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Negro Leagues opened door for Pride

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by Justice B. Hill

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — He might not have been the most famous baseball name in a room filled with big names from baseball.

But in the wide reach of celebrity, Charley Pride might have a longer reach than Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Al Kaline and baseball stars such as Luis Tiant, Travis Fryman, Ken Griffey Sr., Willie Horton and Don Newcombe.

Pride, a country music legend, was in the company of baseball men for all the right reasons. He, too, was a baseball man.

“I think every kid that grows up has a dream,” he said. “My dream was that once I saw Jackie Robinson go to the Major Leagues, I said, ‘Here is my chance.’ ”

For Pride, baseball offered a way out of the cotton fields of rural Mississippi. Baseball offered an opportunity to make a decent living — to live out a dream that black boys before Robinson never dared have.

And just like Robinson, Pride would need to learn the trade first, and he learned the trade in the Negro Leagues.

Pride, a right-handed pitcher, played in the early 1950s with the Memphis Red Sox and the Birmingham Black Barons where he earned a reputation for his sharp-breaking curveball.

He might well have gone beyond “black baseball” had the playing field been level.

It is the unevenness of that playing field that brought Pride here Thursday. He was one of 30 players from the Negro Leagues that Major League Baseball was welcoming into its family as repayment for the injustices they faced because of the color barrier.

Nobody knows how many of these men, including Pride, might have earned a roster spot in organized baseball. But after Thursday, they can all say they are part of it.

Each Major League team selected one of these Negro Leagues players in a ceremonial draft, a prelude to the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. The Texas Rangers took Pride.

“For me, I think it’s a fine thing for the league to try to make up for all the injustices and the exclusion way back before Jackie — not only in baseball but in everything,” Pride said. “I appreciate that part of it.”

Yet Pride, a Cubs fan, knows he would not have been part of a symbolic gesture had fairness reigned over the sport. The remnants of racism didn’t crumble until more than a decade after Robinson broke into the Majors.

By then, Pride had moved on to Nashville and country music, but he’s not one to say that color kept him from being the next Ernie Banks.

Sure, Pride said he might not have been afforded all the opportunities of someone white. What black man was in the 1940s and ’50s?

Then again, just maybe Pride wasn’t good enough to play in the big leagues. He’s never discounted that possibility either.

“I’m just glad in that I had a voice to sing and the Lord blessed me in that sense, where I could have something else,” he said. “In fact, I believe everybody was put on this Earth for something else other than to get up, eat, lay down and get up.”

So he’s comfortable with the direction his career has gone. His has been a career that is the envy of anybody’s. While he never hit a homer in Yankee Stadium, how many big leaguers have had a hit on the country chart?

“I guess I found my niche,” Pride said. “So far, I do a pretty good job of it.”

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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