I have been to Negro League Reunions here in Texas and one in Biloxi, Mississippi as a past player in those leagues. We were recognized at the national level for our participation in the Negro Bush Leagues that continued on from the 60s into the 80s. But when I received a call from Dr. Layton Revel, Director for the Center of Negro League Research inviting me and my other white pitching partner for the Biloxi Dodgers, Larry “Smitty” Smith, to attend a Negro League reunion in Birmingham, Alabama from 1-5 June of 2010 I was both excited, but also not sure since Smitty and I would be the only white ballplayers there. It never bothered me before but I didn’t play against any of these players. (The reunion was for past Negro League players who played in the Southern League, Barnstorming League and others like us who played in other leagues around the United States. It was all part of the 100 year anniversary of Rickwood Field, the oldest ball diamond in America.)
After praying about it both Smitty and I agreed to go and boy are we glad we did. We got to meet 50 other men who loved the game as much as we did and once there we were all family.
I am a great fan of baseball movies and one of my favorites was “Bingo Long and his Traveling All-Stars and Motorcade” starring Billy D. Williams. On our first full day of activities I ran into a player named Birmingham Sam Brison. He wanted a picture with Smitty and I so we all took a picture and included Billy Vaughn. There was something about Sam that was different to me and I just couldn’t get enough of his stories and then he said that he was in the Bing Long movie and told me to look at the players in the movie and he was the one that wore the”&” on his jersey. Here I was talking to truly a legend. He played with the Indianapolis Clowns along with a few other players who were there such as Crazy Legs Patterson, and Billy Vaughn. I had pictures taken of me, Smitty, Birmingham Sam, and Billy Vaughn, which will be a cherished picture forever. Smitty took a picture of Birmingham Sam sitting on a couch telling his stories to me. That picture will also be special one. Once I got home I pulled out the movie and realized that he was a big part of the movie.
The second day came and we all went to the ballgame at Rickwood Field to be recognized by the fans. Remember that Birmingham had two teams for a long time; the Birmingham White Barons and also the Black Barons so a lot of the players were representing the Black Barons. To all of our surprise over 9,500 fans came to their feet for a long standing ovation as we took the field. I think Smitty and I were the youngest players’ and the oldest player there was a young 94 year old blind man. This brings me to my last reason I felt so blessed to be a part of this reunion.
The blind man’s name was Roosevelt Jackson. As he walked out on the field being led by another player I just felt that I had to meet the man. Once Smitty and I were able to meet him the rest of the week was one big “God” moment. We had a chance to sit down in the lobby of the hotel we were all staying in and he shared with us his life in baseball. First of all, he traveled all the way from Florida on a bus with his young nephew leading him around to get to the appointed times. Since the young nephew wasn’t initially excited about being there Smitty and I agreed to make sure Roosevelt and his nephew got where we all needed to be. Why? Because after I knew what it took for him to come to the event then why were we so apprehensive on coming to the event when we didn’t have any obstacles to overcome other than our schedules. After listening to him we found out that he was a scout, manager and player in the Florida league for more than 50 years. He had a glow about him that just made you melt being around him. He asked us to sit with him at the formal banquet the last night and we all sat in the back of the room at the last table. He showed up looking sharp in his fine white suite sitting right next to me. I tried to explain to him what was going on. Then Dr. Revel got up and paid a tribute to Roosevelt in front of the entire audience. Roosevelt felt my leg and squeezed as hard as he could and then the tears came flowing from his eyes. Once he started our entire table started crying. I leaned over and whispered in his ear and asked if everything was alright. He said “Lefty I am so overwhelmed by everyone’s love here and I am so humbled by what they have done for me, all while my nephew is here to witness it. The long bus ride was worth it”. At that moment we hugged each other and then the applause became even louder. To Roosevelt I wasn’t a white man; I was a fellow ballplayer who loved the game and his Lord as much as Roosevelt did. After the banquet Smitty and I took Roosevelt and his nephew to the bus station. It was 11:00 pm at night in the station and when they said to board Roosevelt put out his arms and said where are you two. We all hugged and the tears started all over for me. Once he got on that bus I wasn’t sure we would ever see each other again but what a wonderful thing the Lord had done to bring us together. To this very day we call each other at least monthly.
There were so many other personal encounters we had with players like Frank Evans who was the first Black scout for major league baseball and the last manager for the Birmingham Black Barons; and Otis Thornton who played 1 year with the Houston Astros but primarily played in the Southern League. All of these players and others made our stay a once in a life time experience, one we will never forget.