No Mean Cusses Need Apply

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A couple of weeks ago, I spoke on an authors’ panel at the Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Baseball Conference. The conference is sponsored by a committee of the Society for American Baseball Research. SABR is an organization of more than 6,700 authors, historians, players and officials who are interested in the social significance of the sport. This year’s Negro Leagues Baseball gathering took place in Birmingham, Alabama and I was honored to join writers Timothy Gay and Brian Carroll to talk about researching and writing baseball books.

Early arrival at Birmingham Airport

Not surprisingly, all of us on the panel spoke of the challenges facing authors who write about Negro League baseball: finding statistics, tracking down former players, giving full attention to not only the game, but the depth of racism players faced.  No one who writes about Negro League baseball can ignore the larger story of racism and Jim Crow America that permeates that history.  Racism was as much as part of the game as box scores.

While attending the conference I was lucky to have my Curveball book signing table set up next to Tony Lloyd’s memorabilia booth.  Lloyd played second base for the Birmingham Black Barons in the late 1950s. He grew up in Fairfield, Alabama, a town that also gave rise to the San Francisco GiantsWillie Mays. Lloyd went to Tuskegee Institute and played for the Tuskegee Tigers, and after he graduated, he signed at age twenty-three with the Black Barons.

Lloyd played for the Barons four years after Toni Stone left the Negro League to return home to Oakland.  Even though they didn’t compete against each other, he remembers watching Stone play when he was growing up.  She was a serious athlete, he remembered.   “She was no joke.”  As that late Saturday afternoon in Birmingham wore on, Tony and I had a chance to talk about his traveling with Negro League teams, playing in the final years before the league’s demise and what qualities–athletic and personal–make for a good second baseman.

I’ve always wondered about second basemen. Toni Stone was a second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 and later the Kansas City Monarchs. When she was growing up, she had played every position on a team and the only spot she disliked was catcher.  While behind the plate, she once was knocked unconscious and after that thumping, she vowed to leave catching alone.  By the time she was in her late teens, Stone had settled into second base.  She played the keystone sack until she finally retired in her mid sixties from playing recreational baseball.

The Atlanta Braves’ Henry Aaron once said that there was no logical reason women shouldn’t play baseball.  “It’s not that tough,” he said.  “Some women can play better than a lot of guys who’ve been on the field.  Baseball is not a game of strength.” Aaron went on to say that when a woman enters the major leagues (he didn’t say if), she would probably be a second baseman.

Tony Lloyd played second base for the 1959 Birmingham Black Barons.

Tony Lloyd played second base for the 1959 Birmingham Black Barons

With former Birmingham Black Barons second baseman Tony Lloyd sitting right next to me at the conference, I decided to ask a question that has been puzzling me for years.  What is there about second base that might lead Aaron and others to think it’s a perfect position for a woman athlete playing on a men’s team.

Tony thought about it. “Well, you don’t have to throw as far,” he said, noting that a throw from second to first or third was not the long-distance hurl across the diamond that a shortstop or third baseman make.  Playing second base takes skill, Tony was quick to add, but it doesn’t require the hard throw of other infielders.  Lloyd started off with the Birmingham Black Barons as a shortstop, but he switched to second base when he realized he could make the throw to first much better and more accurately from second.  Plus it’s a “soft position,” he said, “not as rough.”

But besides the quick hands and precision throws, I wondered, what the real difference between second basemen and other players?  Tony laughed. “Second basemen don’t have to be the mean cusses that pitchers and catchers have to be.”

No mean cusses.  Maybe that’s the reason the affable Toni Stone ended up on second base.

Teaching the Teacher

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I recently returned from two weeks on-the-road promoting my new book, Curveball. I enjoy book signings, and these past weeks were a special pleasure because I had a few days in St. Louis–my hometown. While I was in St. Loo, I had a chance to visit with family and friends.

I even saw a few former students.

Back-in-the-day, I taught English and journalism at Ritenour Senior High School in Overland, Missouri.

Ritenour Senior High School--Overland, Missouri

As a young teacher fresh out of college, I was handed responsibility for advising all the student publications: the yearbook, the literary magazine, the newspaper.  You know the drill: new kid on the block gets the extra duties no one else wants.  I think I was paid a measly $800 a year for about 1,000 hours of additional work supervising those student groups.  The football coach made a lot more money—a ledger detail that still nettles me.

But back then I was so energetically naive and the kids so ambitious that we even started a school radio station. KRSH (later KRHS) was a tiny ten watter that over the years produced dozens of future broadcasters. Same with the newspaper, the Pepper Box. (I have no idea why the newspaper had that oddball name.) Ye olde Pepper Box produced lots of budding journalists, photographers and graphic designers who cut their teeth on those humble publications in the 1970s.

Know the name Jeff Leen?  These days, he’s an assistant managing editor for the Washington Post’s investigations unit and the author of two fascinating books, Kings of Cocaine (with Guy Gugliotta) and Queen of the Ring. I remember Jeff as a soft-spoken basketball player who sat in the back right-hand corner of my journalism class.  When he turned in his assignments, they were so taut and crisp they squeaked. Nothing soft-spoken about his sports reporting on arch-rival Pattonville High. Of course I didn’t know it then, but the no-nonsense quality of Jeff’s writing would serve him well when decades later he turned to covering Latin American drug lords for the Miami Herald.

Ritenour High School kids were not primo Danas. They were airport kids—kids who lived in small houses, pushed up against the St. Louis airport.  You know those communities.  Airport towns are the same in every city: semi-industrial and crowded with 737s roaring overhead. These kids came from working-class families and–if they were lucky enough to go to college– they usually were the first. To get in the door at universities like Mizzou, they cobbled together money from waiting tables at the Hacienda restaurant, stray scholarships and family savings accounts that were already pinched.

Nothing much was ever handed these kids.

And like all teaching experiences, those Ritenour High School kids taught the teacher more than they were taught.  They taught me that enthusiasm always imparts more than textbooks. They taught me that teachers and students working on projects side-by-side sparks personal responsibility far greater than any amount of hectoring. And they taught me that I have an unfortunate stare that once frightened teenagers–and still can give middle-aged adults the willies.

Now that’s good to know. Tomorrow I may use my best glare on the guy who promised five weeks ago to trim some shaggy hemlock trees out back. Let’s see if I have the same magic!

Did you see that recent article in The New York Times about students looking up their former teachers on Facebook?  It’s a great story about adults thanking teachers who gave them an extra hand long ago.

Well, the reverse is true, too.  Teachers need to tip their hats at former students who helped them discover what matters most.

So, here’s to you Jeff and Andy and Murv and Julie and Sheryl, Jim, Thom, Terri, Keith, Mike, Joe, Clay, Bill, Dalton, John, Susie Q and countless others at Ritenour Senior High.

Former Ritenour students Murv Sellars & Andy Impastato came to my reading at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. What great guys!

It was great seeing some of you during the Curveball book tour.

Thanks for those fun six years on St. Charles Rock Road and, more importantly, thanks for the education.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

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I was up early this morning, reading the local newspaper.  Newspapers—remember them?  As much as I realize the end is in sight for newspapers, I still can’t give them up.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved newspapers–local ones especially. Who can’t find endless drama and narrative tension in the police log, the classifieds and stories of New England town meetings?

And on mornings like this one, I’ll even read a newspaper article that’s good for me.  Like the Declaration of Independence. It’s right there on page A6–below a correction for the name of Cummington’s police chief.

That’s one of the great things about newspapers.  They still believe in offering the common reading experience.  “It’s the Fourth of July,” they seem to say.  “Read this. You’ll thank us later.”

And so I did.

We all can rattle off that first ringing phrase of the Declaration: “When in the Course of human events.” But then we start stumbling. At least I do. After all, it is a long opening:  a sentence that goes on for 71 words justifying reasons why the document is being written.

Forgive me, Thomas Jefferson.  But I think it’s a little long-winded for a first ‘graph.

But then, as Willa Cather once wrote of her own writing, Tom “hit the home pasture.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Such beautiful language, isn’t it?  Straight-forward. Confident. Simple. Brave.

Yet before I can be swept away by the Colonists’ righteous march of grievances, I circle back to those complicated phrases. “All men are created equal.” “Endowed by their Creator.” “Unalienable Rights.” “Pursuit of Happiness.”

When I was writing Curveball, my first instinct was to entitle the book “Pursuit of Happiness” because Toni Stone’s drive to play professional baseball was so connected to larger issues of social justice, gender equity and Jim Crow America.

But my agent balked.  Too general, she said.  Not enough baseball. And then Will Smith came along with his hit 2006 movie.

Toni Stone playing with the New Orleans Creoles in 1949.

Ellen was right about the title, but—as much as we know it—we still need to be reminded that Thomas Jefferson’s indelible sentence about equality was not realized then and has yet to be realized now. Sally HemingsSitting Bull. Harvey MilkSojourner Truth. Toni Stone. Americans all—and all denied that unalienable right.

As I continued to read the Declaration this morning, I was struck by phrases that I had long ago forgotten. Or maybe I really never read before.  For example, the colonists complained of “uncomfortable” “distant” and “fatiguing” meetings.

“He has called together legislative bodies at places, unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measure.”

Now I realize the patriots were calling attention to something more significant than a stuffy room, but that complaint has 21st century resonance for me. How many of us have been exhausted by endless run-arounds from insurance companies whose sole purpose was to frustrate, confuse and make us give up? Wear-‘em-down-and-they’ll-go-away has been a political tactic since the dawn of time.

And then there was this line about King George III.

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”

Names change, but tyranny–the Gulf Coast would remind us–stays the same.

Thank you, Daily Hampshire Gazette, for making me think this morning about 1776 and 2010. Unalienable rights are worth fighting for! Our coasts demand protection! Newspapers live on!

Happy Fourth of July!

Now go make the potato salad.