation night. Carl as well as Dennis, James “Spot” King and Hubert “Big Daddy” Wooten and a number of local Negro League era players took the field near along the third base line as their names were announced. A local television station filmed the event and Carl made sure the members of the “Field of Dreams” Little League team each got a copy of his signed baseball card. It was a night of emotion, appreciation and history.
Carl broke barriers wherever he went and credits his father with ensuring that he got his education, a mantra that he repeats to every young person that he meets. I met Carl earlier in the season and knew that I was in the presence of a pioneer and a great American. When I am in Kinston there is nothing that I enjoy more that listening to Carl’s stories of life in the Negro Leagues and breaking the baseball’s color barrier in the Deep South.
It is hard to imagine now just how deep the poisonous river of racism ran in 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s America. Then it was a fact that segregation was not only acceptable but widely practiced in much of this country. Institutionalized racism was normal and violence against blacks and whites that befriended them was commonplace. We like to think that we have overcome racism in this country but unfortunately there is a segment of the population that still practices and promotes this evil. Even this week there was a Ku Klux Klan attack on the home of a black pastor in the South. His offense….supporting a white candidate for county sheriff. While we have overcome much there is still much work to be done. I think this is why I believe it is so important to remember the men and women of the Negro Leagues.
One of the men at today’s events was Dennis “Bose” Biddle who played for the Chicago American Giants in 1953 and 1954. He was in the process of having his contract purchased by the Chicago Cubs when he suffered a devastating injury to his leg and ankle going hard into Second Base. When he couldn’t play in the Majors he went to college and became a Social Worker. Dennis said to me “you know that “take out” sign at restaurants? We started it” referring to how black players would have to get their food at the back of a restaurant or eat in the kitchen out of sight of white customers.
The truth of the matter is that the players of the Negro Leagues were torch bearers in our society. The men and women of the Negro Leagues barnstormed and played against white teams when baseball was still segregated. When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson it was a seismic event with great social connotations. A barrier had been broken and I dare say that without the men of the Negro Leagues that the work of other Civil Rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have had a less fertile audience in White America and probably a even less friendly reception than they had as they worked to fulfill the vision of a better America where men and women of every race, color and creed could aspire to great things.
Men like Carl Long are responsible for this. Some made their impact at a national level while others like Carl and Dennis on a local and regional level. Like the men and women of the “Greatest Generation” this fellowship grows smaller with each passing year. Hubert “Daddy” Wooten was one of the last Negro League players; he played for and later managed the Indianapolis Clowns in the years where they barnstormed. During that time he managed the legendary Satchel Paige. “Big Daddy” Wooten is the youngest of the he surviving Negro League players a mere 65 years old. Most are in their mid-70s or in their 80s. It is important that their friends and neighbors write down their stories so they are not forgotten.
Baseball in particular the Negro League Hall of Fame and Museum has done a credible job of trying to preserve the contributions of these men to baseball and the American experience. Yet many more stories are still to be told. I hope that as I continue to visit with Carl, Sam Allen in Norfolk and other players that I will be able to help them tell more of those stories.