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Our baseball heroes were these old guys who played on Sundays in mismatched uniforms, argyle socks under the stirrups, and a half-pint of whiskey in the back pocket. A half-pint, because that fit right in. If these guys didn't get too drunk on Saturday nights, they were out there playing on Sundays. And all us kids wanted to do was grow up and be just like them -- including the half-pint.
But one day when I was about 11 years old, a baseball player from the Senators came to our playground to conduct a clinic -- and he was white. It was the very first time I had ever looked a white guy in the eyes. Honest. People just didn't interact as we do today. This guy was wearing an official Washington Senators home uniform, crisp and white with piping around the sleeves and Senators embroidered across his chest. Everything matched. His shoes were all clean and polished. And his eyes weren't all red.
The player's name was Gerry Priddy, and he was the second baseman for the Senators. Maybe Priddy had lost a coin toss or something and had to be the one to go over to our part of town and do a little clinic for the organization. But he came over, and he didn't stay for just 15 minutes or half an hour. The man talked to us for at least two hours, and I just couldn't believe it.
Priddy even singled me out. He told the other kids to move back and said, "Watch this kid." He bounced a grounder to me, and I got my little feet in place, grabbed the ball, and I took a little hop -- just like the guys I'd seen playing on Sundays. I threw it overhand to him, and the ball made a loud pop in his mitt. I still remember what he said: "Wow!"
Priddy looked down at my feet and said, "Hey, kid, you've got a chance to be a good baseball player one day. Where's your shoes?"
I was barefoot.
I WAS THE first black player to play for the Dodgers in Fort Worth. Texas League, Double-A ball. It was my only bad year in 23 years of playing professional baseball. I hit .202. Man, I couldn't buy a hit all season.
I remember getting on a bus in Fort Worth to go to the ballpark one day. Right behind the driver they had benches that faced each other. Two of my teammates were already sitting there. I said, "Hey, guys, how ya doin'?" and sat down with them. The bus didn't move. Three or four minutes later, the bus still hadn't moved an inch.
Finally, the driver turned and looked at me. "Move to the back," he said. "Colored in the back."
The black people in the back were looking at me like, Fool, are you crazy! As if I were trying to start some stuff or something. I felt like goin' under the floorboards. But I went to the back, and when the bus got to the ballpark, all my teammates up front hopped off and ran into the clubhouse. By the time I got there, everybody was laughing at me and making wiseass jokes.
And that was playing at home.
Once we got on a bus and drove nine hours to Beaumont. We got there after dark, and I walked into the lobby of the hotel with the team and waited in line for my key, but when I got to the desk, there wasn't one for me.
I went to the traveling secretary -- a teammate. (Back then, that's how they did it in the minors.) I won't say his name -- I mentioned it once before, and it hurt his feelings so bad -- and I asked him, "Where am I going to stay?"
"I don't know," he said. "Didn't they tell you?"
So there I was, walking through the streets of Beaumont in the wee hours of the morning with a black trainer, knocking on doors in the black neighborhood, trying to find a place to sleep. I ended up staying outside on a porch. Fortunately, it was screened in and kept out the mosquitoes. I slept on a little Army cot that folded up. In the morning, the people at the house said, "We didn't say we were gonna feed you."
There weren't any restaurants around, so I ended up at a drugstore down on the corner, where I had some Oreo cookies and hot chocolate. I called for a cab, with plenty of time left to get to the ballpark. But there was only one black cab in the whole town. By the time the cab picked me up and drove me to the park, I was about 15 minutes late and I ended up getting chewed out by the manager.
It was just tough to play after that, seeing as that was only the beginning of one damned thing after another. All year long I was uneasy, lonely, and anxious.
Oh, man, I know exactly what Jackie went through -- except I failed utterly. What I don't know is how he succeeded.
-- Maury Wills