For a long time I would ignore the reference to “art imitating life,” but I have noticed while researching items for this column, I am getting a better understanding of what it means. My current effort is a classic example.
I have been attempting to share my thimble-full of knowledge on the Negro Leagues, and today’s topic came to light as I was making notes to work from. I have shared some of the hardships the Negro League players and owners faced in the early years. Jim Crow was rampant, and if a colored man wasn’t picking cotton or carrying luggage at the train station, or even shining shoes on the corner, he was persona non grata. These faceless human beings would attempt to eke out a living in any way possible while keeping an eye open for the White man who resented his presence.
Baseball was an outlet, and those with the skills to compete were able to make enough money to eat and feed a family on a small scale. All of this depended on whether they were paid at all. The term “barnstorming” was born out of the method of finding games in the South. Baseball was America’s game, and everybody who could find a vacant cow pasture and a ball and bat played the game.
The game didn’t remain in the domain of men only. If you remember, a few years ago they came out with a movie, A League of Their Own. This movie was set in World War II America and had women from teams in the West competing. As with the plight of “Rosie the Riveter,” as soon as the war was over, the women were sent back to their kitchens and the men took over again.
The Negro Leagues were able to survive because they had no sponsors and, for all intent and purposes, were independent.
In 1973 the movie Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings was released and the story of the Negro Leagues in the South was told in a nutshell. Teams would contact the movers and shakers in small towns along their route and schedule games. A betting pot was put up with the winner take all as the prize. Often the Negro team was cheated out of the purse. A few carloads of colored men were no match for a town of “crackers” with shotguns. After one of these games, the team was asked to leave town in front of a resentful mob who witnessed their hometown favorites take a beating. That night one of the ball players circled back and broke into the grocery store where the money was kept. He stole the money and a collection of candy bars. He placed the candy in the gas tanks of the cars in the town, and when the break in was discovered and a posse was in pursuit, the candy gummed up the motors and the pursuit failed.
Similar stories followed the colored teams all through the South. However, Jim Crow didn’t have a monopoly on bad behavior. My Pop (Sam Lacy) joined a team that Satchel Paige was forming to go to the Dominican Republic to play for Rafael Trujillo, who was the dictator of the moment. Latin Americans take their baseball very seriously, and often teams who were victorious over the hometown favorites ran into fans who were intent on bodily harm. Fortunately for the team from America, Trujillo assigned them a platoon of soldiers for their protection. Pop said, “The best part of this adventure was everybody got paid on time.”
Colored ballplayers were grateful to make this trip, because it was baseball and it prevented them from having to take one of those degrading jobs I mentioned earlier during the months when baseball had to be put on hold for old man winter.
Hollywood should make a movie about that.