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Time worth remembering

Alumni of the old Negro League looked back with joy at a reunion in Kentucky

The scene last week in a crowded motel parking lot in Ashland, Ky. was sure to send any glass salesman worth his weight in Windex scrambling for his order book: Half a dozen men in their 60s or 70s were playing catch. All about them were windows just waiting to be broken.

Not to worry. These weren't just old men; they were old pros, some of the 50 former players, including Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, who were attending the third annual Negro Baseball League Reunion, sponsored by the Tri-State Fair & Regatta.

The parking-lot session turned out to be a paneless one, thanks in part to Piper Davis, who wore an ancient infielder's glove that was little more than a faded piece of leather. He handled each throw so quickly that it appeared he was spearing the ball with his throwing hand. "Why don't you use your glove?" needled another player. Davis, an all-star second baseman with the Birmingham Black Barons during the late '40s, just smiled.

The reunion was a joyous one, an opportunity for the players to renew old acquaintances and revive old memories. Ted Page and Bill Harvey hadn't seen each other since the mid-1930s, and when they met again they kidded each other about a pitch Harvey threw in 1935 that severely damaged Page's right arm. But when it came to playing hard-nosed ball, both men agreed that about the toughest was Oscar Charleston, a Hall of Fame centerfielder who played with Page on the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

"Charleston was as mean as anyone who ever lived," Page said. "He'd spike you without even trying." Harvey recalled that Charleston had once picked him up and deposited him unceremoniously on third base—before the game even started. "He could take a ball in his hands and loosen the cover." Harvey said. "If you wanted to throw a cut ball, you just gave it to him."

The oldtimers reveled in the opportunity to recount such tales, and their infectious love for the game reminded fans that there was a time when batting averages were more important to professional players than those from Dow Jones. "I hit .392 one year and The Man gave me a $10 raise," said Hall of Fame Third Baseman Judy Johnson with a laugh. "We didn't worry about salaries," said Hilton Smith, often called "Satchel Paige's caddie" because he was the reliever who usually came on after Paige's daily three-to-five-inning stints. "Baseball was our love; today it's business."

Smith and the other former players won over the autograph seekers in Ashland with their warmth and humor. "There's no bitterness where there should be," said Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, a onetime star with the Newark Eagles and later the New York Giants, who is now an assistant to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Rather than decry the racial policies that kept them out of the major leagues, the old stars extolled the pleasures of their own game. Looking back, the bus rides didn't seem so long or the infields so bumpy. "There's nothing greater for a human being than to get his body to react to all the things one does on a ball field," said Chicago Cub scout Buck O'Neil, a former first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs. "It's as good as sex; it's as good as music; it fills you up. Waste no tears for me. I didn't come along too early; I was right on time."

The official highlight of the reunion may have been the Tuesday-night banquet, but the real action was in that parking lot outside the Henry Clay Motel, where most of the former players stayed. Long past midnight, they still would be out there, swapping yarns, sharing history and holding impromptu coaching clinics. Davis convened a session of Infielding 402: Advanced Second Base. The night's topic: how to make the pivot on the double play. He moved gracefully in glissades and pirouettes around an imaginary base, covering such fine points as the phantom double play and pushing off the bag. Discussing how to handle the relay, Davis spoke of three permutations: the wide toss, the short toss, the perfect toss.

Also on the asphalt, some oldtimers played trivia. What was the assumed name that teammates say Larry Doby used when he played for the Newark Eagles? Larry Walker, replied Clarence Isreal, 63, then a third baseman for the Eagles. Why? To protect his eligibility for a basketball scholarship at Long Island University. Who was the rightfielder who carried a knife in the back pocket of his uniform pants? Why, Fred Wilson, of course. Was he shy about flaunting it? No.

The first reunion was held two years ago when Tom Stultz, then a newspaperman in neighboring Greenup, Ky., wanted to honor Clint Thomas, a townsman who had been a peerless defensive centerfielder and a .350 career hitter for the New York Black Yankees. "If he were white, he'd be selling coffee makers," said Stultz. That reunion attracted 12 former black players, including Ernie Banks, who suggested that the event be an annual one. Last year it drew 23 players, and this year, thanks to a $25,000 gift from the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co., attendance doubled. Paige and Bell were the honorees, and Willie Mays, who played briefly for the Birmingham Black Barons, made an appearance.

Don't look back, but the years have overtaken Paige, and aging has replaced ageless as the operative adjective in describing him. As others played their games of catch in the parking lot, Paige sat in a hospitality room, tubes running into his nostrils from an oxygen tank he needs to fight emphysema. A small coterie of former players gathered 'round, some to exchange niceties, some to gawk, most to rehash the legend. "Satch, how did you hold the ball when you threw your hesitation pitch?" someone asked. In reply, Paige reached for a ball as if he were going to shake hands with it, then wrapped two lengthy fingers and a thumb across the seams. His audience watched in awe: He could have been George Washington demonstrating the proper grip on a silver dollar.

To clear his schedule for the reunion, Paige had requested a rain check on "a little dinner" at the White House. "My wife, Lahoma, told me, 'That shouldn't be a hard decision. Have you looked in the glass lately?' " Paige recounted. "I'm very happy to be here. I have a boss who says, 'Satchel, as old as you are, you ought to be glad to be anywhere.' "

As old as Paige is, Bell is older yet. Cool ran his way into Cooperstown on the fastest legs in blackball. "We had an ol' bus and it seems like in my prime I could jump over that ol' bus," Bell said. "Now somebody has to lift me into the bus."

Dave Barnhill, who pitched for the New York Cubans, surveyed the scene. "This is beautiful," he said. "I see all these old guys here. You think I'm going to die? You're crazy!"


Ted Page and Judy Johnson could laugh about old pains that were physical and fiscal, respectively.