October 22, 2004

Sourced from San Francisco Chronicle (www.sfgate.com)
Bay Area ballplayers to remember
by Chip Johnson

Friday, October 22, 2004

Imagine playing a sandlot baseball game that included a half-dozen ballplayers who would one day go on to make their mark in major-league baseball.

If you grew up in the Bay Area in the late 1940s, you didn't have to imagine -- all you had to do was show up at a baseball field.

The exceedingly good, even great, homegrown players form a long procession, beginning with Joe DiMaggio, who grew up in Martinez, and leading to San Mateo-raised Barry Bonds. The years in between are packed with talent, from Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson to Rickey Henderson.

Because no region in America can lay a greater claim to the game than the Bay Area, a place with two major-league teams and deep roots to America's favorite pastime, the start of the World Series is an appropriate time to celebrate Bay Area baseball's past, present and future.

That will happen Saturday in El Cerrito, when a group of homegrown baseball pioneers, including a barnstormer from the 1940s and a member of the first wave of African American players to be accepted in the major leagues, will be honored at a public discussion at the city's community center.

Former Negro League player Gentry Jackson and Pumpsie Green, the first African American player signed by the Boston Red Sox, will join El Cerrito High School outfielder Miguel Sanchez for a three-hour discussion of the game, then and now.

Paul Daniels, the former principal at El Cerrito High and a former player at UC Berkeley, will join the discussion.

For Jackson, 75, and Green, 70, the discussion is an opportunity to reflect on their careers and pass on their wisdom to succeeding generations of players such as Sanchez, a speedy right fielder who struggles at the plate.

When Jackson and Green were in their prime, Bay Area baseball fields were stocked with talented players who played for business-sponsored teams, and there were no age restrictions.

Such leagues made it possible for Green to give tips to a young, up-and- coming infielder named Joe Morgan. It helped Jackson develop a friendship with a kid named Willie Stargell, a youngster he grew up with at the Encinal housing projects in Alameda. Robinson played, too, along with a young Vada Pinson.

The games were played in Raimondi and Bushrod parks in Oakland, at fields on the Richmond shoreline and at North Richmond Park, some of which have faded away with the years.

Among the panelists, Green, a shortstop, is the only one to make it to the Big Show. Green loves to talk about his experience in the major leagues and remembers the time he asked teammate Ted Williams for a tip on hitting.

He received the most curious response from the man he simply referred to as "No. 9."

"What part of the ball did you hit?'' Williams asked.

"Huh? I hit the ball, that's what part I hit,'' Green responded. "When you're a .240 hitter, all you're trying to do is pick up the ball against the background,'' he said in an interview this week.

But when Williams, who was known as a perfectionist, handed out free advice, he would often come back and "check on you,'' Green added.

On Cardinal Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson, Green said: "I faced him in the minor leagues, and it was like trying to hit a ball in a dark alley. When I finally faced him in the major leagues, I could see how he was getting me out all the time, and I felt much better about it."

Then there was Juan Pizarro, a fiery left-handed pitcher for the Chicago White Sox who signed at age 19 and spent the next 17 years in the major leagues. Pizarro simply scared the daylights out of hitters, Green said.

"Pizarro was wilder and threw harder than Gibson. You hit with a foot outside the (batter's) box,'' he said.

The current pitchers Green would try to avoid reads like a Who's Who of future Hall-of-Famers.

"I've seen pitchers who pitch today that I would have worn out, and others who I'd hate to try and make a living against,'' he said. "The Big Unit (Randy Johnson), (Roger) Clemens and (Pedro) Martinez, you can't make a living batting against those guys all the time,'' he added.

Jackson, who was 17 years old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, barnstormed around the country with a baseball team and spent time playing for the Oakland Larks of the West Coast Negro League before joining the U.S. Army in 1952.

His experiences in the game included spending a night in a jail in Watertown, S.D., because the town had no facilities for black players.

"I got a chance to travel the country, visit all sorts of places and meet all sorts of people,'' Jackson said.

"Had it not been for baseball, for a kid growing up in the projects, I don't know what would have become of me.''

Saturday program (Oct 23, 2004)
"Diversity in baseball, then and now," sponsored by the El Cerrito Human Relations Commission, is open to the public and runs from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday at the El Cerrito Community Center, 7007 Moeser Lane.