April 23, 2003

APRIL 23, 2003

(Originally appeared in the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi. Reprinted with author’s permission)

Foster and 'Cool Papa' just good start for state Sports Hall of Fame
By Mike Christensen

THE induction of the late Bill Foster into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame earlier this month likely came as an enlightening event for many local fans.

Even dyed-in-the-wool baseball nuts might not have known about Foster, whose great accomplishments on the field came in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and '30s, long before baseball's color barrier was broken.

Foster, who grew up in Lorman and was dean of men and baseball coach at Alcorn State from 1960 until shortly before his death in 1978, was considered by some the greatest left-hander in Negro Leagues history.

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996. Foster and Cool Papa Bell are the only Mississippians from the Negro Leagues era enshrined in Cooperstown, which is a tough ticket to come by.

They are also the only two ex-Negro Leaguers enshrined in our own Hall of Fame — but there ought to be more.

Pick up a copy sometime of James A. Riley's The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (Carroll and Graf, 1994).

You will be enthralled by this 926-page volume.

Check out the entries for Foster and Bell and you'll know why those who vote on Cooperstown's membership saw fit to put them there.

Then check out the entries for Bob Boyd, Howard Easterling, Sam Hairston, Dave Hoskins, Bubba Hyde and Rufus Lewis. There are more Mississippians chronicled in those pages, but that list will do for starters.

The Rope

Boyd, from Potts Camp, hit .362 over four seasons in the Negro Leagues in the late '40s, then made it to the majors, where he spent parts of nine seasons with four different teams from 1951-61.

They called Boyd "The Rope," because that's what he usually hit.

Hairston, from Crawford, won a triple crown (.424, 17 homers, 71 RBIs) in the Negro American League in 1950 and got a cup of coffee with the Chicago White Sox in 1951, becoming their first black player.

Hairston had two sons make the majors, and his grandson, Jerry Jr., is now the Baltimore Orioles' second baseman.

Hoskins, born in Greenwood, pitched and played outfield for one of the Negro Leagues' great teams of the 1940s, the Homestead Grays.

Hoskins became the first black player in the Texas League in 1952 and later pitched for the Cleveland Indians.

Hyde was a speed demon from Pontotoc whose heyday came with the Memphis Red Sox in the '40s. Lewis, a Hattiesburg native, was a pitcher of renown in the '30s and '40s.

History denied

All of those mentioned are deserving of consideration for our Hall of Fame, but Easterling might rate priority status.

The Mount Olive native, who died in Collins in 1993, was one of the Negro Leagues' brightest stars, a five-time All-Star and a key component on a Homestead Grays club that won four straight pennants from 1940-43.

Easterling is described as a switch-hitter with speed and power. Primarily a third baseman, he could also play second, short and the outfield.

In the spring of 1943 — three years before Jackie Robinson broke into "organized baseball" — Easterling and two other Negro Leaguers, Chet Brewer and Nate Moreland, were invited to try out for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, the top minor league of the day.

Unfortunately, the offer was rescinded and Easterling was denied an historic moment.

He never made the major leagues, and it's unlikely he'll make Cooperstown. But we should be diligent in seeing that Easterling and more of the old Negro League stars follow Bell and Foster into Mississippi's Sports Hall of Fame.