Ex-Negro Leaguers take on the majors
By KATHRYN WEXLER
TAMPA -- They played ball, hard, fast -- and angry sometimes.
They traveled by bus from city to city, spilling into the ballpark after sleeping on the bus because hotels refused them beds.
Some were better than major-league players, but to baseball team owners, that didn't matter as much as the color of their skin. They were black, so they couldn't play.
Such blatant discrimination also meant they don't get pensions they would have gotten if they had played in the big leagues.
Now, a handful of former Negro League players living in Tampa's Belmont Heights want their due.
"They don't want to give us the money, that's all," said Raydell Maddix, 72, a left-hand pitcher with the Indianapolis Clowns from 1946 to 1953, who says letters on his behalf to Major League Baseball have gone unanswered. "I haven't gotten one penny."
Some former Negro League players have, though. Under pressure from older African-American ballplayers, Major League Baseball in 1997 granted pensions to some Negro League players.
To qualify, players must have played professionally at least four years and have started playing before 1947, the year Jackie Robinson made history as the first African-American major-league player.
Those requirements have kept about 170 Negro League players from collecting $10,000 annual pensions. Six of them gathered around a table Tuesday at the St. James Episcopal House of Prayer for a news conference with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Some of the players, like Maddix, appear to have been simply overlooked by Major League Baseball, Nelson said.
But Nelson also took issue with the pension requirements. Discrimination didn't end when Robinson broke the color barrier. Many other African-Americans were still barred, he said.
The New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox did not hire black players until after 1955. The Negro Leagues continued to operate into the 1960s.
Nelson said he intends to discuss the inequity with Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball.
Bob "Peach-Head" Mitchell, 69, who has spearheaded the local effort to change the pension rules, gets loud when he hears that black players could have followed Robinson into the big leagues and qualified for pensions.
"It was desegregated, not integrated," asserted Walter Gibbons, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1947 to 1949. "We ran against institutional racism. It's the worst kind of racism. It's subtle racism, it's covert, it's sophisticated."
Fifty years ago, when things got really bad in places like South Carolina, with catcalls and veiled threats, Negro League players still rolled into town.
But sometimes they didn't play ball.
Instead, recalled Gibbons, they would pantomime without a baseball. That would quell the unruly crowds in the stands, make them laugh and let the African-American ballplayers leave peacefully and quickly.
"We called it shadow ball," said Gibbons, 73. "It was just to entertain people so we could get out of town."
Many Tampa players joined the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 1940s because the team recruited here. It was a dream come true for teenagers attending segregated schools.
It meant leaving behind a small Southern town for the big city. It meant developing a close brotherhood of teammates, heading to the same outdoor toilets when the signs said "No colored allowed," and living the same baseball dream.
"We had the Ku Klux Klan following us," Gibbons said. "You played, but you had to get out of town early. You didn't hang around."
The race is on, Nelson said, to get the players the money they deserve. The pension does not transfer to spouses or families, and expires when the player dies.
"The clock is ticking, and time is running out because the people are elderly and won't be here a real long time," he said.
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