January 8, 2005

Tales from the Negro League
Player numbers dwindle after
Wilmer Harris funeral

Sourced from DelawareOnline.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Funeral homes, too often, are their gathering places now. The stories of their lives in the Negro League, too often, are told standing next to a casket.

Bill "Ready" Cash rose from a couch at the Garzone Funeral Home in North Philadelphia. A call had been made for the former teammates of Wilmer Harris to come forward.

There were four other old Philadelphia Stars among the 100 family and friends gathered to honor Harris, who died two weeks ago at age 80.

There used to be more.

Harris was a pitcher, Cash his catcher with the Stars. Cash relived a day at Yankee Stadium, when he caught Harris, and Satchel Paige, the Negro Leagues' biggest star, took the mound to oppose them.

Old Ready spread his hands apart, as if telling a fish tale, to explain the break on Harris' curveball that day. Things only a catcher knows.

Paige, the drawing card, was supposed to pitch three innings and depart. But he couldn't leave while trailing - so he stayed through seven innings as Harris matched him zero for zero.

Family nodded. Friends smiled.

Cash, 86, looked to his friend, laid out in a suit, a Stars cap by his feet.

"Wilmer, we'll see you soon."

In the '90s, they called themselves the Seven Philadelphia Stars, seven former Negro League teammates, all still living in the area, all sharing stories of Negro League baseball with any group, any fan, who asked. Former teammate
Gould, Harold reconnected with them later.

Gene Benson, Larry Kimbrough, Al Wilmore and Harris are gone now. Cash, Gould, Stanley Glenn and Mahlon Duckett were there Friday.

Four players remaining from 16 years of Philadelphia Stars baseball.

A 7-foot, 1,000-pound bronze statue remembering their play will be placed at the corner of Belmont and Parkside avenues in Philadelphia, where the Stars played their games. The monument was initially unveiled at a Phillies game in June 2003. The players were excited Friday to hear that it will finally be placed at its resting place this spring.

On the
Negro League Baseball Players Association website, 15 death notices have been placed since June 2003. Fewer than 40 true Negro Leaguers remain.

Ernest Burke's Maryland apartment was a showcase for his mementos from his life as a Marine and Negro League player. What he loved most were the letters and drawings mailed to him by children after he spoke at their schools.

"I'm so overwhelmed, a lot of times tears come to my eyes," Burke told me late in 2002. He died on Jan. 31, 2004.

Wilmer Fields was the president of the NLBPA, pessimistic about the Negro League's legacy surviving beyond its players. But he devoted his time helping to look after less fortunate former players, and remembering those who passed.

"Someone calls me and I send flowers," Fields said two years ago. He died June 4, 2004.

A blue marker sits among rock slabs and a few shrubs on a traffic island at Belmont and Parkside. "The Future Home of the Negro Leagues Baseball Memorial." The placing of the monument will provide another day to gather. Pray the spring comes soon.

Bill Cash had another story outside the funeral home Friday. One of a month-long roadtrip, which included a journey from Chicago to Philadelphia that landed Cash and his mates at Shibe Park one hour before the start of a doubleheader.

"We were gone 28 days," Cash said. "The whole time, we were in a bed for four hours."

Baseball's greatest generation continues to fade. What of the day when the call goes out for teammates to share their memories, and there is no one there to rise?

Then, even the greatest of monuments won't be enough. There are things only a teammate knows.

Contact Doug Lesmerises at dlesmerises@delawareonline.com.