Fifty years ago the great pitcher Satchel Paige rented a room
for the winter in a boardinghouse in south Nashville, and for a
few months a young outfielder named Henry Kimbro was his
companion. "Satch was a good guy," says Kimbro, now 83. "He
didn't talk about women. Satch talked about baseball. We used to
hang on the corner jivin' just like I do when I come down here
now every day."
"Here" is a kempt little store on Jefferson Street called the
Old Negro League Sports Shop, which not only specializes in
sportswear and merchandise relating to Negro league baseball but
also serves as a social club for former Negro league players.
"I'm awakening people's memories," says Larry Walker, 44, a
former schoolteacher and data processor who opened the shop two
years ago, and has since opened another in Memphis.
Walker was named after Larry Doby, the first black man to play
in the American League. Before Doby joined the Cleveland Indians
in 1947, he played second and third base for three years with
the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. From 1920 to
1947, when Jackie Robinson took the field with the Brooklyn
Dodgers and started the integration of baseball, the Negro
leagues employed hundreds of terrific ballplayers who were
excluded from the majors. Walker grew up fascinated by the
stories he read about such Negro league heroes as Paige, James
(Cool Papa) Bell, Oscar Charleston, Leon Day, Ray Dandridge and
Josh Gibson. To run a store that enables people to "get to know
the players," as Walker puts it, "has been [my] lifelong dream."
Most of Walker's merchandise is what he calls "authentic
reproductions," among them replica caps and jerseys from such
teams as the Eagles, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Birmingham
Black Barons. Walker also stocks reproductions of posters
advertising games between, say, the Homestead Grays and the
Atlanta Black Crackers at Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta, as
well as autographed balls, team postcards and pennants, baseball
cards, and bookmarks emblazoned with photographs of Hall of
Famers Bell, Dandridge and Pop Lloyd, among numerous others.
Also on sale are biographies, histories and encyclopedias that,
for instance, list the many different fastballs Paige could show
a batter and explain why Day was so difficult to hit. But
another good way to learn such things is to spend some time
listening to Kimbro, who strolls in most every day sporting red
suspenders, sunglasses and a toothpick. Kimbro played
centerfield for two Negro league teams, including the Baltimore
Elite Giants, on which Day was a teammate. "Good god, that Leon
Day was something else," Kimbro says. "Kind of like a turtle.
That's why he was so effective. He'd pitch"--Kimbro crouches and
tucks in his head--"out of a closed shell."
Kimbro had a reputation for being mean, which he blithely
dismisses. "Don't bear it no mind," he says. When Walker reminds
Kimbro that he did once attempt to whack catcher Gibson, the
so-called Black Babe Ruth, in the head with a bat, Kimbro smiles
and says, "When you're young and strong, you'll grab anybody.
Josh was a fine guy."
No sooner has Kimbro left the shop than Robert Abernathy
appears. Paige's former Monarch teammate loves to talk about the
wily old righthander. "Satch had so many pitches," Abernathy
says. "Three or four curves and three or four fastballs. He
could throw one that would drop from your head to your ankles."
After the 1946 World Series, Abernathy played with Paige in an
all-star game against a team of white players in Los Angeles.
"Satch struck out 18, and he told them what he was gonna throw,"
says Abernathy. "I went 2 for 6 that day. We won 11-2."
And here is Jim Zapp, a large man with a sleek Cadillac and a
fierce handshake, who in 1948 played for a Baron team that
included a teenage centerfielder named Willie Mays. "He could
field, throw and run," says Zapp. "Wasn't much of a hitter yet,
but he had one of the sweetest arms. What a treat it was to see."
That's how Clint (Butch) McCord feels about Walker's shop.
McCord played for two Negro league teams before becoming a
Nashville postman. He says the shop helps him remember a job he
loved. "We need this," he says. "People need to know about
blacks like Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston. Baseball brings
Walker agrees. When McCord is out of hearing range, Walker says,
"I think this is reopening a part of his life."
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY McCord, Kimbro, Zapp and Walker revel in black baseball's heyday. [Clint (Butch) McCord, Henry Kimbro, Jim Zapp, and Larry Walker]