Life in the Minors
Players get an appreciation for Negro Leagues
Making our way off the team bus at Road Ranger Stadium before our game against the Rockford Riverhawks yesterday afternoon was interesting. On most days, we just stroll into our clubhouse, change into our gear for batting practice and go about our daily routine.
Yesterday was a little different. Upon making our way to the visitor's clubhouse door, we were informed that we would be playing the game in throwback Negro League uniforms. It's a common practice in independent minor league baseball. The Negro League Hall of Fame mails out replica home-and-away uniforms to teams wanting to honor the league's rich tradition.
When we walked into the clubhouse, the road uniforms of several different Negro League teams were laid out on the floor for us to pick from. There was a mix of teams to choose from, including the Atlanta Black Crackers, Indianapolis Clowns, Birmingham Black Barons, Cleveland Buckeyes and Elite Giants.
Rockford's squad wore the home uniforms of the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Cuban Elite Giants, and New York Black Yankees, among others.
It was real nice to see our guys getting excited about putting on the uniforms of teams which had some of the greatest players in the history of the game, many of whom were never allowed to play in the Major Leagues.
According to the Negro League Baseball Players Association Web site, the first league -- the Negro National League -- began in 1920, when Rube Foster established a league at the YMCA in Kansas City, Mo. Over the next 40 years, several other professional leagues formed, including the Eastern Colored League and the Negro American League, as greats such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck O'Neil turned themselves into legends of the diamond. Paige, Gibson, and Bell have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., while O'Neil will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Hall at the 2008 induction ceremony today.
For us with the Evansville Otters, we have our own special connection to the great Negro Leagues, although I'm sure not many of our players are even aware of it. Each day we spend at home in historic Bosse Field, we are in the presence of a great resource for baseball.
As we go about our business at the ballpark, doing early work, taking batting practice each day, and changing in and out of our gear throughout the day, it is easy to take one of the most vital people in any organization, the club house manager. The clubbie serves many functions for the team, including doing laundry, handling our equipment and uniform inventory, cleaning both the coaches and players clubhouses, making sure our guys get fed each day before and after games, managing the bat boys, and just about every other item of interest that needs to get taken care of each day.
Our clubbie, Sammie Hartsfield, is one of the best. Working at a pace suited for a 30-year-old, Sammie is in perpetual motion every day. Each day Sammie just goes about his business, never saying much, and just staying out of the way. All Sammie ever talks about is his wife, his grandkids, food, and baseball. But getting to interact with Sammie each day, I've learned to appreciate his honesty and humility, and he's a good, good man.
Now retired from his job at the ALCOA factory in Evansville, which he held for 32 years, Sammie spends his time and energy taking care of us and staying involved in the game he loves -- the game he once played so well.
Back in the 1940s, Sammie Hartsfield was an ambidextrous pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns and Kansas City Monarchs. Turns out, Sammie was actually a natural left-hander growing up as a kid in Kentucky, but had to teach himself to throw right-handed, since all the gloves available in pick-up ball were for right-handed throwers. Sammie learned to throw righty so he would stop getting picked last for the games.
Watching Sammie move around the clubhouse each day, quietly, unassumingly, you would never expect such a wealth of baseball knowledge would be right under our noses. Sammie picks his spots to impart his knowledge. When we were mired in a losing streak midway through the first half, we in the coaches' office were taking the slide very hard after one of our frustrating one-run losses.
Sammie walked into the office, and as he placed our clean batting practice gear into our lockers, simply said, "high time is coming. There was high time, and now it's low time. We'll get there. High time is coming."
Sincere as always, Sammie's words were comforting. And soon, there was high time again, as we won seven of our nine games before the all-star break to pull within two games of the division lead.
Much like so many of the great ballplayers who graced the fields of the country in the Negro Leagues in the early to mid 1900s, Sammie is unassuming and underappreciated.
As we all put on our Negro League uniforms, I was very glad to hear the excitement in our players' voices. After all, the jerseys we had the privilege of putting on, were once worn by great players whose only option was to wear them.