March 1, 2003

March 1, 2003
Reprinted with authors permission. Originally appeared in, 12/02.


Negro League players are getting attention, but soon it may be too late to hear their stories

By DOUG LESMERISES, Staff reporter

Howard Leroy "Toots" Ferrell was a living, breathing, laughing part of Negro League Baseball history, Delaware history and American history. And now he's gone.

Delaware's last Negro Leaguer died at his home in Wilmington's Compton Apartments on Oct. 11. Ferrell, who was 73, took with him stories, told and untold, of the joys and tribulations of his three seasons in the Negro Leagues.

In wheelchairs and toting canes, his ballplayer friends, some of them more like family, came out for his funeral, where the collages of photos from his playing days told the stories Ferrell no longer could. It is a scene repeated with regularity in the Negro League family these days, as the pioneers from a league that ended its heyday 52 years ago enter the final stages of their lives.

"The last couple years I've been getting all these notices that someone else has passed," said 80-year-old Mahlon Duckett, a Negro Leaguer who lives in Philadelphia. "It makes me not want to go to the mailbox or pick up the phone."

Knowing that the days are growing short, those seeking to save this history are racing against time to capture the first-hand accounts of Negro League life.

They include Delaware's Joe Mitchell and Dave Tiberi, who are seeking to tell the story of the Negro Leagues through the life of Delaware's Judy Johnson, the Hall of Fame player who died in 1989. They hope to interview players who knew Johnson for a video to be distributed to every school in Delaware. They are joined in the race by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.; and by major filmmakers and local high school students.

"There could be nothing more important," said documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who in 1994 produced the series "Baseball." "Not just for Negro Leaguers, not just for baseball, but for all Americans to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions of these men before the final flame flickers out on the last remaining players."

The first Negro League was formed in 1920, when eight of the many independent or barnstorming all-black baseball teams were brought together in the Negro National League. Featuring all midwestern teams, the league was joined in 1923 by the Eastern Colored League, which included the Hilldale team in Darby, Pa. Players averaged about $200 a month to start and they played games almost every day from April until September.

In schedules packed with doubleheaders and all-night bus trips, the league grew into the third-largest black business in the country. The best players were as talented as major leaguers and the crowds often larger than at white games. By the time the major leagues integrated in 1947, many experts considered it a business decision as much as a social one.

Don Motley, executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said of the 2,600 players in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1960, fewer than 250 remain. Wilmer Fields, president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association, acknowledges true Negro Leaguers as those who played before 1950. In 1994, 138 of those players remained. Today, no more than 100 of them, and possibly as few as 48, are alive. Holding up a photo from a 1990 reunion in Baltimore, Negro Leaguer Stanley Glenn runs through the names of 35 friends in the picture - 24 are dead.

"It's just a matter of time before there won't be any old ballplayers left," Fields said. "We'd like to keep the history of the Negro Leagues as strong as it is right now. But I say there's no way."

Remembering a legend

Driven by their passion for telling the story of a Delaware legend, Mitchell and Tiberi have been gradually organizing their efforts to reinforce at least one part of Negro League history. It's a project that took its roots from an encounter 26 years ago.

It was 1976 and Judy Johnson, one year after his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, sat almost unnoticed at a Wilmington autograph signing, overshadowed by major leaguers. Then Joe Mitchell approached and a friendship was formed.

"I started visiting with him at his home," said Mitchell, 64, of Wilmington. "He wasn't just a Hall of Fame baseball player. He was a wonderful human being and I fell in love with the old man."

That relationship turned Mitchell into a Negro League historian and led him to form the Judy Johnson Memorial Foundation after his friend's death 13 years ago. At one Wilmington Blue Rocks game every August for the past seven years, the foundation has honored a Negro League player at Judy Johnson Night and awarded scholarships to local high school students. For the past two years, Mitchell has been collaborating with Tiberi, the president of TNT Video in Newport, on a video called "A Man Named Judy."

They have a script and more than 100 photos from the Negro Leagues and Johnson's life scanned into a computer for the planned 30-minute documentary. The next crucial step is filming interviews.

"There are athletes and fans still living," Tiberi said, "but if we don't capture them now it'll be too late."

They estimate they need to raise about $100,000 to pay for travel to conduct interviews along the East Coast and at the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and to edit and produce 1,000 tapes to distribute. Ideally, the video would premiere at the eighth Judy Johnson Night in nine months.

"We want this to be for more than just Delaware," Tiberi said.

Virtually ignored by history and society in the first few decades after its end, Negro League Baseball has found a place in the cultural landscape since the seminal book on black baseball history, "Only the Ball was White," was published in 1970. The formation of the Negro League Baseball Players Association in 1990 organized the players' voices and allowed them to be heard.

"But you can never have enough out there," said Burns, who built his 1994 documentary around the struggle of black players and also helped re-ignite appreciation of the Negro Leagues. "I'm very proud of what we did, but I think new ground can be broken and new information can be uncovered."

Several Negro Leaguers recently have published autobiographies, and director Spike Lee, who has gotten to know many players, has been considering a Negro League project for years.

But a common desire among Negro Leaguers is for a more prominent place in history books. So putting the Negro Leagues into school curricula is a particular focus of the

history drive. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has been working with Kansas State University for three years to develop a curriculum to distribute to teachers nationwide.

"Major League Baseball players come and go all the time," said Motley, the museum's executive director, "but when the last Negro Leaguer leaves here ... that's why we can't lose this history."

The National Baseball Hall of Fame already offers a Negro League learning program for fourth- through eighth-graders called "Before You Say Jackie Robinson," which is available to any school through video. Jeff Idelson, the Hall of Fame's vice president of education and communication, said schools call every day for a chance to have Cooperstown brought into classrooms. For Black History Month last February, the Hall of Fame broadcast what it called a multicultural field trip to 20 million students around the country.

But the biggest undertaking out of Cooperstown is "The Negro Leagues Researchers/Authors Group," a committee appointed last February. Backed by a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball, its assignment is to examine the history of black Americans in baseball from 1860 to 1960. The study should produce more conclusive statistical information and an expanded oral and written history of the Negro Leagues.

"A lot of baseball players are great storytellers, but the Negro Leaguers, their stories are especially compelling because of what they did and when they toiled," Idelson said.

Past links to future

In the den of his Pikesville, Md., home, Ernest Burke has walls filled with photos from his playing days in the Negro Leagues, mementos from his service as one of the first black members of the U.S. Marine Corps and a case of baseballs autographed by countless Hall of Famers. But his most precious possessions fill scrapbooks.

These are letters from children who have heard the 78-year-old Burke tell his Negro League tales and wrote to say thank you.

"I'm so proud of the kids for paying attention and writing me letters," Burke said. "I'm so overwhelmed, a lot of times tears come to my eyes. They write me deep letters, about the way we were treated and how we shouldn't have been treated that way. Those kids really grasped what I'm speaking, and they're letting their feelings go when they write me letters."

Some former players still gather four or five times a year for baseball card shows on the East Coast. It's not like a decade ago, when 30 or 40 Negro League players could draw huge crowds at shows in New York and New Jersey, make themselves some money they missed out on dur-
ing their careers, and then hold court past midnight in a hotel lobby.

The shows now aren't what they were, the players only able to make enough money to send out to other Negro Leaguers who have fallen on hard times. But other outings, like Judy Johnson Night in Wilmington and a congressional tribute in September hosted by Rep. J.C. Watts in Washington, D.C., are cause for the stories to be broken out again.

"I've gone to places and received keys to the city and things like that," said Negro Leaguer Stanley Glenn, 76, who lives in Yeadon, Pa. "It's nice, but it isn't as nice as being around these old guys you played with 50, 60 years ago. If you'd see us together now, we're like a bunch of little kids. Yep, we had great times. Great, great times."

It's during Black History Month when the history truly lives, when many of the former players speak at schools. Glenn recalls a child asking him whether he's angry his grandparents were slaves, whether he's angry he was kept from the major leagues.

Glenn told the boy, "I'm not angry. Are we supposed to be angry for 200 years?"

"I'm glad I know you," Glenn said the boy replied, "because I would be angry."

Burke tells children a story of his team bus stopping at a corner store so the players could buy a chunk of baloney, an onion and a loaf of bread for lunch when restaurants wouldn't serve them. Then he tells of the players changing out of their baseball uniforms and into their suits behind billboards when hotels wouldn't house them.

"Negro League ballplayers always dressed well," Burke said. "We'd change and be neat, but if you got close to us, the smell would knock you out. But we were sharp."

Burke's voice rises as he delights in the memory - and remembers his message to the children, "There are so many hurdles you have to cross to accomplish things."

That's the history, the chance to explain bigotry and perseverance with a bat and baloney.

"The genuine sincerity and humanity of these men, that's going to be a difficult thing to share through books after they're gone," said Todd Bolton, 49, of Smithsburg, Md., historian for the Negro League Baseball Players Association. "These are not bitter men; these are not angry men. These are men grateful for the little bit of recognition they've received, and they're very humble and sincere."

The players know as well as anyone their time is limited. And while sharing their lives is a joy, it is also in some ways a responsibility.

"If these children don't put something in your heart and soul, then you're not human," Glenn said. "I never say no to the children."

Players draw devotees

When Campbell Truitt, now 10 years old, had Grandparents Day at his first-grade class four years ago, he didn't have any grandparents who could accompany him. So he brought Grandpa Stanley - Negro League player Stanley Glenn.

"As you might imagine, a 72-year-old black man with a 6-year-old white boy is going to rate some reaction," said Campbell's father, Gregg Truitt. "Stanley is a very commanding, yet gentle and compelling speaker. So I don't need to have been there to know how that day went."

Gregg Truitt, 40, of Hockessin, is a medical writer for AstraZeneca who eight years ago began work on a freelance story on Negro League legend Leon Day. A Negro League novice, Truitt developed a relationship with Day and met several Negro Leaguers through him. Day died in 1995, six days after his election to the Hall of Fame. Truitt became a Negro League historian, and he and wife Linda, Campbell and 11-year-old daughter Paige have become part of the Negro League family.

"It certainly has been the most rewarding experience, short of getting married and having children, in my life," Truitt said.

His story is not uncommon. Truitt is also part of the Judy Johnson Foundation and the Society for American Baseball Research's Negro League Committee, which has grown from 15 members to 45 members in recent years. While the research society is in many ways a statistics-oriented organization, discovering Negro League history is not about numbers and never will be. It's about the men.

"The fire in my belly will not be nearly as strong once these guys are gone," said Bolton, the organization's historian, who has attended five Negro League funerals this year. "Because there won't be anybody to do it for."

Burns proved with "Civil War" that a compelling history can be produced without speaking to those who made the history, using their letters and journals to speak for them. After connecting with Negro League interview subjects such as Buck O'Neil, a former Negro League star and chairman of the league's museum, for "Baseball," it is that history that stayed part of him. Burns now sits on the Negro League Baseball Museum's board of directors and the museum remains his favorite charity. Those who study the Negro Leagues often embrace it.

This history's impact is not what it is, but who it is. And the players are the men they are in large part because of the Negro Leagues.

"It toughened them," Truitt said. "These are men of immeasurable character."

Men like Wilmington's Toots Ferrell. Ferrell shot pool almost every day and had a rule about ice cubes - three in his water, two in his iced tea, one in his juice. He adored children and always laughed at The Jazzman, a sax-playing figurine in his living room that would dance on command.

Two years ago as a Charter High junior, Ivan Orsic interviewed Ferrell for a project for National History Day. He asked for the interview through a letter because he was too intimidated to call. Ferrell sat with him for two hours, talking baseball, pool, dogs, life.

"I couldn't wipe the smile off my face," said Orsic, now a freshman at Denison University in Ohio. "He had such a presence. It was amazing to be around him."

The interview ended only because the tape ran out. Orsic turned it into a 10-minute documentary on the Negro Leagues that won first prize at Charter and then in the state. Ferrell's widow, Marjorie, still has her copy.

"I felt more personally attached to history than if I read it in a book," Orsic said. "A person's face and voice and their manner are much more powerful to anybody than words on a piece of paper. That was one of the best things I've ever done."

When Orsic heard of Ferrell's death seven weeks ago, he wept. A piece of history was gone. So was a friend.

ªReach Doug Lesmerises at



The discrepancy in the number of Negro Leaguers remaining, as few as 48, as many as 250, results over the definition of what a Negro Leaguer is.

Black baseball teams had played independently for years before the first Negro League, the Negro National League, was formed in 1920. That is universally acknowledged as the start of the Negro Leagues. When Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color line in 1947, it signaled the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.

"It's the ultimate bittersweet aspect of it," said filmmaker Ken Burns, "in that they worked so hard to bring one of their own to the major leagues, and when they did they essentially signed the death certificate of the Negro Leagues."

The move of black players to the majors began as a trickle, but by 1950, most of the established players who were skilled enough were either in the majors or with a major league team's farm club. In 1949, the two main Negro Leagues combined when the Negro National League folded into the Negro American League.

So the Negro League Baseball Players Association considers 1950 the cutoff for true Negro Leaguers, those who were kept from the major leagues because of their skin color, not because of their talent.

But the Negro American League remained in existence until 1960, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum counts players from that era among its numbers, which is how it arrived at roughly 250 living Negro Leaguers. And with a long history of barnstorming, some all-black teams existed without ever being part of a league.

- Doug Lesmerises
Copyright 2002, The News Journal Co.