March 26, 2003

Originally appeared in the March 26 - April 1, 2003 edition of the Baltimore City Paper.
Reprinted with permission from author.

The Old Ball Game

By Charles Cohen

It's a safe bet to guess that Ernest Burke has a different take on the arrival of baseball's Opening Day than most.

"It turns me off," the 78-year-old Pikesville resident says. "The amount of money that these players are getting. What we got was a spit in the bucket compared to what they get paid."

Such words would sound bitter when spoken by most people. But Burke, a former Negro League Baseball player, doesn't harbor any ill will. Rather, old No. 28 of the Baltimore Elite Giants team can revisit the Jim Crow days of the game and recount the degrading racism he and his teammates faced without venom. He can list the names of players he knew--Pee Wee Butts, Will Wells, Henry Kimbro, Lester Lockett, Double Duty Radcliffe, and Leon Day--who could have been stars but were consigned to the margins because of their race. He also tells tales of the countless times his team faced unabashed racism, such as the time the staff at a Georgia restaurant broke every dish and cup his team had been served with because the dish ware had touched black hands. But Burke doesn't get mad when he thinks of any of this.

"You can't get angry and succumb to someone else's ignorance," he says simply.

Until recently, Burke was sure nobody cared about the Negro leagues anymore. He never bothered to tell anybody that, between 1946 and 1951, he played several positions, including pitcher, third baseman, and left fielder, for the Elite Giants and several other teams. When his baseball career was over in '51, he stashed away his three-finger claw glove and his memories, and pursued a living as a heavy-equipment tester. But years later, he stumbled across a copy of Bruce Chadwick's 1997 book When the Game Was Black and White: The Illustrated History of Baseball's Negro League. Inside, he found a picture of himself in the middle of a windup.

"I felt uplifted, like my body was lifted up," he says. Since then, Burke has realized that the Negro leagues are not just an interesting sideline in the history of baseball but a major field of interest for sports fans and historians alike.

Burke was first introduced to baseball while in the Marines. It was during World War II (at a time, he notes, when African-Americans were not allowed to fight alongside white soldiers on the front lines), and he was serving with some of the top stars of the sport's Golden Age. The soldiers would occasionally play baseball to pass the time. One day, after Burke had pitched a particularly good game, Johnny Rigby, who played for the White Sox, suggested that Burke try out for the Negro leagues.

When Burke was released from the Marines after the war, he tried out and became a player with his hometown Havre de Grace Black Sox. In 1946 he was recruited by the Elite Giants, who paid him $250 a month, plus $2 a day for meals. He toured for two years with the team, which always seemed just on the verge of taking out the mighty Homestead Grays for the championship.

But much as he enjoyed playing, Burke says he couldn't focus on "what I loved for a living." The racism players faced and the frustrations they dealt with on a daily basis were distracting and humiliating. There were always hecklers harassing the league's players, and at many games black cats would be tossed from the sidelines onto the field. Players were paid only a quarter of what their white counterparts earned.

At home in Baltimore, one of the last straws came for Burke when the Elite Giants played the then-minor league Orioles during a seven-game exhibition. All seven of the games were played at the Giants' Bugle Field rather than at the Orioles' stadium because African-American players were not considered good enough to play on the white team's field. Frustrated, Burke left the Negro leagues and the Elite Giants in 1948 to join a Canadian league where conditions were better for black players.

Soon after that, Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier forever when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Over the years, as the major leagues became more integrated, it recruited many of the Negro leagues' best players, and by 1960, the Negro leagues had all folded.

"I remember one old-timer telling me, 'It's a damn shame one man goes to the majors and a thousand men lose their jobs,'" Burke says. "[But] I was glad that a thousand would lose their jobs so that they could see the talent we had on the [Negro] league."

Today, Burke is a member of the diminishing group of alumni who act as oral historians of the Negro leagues. For the past few years, Burke has traveled to baseball events, league reunions, and schools to talk about baseball, sports legends, and racism. Burke's den, covered in photos and memorabilia of famous players like Robinson, Joe Black, and Hank Aaron, serves as a neighborhood museum for Little Leaguers and curious neighborhood children. He also keeps the volumes of letters he has received over the years from children whom he's talked to.

One of his prized possessions is a term paper written about him by a high school kid. In the paper's introduction, the student admits that he was deeply prejudiced but concedes that, after meeting and interviewing Burke, he learned more about himself--and racism--than he had thought possible.

"That makes me so proud," Burke says. "I could have just went off on him, but I kept my cool and brought him up to my level."

These days, Burke still enjoys baseball, but he says he much prefers to follow minor league teams where the players are down to earth and the game is more accessible. He says it's hard for him to relate to the multimillionaire players that dominate the major leagues today. Besides, he says he'd rather spend his time talking about baseball with youngsters, reminiscing about the old days and teaching them a thing or two about the game--and that funny-looking baseball glove he's pulled out of the attic.

"I could sell all that stuff," he says. "But I get more pleasure out of it when the kids put that glove on and say, 'How could you catch a ball with that?'"

© 2003 Baltimore City Paper