BOB "PEACH HEAD" MITCHELL, TAMPA: Thanks to Mitchell's work during the past seven years, most recently in conjunction with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., 36 players with at least four years of service in the Negro Leagues from 1948-57 will receive pensions. They qualified in May for monthly payments of $833.33 for the next four years. Mitchell also has helped a handful of players get back pay of $55,000 to $70,000.
Mitchell, 71, got involved, he says, when former Negro Leagues pitcher Joe Black was hired by Major League Baseball to decide which players would qualify for pensions.
"He got them accepting the story that racism stopped in 1947, which is a big lie," Mitchell said.
Consequently, Black, now deceased, omitted "nearly 200 players" who competed after '47.
Mitchell wanted to hold out for back pay for every player with four years of service. But he accepted the pension deal due to a sense of urgency.
"I didn't want to drag it out with at least three Negro Leagues guys dying every 14 months," Mitchell said. "At that rate, there wouldn't have been anybody to give anything to."
Mitchell pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1954-57 then returned to his native West Palm Beach to fight to desegregate schools, improve housing and combat inequities in law enforcement.
He hopes to continue helping ailing ex-players such as Tampa's Billy Felder, 77, who has struggled with bills since his recent heart attack. Felder was a shortstop who played with Monte Irvin on the 1946 championship Newark Eagles. But he has only three years of service and doesn't qualify for a pension.
"It would come in real handy right now because I got so many different medications," Felder said softly. "I had two prescriptions filled yesterday, and it was $92. And I don't have health insurance."
"There are 54 guys like Billy who don't have four years," Mitchell said. "I just wrote to the commissioner (Bud Selig) because we need to help them."
WILLIE "CURLEY" WILLIAMS, SARASOTA: Williams was a shortstop for the top-flight Newark Eagles (and its later incarnations) from 1945-51 and had a 20-year career in baseball.
He eventually was signed by the Chicago White Sox and sent to Scranton. But after a strong season, he believed he didn't get a fair shot during spring training. So he walked out and played briefly in the Dominican Republic.
When Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella chided him for not sticking it out, Williams returned and eventually played for the Toledo Mud Hens. But the majors never beckoned. So he went to Canada and played for Triple-A Lloydminster, where he became a regular All-Star, batting over .300 five times. He was player-coach in 1962 and retired in 1963.
Williams went on to work 26 years in the medical examiner's office in Sarasota. His wife was a teacher, and their income allowed them to live comfortably despite no baseball pension. He later assisted Mitchell and was one of a handful to qualify for back pay, getting $55,000. He also qualified for the recent monthly pension of $833.33.
"Some of the guys died before they could get their money," he said. "That's what hurts."
In 1997, the city of Sarasota honored him with "Curley Williams Day," paying tribute to his efforts to raise college scholarship money for students in need.
LEON HARRIS, BRADENTON: Harris pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1953-54. He finished 5-3 in his one full season and drew interest from the St. Louis Cardinals. But an arm injury ended his career.
Harris was a four-sport star at Nyack (N.Y.) High, never losing a game as a pitcher in high school or semipro, he said. He remembers how segregation forced players to blacks-only hotels and restaurants but also how he ran into many black jazz greats at those places."I saw (John) Coltrane, Miles Davis, all of them," he said. "It was some of the greatest memories of my life."
Harris' best outing with the Monarchs came in Detroit, when he struck out the side in the seventh and eighth and struck out two of the three batters he faced in the ninth. (The Monarchs then won on a grand slam). Harris went on to serve as athletic director at Rhode Island Training School for Boys.
Later, he became director of education, research and civil rights for an AFL-CIO union of 350,000 members in New York.
"One of my accomplishments was negotiating a contract that included Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday - one month after his assassination," Harris said. "It became the first recognition of his holiday before it became a national holiday."
Today, Harris is co-chair of the Manatee-Sarasota Democratic Black Caucus.