At SABR 45 on Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Chicago, our Negro Leagues Panel discussed their careers and experiences in black baseball.
The Negro Leagues Panel included Al Spearman, top pitcher in the final years of the Negro Leagues, playing for the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs from 1949-51 who also played in the minor leagues and Japan; and Ernie Westfield, who “turned off the lights” on the Negro Leagues, pitching for the Birmingham Black Barons from 1959 to 1965, and the starting pitcher for the East in the final East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in 1960.
The panel was moderated by Larry Lester, co-chair of SABR’s Negro Leagues Research Committee, one of the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and co-organizer of the annual SABR Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, the only symposium dedicated exclusively to the examination and promotion of black baseball history.
- Audio: Click here to listen to the SABR 45 Negro Leagues Panel with Al Spearman, Ernie Westfield, and Larry Lester (49:23; 48.9 MB)
Here are some more highlights:
ON BEING SCOUTED BY BUCK O’NEIL
- Westfield: “I was a pitcher at a young age … I pitched a game one day and I threw a no-hitter. And this guy came out of the stands and he said, ‘The Chicago Cubs want to sign you as a pitcher.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Are you a minister?’ Because he was dressed so well, you know! He said, ‘No, I’m representing the Cubs.’ And I really didn’t believe him. … He said, ‘I need to talk to your parents’ because I think I was 17 at the time. And my mother was at work, so my aunt wound up signing the contract for me. So the next day, Buck O’Neil took me out to a field and he hit me pop flies, he had me running to see how fast I could run, and then finally he said, ‘We’re going to sign you.’ I didn’t get a lot of money; the signing bonus was $350 and that was more money than I had ever seen. And I used that money to get my mother a washer. I was very happy to do that.”
ON ENCOUNTERING RACISM IN THE WHITE MINOR LEAGUES
- Westfield: “Once we broke spring training (with the Chicago Cubs), they sent me down to Carlsbad, New Mexico. And I was down there for a while and then something broke out. There was a black pitcher pitching for the other team and all of a sudden the N-word came out and a fight broke out in the dugout. And I found myself being sent back to Tennessee, close to where I lived, and eventually the Cubs released me and I ended up with the old Negro League (with the Birmingham Black Barons), and that was the best move I ever made.”
ON DOUBLE DUTY RADCLIFFE
- Spearman: “Double Duty Radcliffe was a fantastic person, and I think he was fantastic because I married his niece. And his niece gave me my daughter, who’s out there today. … Some people want to say his brother was better than he was, but Double Duty could do some things that I don’t understand how anyone could do. He could catch a game and then pitch a no-hitter. He was unbelievable. … I looked at myself as an average ballplayer, but there were so many great ballplayers out there like Double Duty and a lot of people still don’t know them.”
- Spearman: “Maybe managers took a liking to me. Because managers can pull you at any time they feel like pulling you. … They have a lot of discretion. I think I completed a lot of games because the managers liked me. … My best pitch was what the batter’s weakness was. Most hard-throwing pitchers are wild and the more a batter sees a pitch, he gets his timing. I had pretty good control. So they didn’t see too many pitches that I threw.”
- Westfield: “I had a fastball and a knuckle-curve. Have you heard of Carl Erskine? He was my favorite pitcher with the Dodgers, and he threw a knuckle-curve. And I learned to throw it with a tennis ball, up against a wall with a square on the building, and I was able to master that. … It would just fall off the table. If you threw it three-quarters, it would go to the outside. Overhand, it would fall to the ground.”
Ernie Westfield also delighted the crowd at SABR 45 by reciting several of his baseball poems about the Negro Leagues. Here is a transcription of one of them:
The Shadow Men
They called us the Shadow Men
Because we played behind the scenes;
Our ballparks were not as good as theirs
And our infields weren’t green.
Our uniforms were the modest type
And not the expensive kind;
But we were happy with what we had
Because it suited us just fine.
We traveled throughout the country
Playing baseball in front of large, black crowds;
But we couldn’t eat in certain restaurants
When the sign said “No coloreds allowed.”
There were times when we couldn’t even shower
After we played in certain towns;
Because there was usually a sign posted
And it said:
“To all niggers, read and run
If you can’t read, run anyhow;
Don’t let the sun go down
And catch you in Ducktown.”
Yes, we are the Shadow Men
And we still are today;
Because baseball history does not recognize most Negro League players
No matter how well we played.
For more coverage of SABR 45, visit SABR.org/convention.
Originally published: July 9, 2015. Last Updated: April 16, 2020.