Negro League survivors reunite in Atlantic City for Pop Lloyd weekend
by Jerry Izenberg, New Jersey Star-Ledger
‘Sorry I didn’t play in what they called the Major Leagues? You got it wrong, son. I did play in the majors. Now, those other fellows in their big leagues, I’m not so sure how many of them could have played in ours.’’
— Leon Day, the late Newark Eagles pitcher, on segregated baseball.
“We played to prove things to ourselves and not to anybody else.’’
— Max Manning, the late Newark Eagles pitcher.
They will come to Atlantic City Friday, 11 of them … barely enough survivors to form a baseball team … but more than enough in spirit to preserve a trust fund of evergreen memories … memories of a time when no amount of bigotry could rob them of who they were and what they did.
While Major League Baseball vowed that its grass would be forever green and its players forever white, these 11, their peers and their predecessors followed their own special sun. They were nomads in spikes and their game was pure joy to the men who played it. Their season was 365 days a year. Wherever they were playing baseball without a skin-color requirement, they were there.
It didn’t matter to them if summer rose in shimmering waves off the pitcher’s mound at Newark’s Ruppert Stadium or winter dropped a steamy 90-degree blanket over the palm trees flanking Tropical Park in Havana. Color made no difference whether the sweat trickled down the back of your neck in Ponce, P.R., or Pueblo, Mexico, or Caracas, Venezuela, on days when the breeze was out to lunch.
All that mattered was the ball in your hand, the guy in the batter’s box and the catcher hunkered down behind him, flashing the sign. And if socially myopic America had bothered to even look, it would have discovered that these players refined the game and took it to a level where they proved over and over that their segregation was the major leagues’ loss.
Monte Irvin is 90 years old. He played in and was a winner in both the Negro World Series, with the Newark Eagles, and the major league World Series, with the New York Giants.
“For me, there was nothing like my time with the Eagles — ever,” Irvin said. “We were young, and the world was new to us. It was the happiest time of our lives. They wouldn’t let us play in their big leagues but we had this game of ours … this marvelous, blessed game … and we just went out and played it.”
And Miles Davis just played a trumpet and Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson just played tennis and Billie Holiday just sang songs.
These 11 who will gather in Atlantic City for Pop Lloyd Weekend are the keepers of a flame of conscience that reminds us that Lloyd and Rube Foster and Josh Gibson and Leon Day and Cool Papa Bell and Ray Dandridge and so many others didn’t ‘‘just’’ play the game.
Pop Lloyd, for whom this reunion weekend is named, was a ballplayer, a superstar in the 1920s and early ‘30s and a manager in every country where baseball was played — except on that slice of America’s diamonds that remained lily white.
It didn’t matter where you played him. As a shortstop, it wasn’t black baseball that referred to him as the Black Honus Wagner. It was white baseball. But the men who played in the Negro Leagues figured that was all right because in their heart of hearts, they believed that Wagner was the White Pop Lloyd.
But for Monte Irvin this is more than a reunion.
It is a homecoming.
He remembers the day when he was a child and his family moved to Orange from Halesburg, Ala. It was a Sunday and the family had just moved north. They spent the morning at Union Baptist Church and then his older sister, Pearl, had taken him by the hand and they walked to Orange Park.
This was the park where he later would throw the javelin further than any Jersey high school kid before him, where he would win an incredible 16 varsity letters for Orange High and where he would later walk hand-in-hand with the high school sweetheart he would marry.
He truly is home again this weekend. After all, when he came back from Lincoln University, he played with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League and when the majors swallowed hard and ended (very slowly) their boycott of Afro-Americans, he simply moved across the Hudson to the Giants. But this homecoming for him has tremendous significance because he never forgot his Negro League teammates.
Who doesn’t know the obvious about Irvin … the Hall of Fame plaque on the wall in Cooperstown … the way he and an infielder/outfielder named Hank Thompson broke the color line on the New York Giants … the fact that he played 764 games, became the first product of the Negro Leagues to lead the majors in RBI or that, in 1951, he hit .312 to help lead the Giants to the World Series and stunned the Yankees by stealing home in the very first game.
But this is about more than that.
And you know that at a time when African-Americans were barred by the Great American Game as played in the major leagues, he followed the sun into Mexico and Cuba and Puerto Rico to play the game he loved.
But this is about more than that.
And, of course, you know about his great run with the Newark Eagles, his role in that franchise’s winning the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series before more than 50,000 in the final game.
Once, when I asked him about those nomad days with the Eagles, the bus trips, the ridiculously low salary of $125 a month and later $150, the greatness of teammates like Larry Doby and Ray Dandridge and Willie Wells and Leon Day that surrounded him and the icons like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige and Buck Leonard, who played against him … what they mean to him today in the backroads of his memory, he said:
“I played in three countries. I played in two World Series. But I never found anything to match the joy and the laughter those years with the Eagles brought me. The city and county loved us. We’d go out to hear jazz or to dinner and our fans were always grabbing the check. The big leagues didn’t matter before Jackie (Robinson) and Larry (Doby) because whether they lived in Newark or Montclair or East Orange, we were their team.’’
They gather this weekend accompanied by tunes of glory. The gray hair will fade, the waistlines will melt and their laughter and their tears will say to all of us:
‘‘Never forget we were here. Never forget we were history. Never forget that the past we forged was America’s prologue.’’