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On Sports

Preserving inspirational tales from segregated baseball era

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Rochester Business Journal
July 24, 2015

Ike Walker picks up an old baseball team photograph from the newspaper clippings spread out on the kitchen table of his Irondequoit home.

“That’s Satchel Paige, there, the tall, lean guy in the back row,” Walker says, pointing to the old Negro League star who’s regarded by some historians as the greatest pitcher of all time. “And that’s my brother, Oscar. And there’s me.” Walker begins to smile as he examines the photo more closely. This picture clearly is worth way more than a thousand words. “It brings back many cherished memories,” he says. “Seems like only yesterday we were playing ball, barnstorming all over the country and Canada.”

Fifty-two years have passed since he experienced one of the most memorable summers of his life as the starting catcher on Paige’s traveling all-star team, which played 111 games against professional and college clubs, winning about 96 of them, according to Walker’s best estimates. Paige was the main drawing card, a Hall of Fame pitcher and gifted showman—a Harlem Globetrotter in baseball flannels.

“There was this one time,” Walker recalled, “when we were playing a game in Omaha, Neb., and in the fourth inning he motioned for our outfielders to come into the infield. He wound up striking out all three batters he faced, so there was no need for the outfielders or the infielders, for that matter. Heck, they could have taken the inning off and watched from the stands. It was just me and Ol’ Satch playing catch.”

What made that and other performances even more amazing was that Paige was 57 years old.

“I remember I used to ask him all the time how old he was,” Walker said. “Ol’ Satch was always evasive. He would joke, ‘Don’t worry about my age, son. You just try to get to it.’”

The 74-year-old Walker obviously got to that age, and then some. And now, thanks to Jeff Klein and his daughter, Makayla, Walker’s story and the stories of several lesser-known Negro League players finally will be told. Paige and Jackie Robinson have been well-chronicled in articles, books and movies, such as “42,” which hit the theaters two years ago and cogently showed the intense hatred Robinson was forced to endure. But the saga of Walker and so many other African-American players who didn’t get a chance to follow in the spike steps of the Brooklyn Dodgers legend have been overlooked.

Klein wants those forgotten ballplayers to be remembered, which is why he organized “They Stepped Up to the Plate,” a talk and autograph session featuring Walker and former Negro Leaguers Ray “Boo Boy” Knox, Bill “Youngblood” McCrary and Dennis “Bose” Biddle that will be held July 31 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Thomas P. Ryan Community Center on Webster Avenue. The event is open to the public. Tickets are $6 per person. Children 12 and under will be admitted free.

Klein, a Monroe County sheriff’s deputy and lifelong baseball fan, had been collecting autographs of Negro League players for about 15 years. A year ago, his daughter Makayla, while working on a Black History Month school project, urged him to write letters to the old-time ballplayers whose autographs he had accumulated. The result was many heartfelt letters in return.

“What I learned from the correspondence and subsequent phone calls is that they had incredible stories to tell,” Klein said. “Many of them faced indignities similar to what Jackie faced—the racism, the physical threats. But there was one big difference—they never got the opportunities that Jackie and other African-American players did to play in the major leagues because there were quotas in baseball.”

A few former Negro Leaguers told Klein a story about a Major League Baseball tryout camp for about 50 black players. “Five guys made the cut after a rigorous week of workouts, but the scouts who ran the camp said they had some good news and some bad news,” Klein said. “They told them: ‘The good news is that you all have the ability to play big-league ball. The bad news is that we can’t sign any more blacks because we’ve already met our quota.’ Sadly, I heard stories like this repeated by the guys I’ve been in contact with time and time again.”

Klein recounted another story in which a white, Triple A coach was driving three of his African-American players after a game in the segregated south in search of a restaurant that would serve blacks. After about 45 futile minutes, the frustrated coach pulled the car to the side of a highway and told the players to get out, that they were off the team. “They thought for sure he was pulling a prank, and that he would return for them in a few minutes,” Klein said. “But he was dead serious. He never came back for them. They were done.”

The deeper Klein delved into his project, the more compelled he became to give the players a forum. He wound up raising more than $5,000 through a GoFundMe website to pay the participating players a stipend and travel expenses.

“I think it’s wonderful that he’s doing this,” Walker said. “It’s pretty neat how passionate he and his daughter are about this.”

Though Walker’s baseball memories are mostly fond, he also recalls times he’d rather forget.

“Satchel prepared us as best he could for what we would face on the road,” said Walker, whose son David went on to become one of the leading rushers in Syracuse University football history and an NFL assistant coach. “Satch told us we would hear things from the stands, and we did. And there was still segregation we had to deal with back in ’63. There were still plenty of restaurants that didn’t serve blacks, and there were still plenty of hotels where we couldn’t stay. But we dealt with it.

“Satchel taught us how to be professional, how to turn the other cheek and ignore things like Jackie did. And I’d like to think that the way we carried ourselves help pave the way for other blacks.”

Like Jackie Robinson, Walker and Co. have inspirational stories worth remembering. Thanks to Jeff Klein and his daughter, a lost piece of history has been found.

Scott Pitoniak is an award-winning columnist and author in his 43rd year of journalism.

7/24/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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