One Stone at a Time

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It’s been a busy summer promoting my new book, Curveball, and attending recent gatherings such as the Negro Leagues Baseball conference in Birmingham, Alabama and the Emily Dickinson International Society meeting in Oxford, UK.  I’m afraid all the travel (and the fun!) has caused me to neglect my blog.

But we’re back in the saddle beginning today.

I always enjoy getting together with the folks at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Baseball conference.  These are great people—members of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR)–devoted to the study and appreciation of the Negro Leagues.  Fine men and women such as Larry Lester, Leslie Heaphy and Tom Garrett have spent so much time with me sharing their wealth of knowledge and their enthusiasm.  That’s one thing about SABR folks—their enthusiasm for baseball is infectious.

Larry Lester at recent Negro Leagues conference.

One of the good people of the Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Baseball group is Dr. Jeremy Krock, a 52 year-old anesthesiologist from Peoria, Illinois. Like many people affiliated with the SABR group, Jeremy simply loves Negro Leagues baseball and he understands why that history needs to be remembered.  He realizes that unless we comprehend the taint of racism that surrounded Negro League ball and the Major Leagues during Jim Crow, we risk repeating the virulent past.

That’s why he started walking through cemeteries.

For the past several years, Jeremy Krock and a cadre of other SABR friends have been tracking down unmarked graves of former Negro League players and raising money for headstones. You may have read about his efforts in a recent New York Times article or in a post on my website’s homepage.  I attended the first graveside ceremony for Krock’s good work at Burr Oaks Cemetery outside Chicago. Theodore “Highpockets” Trent was honored that day. Like so many of the great Negro League players, Highpockets died forgotten: his achievement largely unrecorded or unappreciated.

William Gatewood received a gravestone from Krock's group.

This summer at the Birmingham Negro Leagues baseball conference, Sap Ivory, a first baseman for the Birmingham Black Barons, Willie Mays’ old team, got his marker.

Krock is going about his work one stone at a time. When enough checks roll in to cover the cost of a $700 tombstone, another Negro League player gets his recognition.

Or hers.

After Toni Stone became the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League, her remarkable play opened the door for two more women: Connie Morgan, a second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a right-handed pitcher.  Peanut Johnson still lives in Washington, D.C. and occasionally gives talks about her 1954 season with the Clowns.  But Connie Morgan died in 1996 (the same year as Toni Stone) and her grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hills, PA remains unmarked.  Or at least I think so.

I remember searching for it several years ago when I was researching Curveball.  A woman in the cemetery office outside Philadelphia pointed me to an expanse of forsaken plots in the far reaches of the cemetery.  I walked over a ridge of brush and gravel and went up and down the rows looking.  Block 1. Lot 138. Grave 2.  Nothing. When I called back months later to find out if the grave was indeed unmarked, no one in the cemetery office returned my calls.  I called again last week and again no one answered.

Like Toni Stone, Connie Morgan was an astonishing athlete. She played basketball at Bartram High School and later racked up a .370 batting average for the south Philadelphia Honey Drippers, a local recreational team.  When Morgan saw a 1953 feature in Ebony magazine about Toni Stone, she wrote Stone directly and asked if the team might be interested in another female player.  Lucky for Morgan, Stone generously passed the letter to team’s owner Syd Pollock who invited Connie to try out in Baltimore. Jackie Robinson happened to be passing through town that day and watched Morgan as she went about fielding hot grounders to third base and taking her cuts at bat. Jackie Robinson knew something about tense try-outs.  He only could have imagined what was on-the-line for Morgan when she stepped to the plate that summer afternoon in Baltimore.

Morgan played one season for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1954. Her fondest memory was a game at Connie Mack Stadium in July that year.  Her former classmates crowded around the dugout cheering her on and asking for her autograph. When Morgan trotted out to second base, it was the only time in Philadelphia history that a home-town girl had taken the field in a professional baseball uniform.

The Indianapolis Clowns dropped out of the Negro League in 1955 and Connie Morgan returned home.  As an African-American woman, her future in baseball was non-existent. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the so-called “League of Their Own”) was segregated and its ownership refused to sign black players. In addition, Morgan once explained, no girl in the 1950s had ever heard of a college athletic scholarship and “no one offered me one.” A talented athlete with nowhere to go, Morgan enrolled in William Penn Business School and spent her adult years working office jobs and later driving a school bus. Few people remembered that Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, who managed Morgan during her year with the Clowns, called her one of the most sensational female players he had ever seen.

When Morgan died, her funeral program featured a photograph taken on the day of her baseball try-out with the Indianapolis Clowns. Her uncle shared his copy with me: he was very proud of her. In the photograph, Connie Morgan looked every bit the young girl just out of Bartram, except she was in uniform and Jackie Robinson was at her side.

Connie Morgan (right) with King Tut and Oscar Charleston of the Indianapolis Clowns.

I’ll keep you posted on news about  Connie Morgan’s gravesite.  And in the meantime, if you want to help Jeremy Krock and others remember the great players of the Negro Leagues, here’s how you may contribute.

“Respect, Redemption, and Recognition,” that’s what it’s about, Larry Lester said at that first graveside ceremony in Chicago. Connie Morgan would no doubt agree.