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The stories of my father - writing Negro League history

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http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercuryn ... 098071.htm

BY MARGIE PETERSONThe Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)---

``There is a story that one day during the 1930s the Pittsburgh Crawfords (an all black professional baseball team) were playing in Forbes Field in Pittsburgh when their young catcher, Josh Gibson, hit the ball so high and far that no one saw it come down. After scanning the sky carefully for a few minutes, the umpire deliberated and ruled it a home run. The next day the Crawfords were playing in Philadelphia when suddenly a ball dropped out of the heavens and was caught by a startled centerfielder on the opposing club. The umpire made the only possible ruling. Pointing to Gibson he shouted, `Yer out - yesterday in Pittsburgh.'''

_From the book ``Only the Ball Was White''


While other kids grew up enamored of baseball greats such as Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth, I was raised on tales of the exploits of professional baseball stars my friends had never heard of: John Henry Lloyd and Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.

These African-Americans, excluded from Major League Baseball by a ``gentlemen's agreement,'' became stars of what were known as the Negro Leagues. They played for all-black teams like the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, the Philadelphia Stars and the Kansas City Monarchs.

The teams barnstormed around the country, playing professional and semi-pro teams in small towns and big cities for a fraction of the money the big leaguers made. Yet many of the stars of the Major Leagues - players such as Ted Williams, Dizzy Dean, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson - paid homage to the Negro Leagues' stars as among the best who ever played the game.

``I am honored to have John Lloyd called the Black Wagner,'' Honus Wagner once said. ``It is a privilege to have been compared with him.''

It took a smart, courageous Kansas City Monarchs infielder, and the wily Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who recruited him, to break the color barrier and integrate Major League Baseball. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson, handpicked for the challenge by Branch Rickey, took the field for the Dodgers. That was the beginning of the end of the black leagues, whose stars were unknown to much of white America.

I'm lifting a lot of this history from ``Only the Ball Was White'' because I'm fairly sure the author's widow won't sue me. She wouldn't want to loot her grandsons' college fund.

As a semi-pro catcher in the late 1940s, my father, Robert W. Peterson, played against barnstorming black teams. A journalist, he was left without a job when The World-Telegram in New York folded in 1966. Soon after, he walked into a Harlem liquor store owned by ex-big league star Roy Campanella and started the interviews that would become the lifeblood of ``Only the Ball Was White.''

Campanella told him where to find former Negro League stars Buck Leonard and Judy Johnson, who was scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies at the time. My father talked to them and they gave him more names.

In 1971, the year after ``Only the Ball Was White'' was published, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown inducted its first Negro Leagues star - pitcher Satchel Paige. Sixteen others joined him until . . .

Last month, my father was to be part of a committee assembled to vote on players and executives from the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues being considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. Having been diagnosed with lung cancer in January, he was too ill to travel but was allowed to vote in absentia. My mother mailed his ballot Feb. 10. He died the next day.

On Feb. 27, the committee chose 17 people for induction in July. My father would be disappointed that Buck O'Neil, for years the most eloquent voice of black baseball, was passed over. Before he died my father said he would vote for O'Neil.

During the years, my father had been asked: What's a white guy doing writing about black history? Invariably, his reply was that it's American history.

``Negro baseball was Josh Gibson standing loose and easy at the plate in Yankee Stadium and hitting the longest home run ever seen in the House that Ruth Built,'' he wrote in 1970. ``And it was the touring Brooklyn Colored Giants arriving, broke and hungry, in a small Pennsylvania city where, because of a scheduling mixup, no game was arranged, and then playing a hastily called game with the local semipros so they could take up a collection for a meal and enough gas to get to the next town. Negro baseball was at once heroic and tawdry, a gladsome thing and a blot on America's conscience.''

Everyone gets a legacy. Plumbers' kids learn how to fix leaky faucets. A comedian's children inherits a lexicon of jokes. A millionaire's son wins a life of luxury. I was lucky enough to learn a fascinating piece of American history at the feet of the guy who wrote it. That's riches enough.

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My hometown, Buena Vista, Georgia is the home of Josh Gibson. I believe he spent his pre=teen years there. There was an eccentric old gentleman there who lived behind me that I was told was his cousin.

American history is a wondrous study. I do so hate that it is segregated.

Thanks for sharing with us.

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