Mt. Lebanon library program focuses on African-American baseball
A favorite tall tale of baseball involves two of the top stars of the old Negro Leagues, James “Cool Papa” Bell and Leroy “Satchel” Paige.
“Cool Papa was so fast,” Satchel would tell people, “that he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room gets dark.”
Having heard that one before, many of the audience members for a May 4 program at Mt. Lebanon Public Library chuckled when presenter Richard “Pete” Peterson recounted the anecdote. But then he threw a curveball.
“That story is true,” he said. “I’ll tell you why. They stayed in some really terrible motels and hotels when they were traveling around the country.”
When rooming with Paige at one such venue, Bell noticed a problem with the electricity.
“When you shut off the light, there was a delay,” Peterson explained. “So when Paige came in, he said, ‘Satchel, I’ll bet you I can get into bed before the light goes out.”
An author and retired professor, Peterson mixed the lighthearted with hard realities during his hour-and-a-half program “Pride and Prejudice: The African-American Experience in Pittsburgh Baseball,” a combination history lesson and trip down memory lane for the full house in attendance.
The Negro Leagues’ heyday was the 1930s, he explained, and at the epicenter was Pittsburgh. Between them, the cities’ two teams, the Crawfords and Homestead Grays, employed a slew of future Hall of Famers: Paige, Bell, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson and Grays owner Cumberland Posey among them.
Besides Paige, who probably was 42 when he first pitched for the Cleveland Indians, none of them played in the Major Leagues because of the color barrier that existed prior to Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
It would be another seven years before infielder Curt Roberts became the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first African-American player. The team’s general manager at the time was Branch Rickey, the man who signed Robinson to join the Dodgers.
“He thought Brooklyn was receptive. He didn’t think Pittsburgh was receptive,” Peterson said about Rickey’s hesitance to break the Pirates’ barrier. “And what happened to Curt Roberts probably proved Rickey correct.”
Rickey told Roberts what he had told Robinson.
“When you play, they’re going to call you names. You’re going to suffer all kinds of abuse. Even the players are going to abuse you.”
“Robinson handled it. Curt Roberts couldn’t.”
He hit .232 as a rookie, and his Pirates career ended just two years later. The Pittsburgh pioneer died in 1969 at age 40, struck by a drunken driver while changing a tire by side of an Oakland, Calif., road.
Thing eventually changed as the Pirates in 1971 became the first Major League team to field an all-black starting lineup. Pitching in the Sept. 1 game was Dock Ellis, about whom Peterson shared a few stuff-of-legend stories.
He also talked about some of the other African-American players who have made an impact in Pittsburgh since Roberts paved the way, from the relatively little-known Gene Baker, the only such member of the 1960 World Series winners, to first-ballot Hall of Famer, about whom Peterson wrote the biography “Pops.”
That list, of course, includes the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player, centerfielder Anderw McCutchen.
“He became a national celebrity, and every time he was on TV, he came off as somebody who was likeable, respectable,” Peterson said. “I mean, you couldn’t ask for a better representative than Andrew McCutchen.”
And so he asked about the team’s fan base in general.
“Why, so quickly, are you going to dismiss a player who fits so perfectly in what the Pirates are trying to sell?”
If only he could make it under the covers before the room went dark.
Richard Peterson’s latest book, co-written with Stephen Peterson, is “The Slide: Leyland, Bonds, and the Star-Crossed Pittsburgh Pirates.” For more information, visit www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36714.