My father began playing baseball in a little farming community outside of Florence, South Carolina called Olive Grove. Oliver Grove was truly a farming community because the only structure in Olive Grove that was not a farmhouse or barn was a church. Since it was considered a sin not to go to church on Sunday, the only opportunity the kids in the community had to play baseball was on Saturday because they share-cropped Monday thru Friday. The field they played on was an open area surrounded by trees so when the ball got past an outfielder, it went into the forest. There were no field seats so people had to bring their seats with them. During most games fielders had to share their glove with a player from the other team. The players used hand rakes to smooth out the infield. Bags filled with weeds were used as bases.
My father was 5’10, 170 pounds, medium complexion and black hair. He was right hand pitcher on the Olive Groove team and from what I’ve been told, people used to come from miles around to watch the games in which he was pitching. When I’d visit Olive Groove as a kid, I’d hear people talk about how good he was and that the other teams hated to face him because it meant hits would be hard to come get. Since this took place in the early 1930’s, this was as good as it got for black youth with talent. Sure there wereblack baseball teams scattered around the country, but Olive Groove was on a planet all by itself and most of the players in this league had one goal and that was to grow up to be a farmer. After all, there were plenty of people living in Olive Groove who had been slaves and that included my Grandfather.
My father and mother lived in the same area and after a brief courtship they got married and had three children. Any thoughts of playing baseball on one of the black baseball teams would have been out of the question with three children to support.
After an altercation with a white fellow, my father had a decision to make: If I stay in Olive Grove these white guys are going to kill me. If I leave, I will live to see another day.
Putting his baseball skills on hold, he worked his way north, finally ending up in New York City. After securing a job and a place to live in a part of New York City called Harlem, he sent for my mother, two sisters and brother. Once they were settled in, he could relax and consider playing ball again. One day he was walking through Central Park and saw a group of guys playing baseball on one of the fields. He walked over to watch and he saw a level of baseball that was much more advanced than he was accustomed to. He enjoyed what he saw and made a habit of going to the park on a regular basis just to watch these guys play. One day, as fate would have it, the game was held up because there were not enough guys to play the game. One of the managers saw my father standing where he always stood and asked him if he could play and my father replied, “A little.” So they put him in right field and he wasn’t that good of an outfielder, but since he got a few hits off a pitcher that everyone thought was untouchable, the manager asked him if he would like to be on the team and he said yes.
In New York the games were played on Saturday and Sunday because in the big city not going to church was not a sin. So he was one of the guys whose job was to backup the regulars when they didn’t come to a game. After one of the games, one of the other guys, whose position was backup catcher, asked my father to throw him a few pitches so that he could at least stay in shape. As my father threw, the catcher complained that my father threw like a girl and told him to bring it. So my father began throwing like he was warming up for a game. After a few fastballs the catcher’s hand was sore. The manager had been standing on the side talking to someone but had seen the two working out and heard the popping of the catcher’s mitt every time he caught the ball. He walked over to my father to tell him to get on the mound and throw a little batting practice. The manager took a bat and tried to hit my father’s pitches and after striking out four times, he asked one of the players to step up to the plate and show this guy how the game is played in the big city. This guy stuck out five times and didn’t come close to hitting a pitch.
The manager told my father to wait there as he ran over to a group of players that were standing on the side. When he returned he did so with the team’s best hitter and although he got a hit, he too stuck out five times. The manager asked my father, “Why didn’t you tell me you could pitch?” And relieved he said, “You asked me if I could play right field.” The manager told him to make sure he was at Saturday’s game and my father said he would. As he was walking away the manager called out, “Hey you, what’s your name?’ And my father turned and said “Carl.” The manager said, “Carl what?” And my father said, “Brown.”
When my father arrived for the game the manager told him he was pitching and to go out on the mound and warm up. As my father was walking out to the mound, the manager noticed he didn’t have a glove so he asked my father, “Where’s your glove?” My father replied, “I don’t have a glove.” So the manager said, “Use mine.” My father pitched a complete game shut out and the manager was acting like he had just found the answer to all his baseball prayers. The word was out about this new guy pitching for the New York Force baseball team and thereafter, just like in Olive Grove, people began to come to games just to see him pitch. This exposure also brought scouts from the Negro Leagues. One made him an offer, but there was no way he could travel around the country playing baseball and leave his wife to fend for herself with three kids. Thus he had to turn the offer down. This made the Force’s manager real happy because it meant that he would get to keep his best pitcher. As my father was walking away, the manager called him. When my father turned around, the manager threw him a brand new baseball glove and said, “That’s yours, see you next Saturday.”
By the 1950s my father had stopped playing, but he would watch baseball all weekend. In New York, at the time, there were three teams: the Brooklyn Dodgers, which was my team; the New York Yankees, which was my brother’s team; and the New York Giants, which was my father’s team. Every Sunday my father would watch all three of these teams play on our black and white television and back then the teams played doubleheaders on Sunday. As I’d watch the games with my father, he would give me a play by play of what was happening and what should have happened. He would tell me what pitch the pitcher was likely to throw in given situations. After the pitch was thrown, the games announcer would say the pitcher threw the exact pitch my father had said he would throw. The time would come when my father would say a pitch was about to come and I had already said it to myself.
By this time we had moved to a city housing development in Astoria, Queens. It was a totally diverse community. The projects were six story buildings with a basement. We lived on the first floor in the very first apartment. Everyone in the projects was blue collar. As a matter of fact, the only time anyone in the projects would wear a suit and tie was for a wedding, a funeral or to go to church. Except for a few small stores and a factory, there was no business or entertainment, anywhere near the projects. For entertainment you had to go into the white community, which usually wasn’t a good idea, or we went to another black community in Manhattan, Brooklyn or the Bronx. At this time Astoria was still virgin territory and the whites where still getting used the rubbing elbow with blacks. During the warm months, the residents spent a lot of time sitting and talking on the project benches because there wasn’t air-conditioning in the projects. To enjoy the comforts of air conditioning, you had to go to a white person’s house or you went to work. Most of the time families spent a lot of time together or with their extended families. The atmosphere in the projects was more or less tribal. If any parent saw any child doing something wrong, he or she would tell that given child to stop doing whatever it was they were doing and then said parents would tell the child’s parents. For instance, a kid didn’t want to get caught cursing by any parent, be it their parent or not. As kids we treated all adults with the utmost respect. Not to do so would have been a crime. Even the thieves in the projects went somewhere else to steal. If they stole something from someone in the projects, they couldn’t sell it to anyone who didn’t know who it belonged to. Plus there was that tribal thing, and members of the tribe don’t steal from other members of the tribe.
During this time, I played baseball everyday. If I couldn’t find a game, I would hit the ball, go get it, and hit it back in the direction in which I had come. Then I would spend time throwing the ball high up against the building and catching it when it came down. I played baseball all day, everyday. Soon the time would come when I went out for a team.
As kids we used to play stickball everyday on a softball field. One of the kids playing with us lived in my building. When he saw my skills, he asked me if I would like to play on his baseball team. When I said, ”Yes,” he told me to come to the baseball field which was on the opposite side of the projects from the softball field. When I went to the baseball field, I found the Police Athletic League was forming its league. All the managers, coaches and players were white, but that didn’t matter to me because I just wanted to play. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was the first black kid to ever try out for a team in league.
When the managers made out their rosters, one team came up one player short. I was the only player not on a team. The managers had some kind of conference. During this conference they kept looking at me. Something told me they were talking about me. I thought they were simply trying to figure out which team I’d play on. After the conference, they walked over to us kids. Somehow one of the players on one of the other teams was switched to the team that was short one player and I was put on his team.
During our first game I wanted to pitch, but I was put in right field. The guy playing third base must have had a hole in his glove because every ball hit to him went through his legs and into the outfield. In one of the later innings, we had a one run lead and a ball was hit to third. The ball hit the kid playing third on the knee. He fell to the ground crying and said he didn’t want to play anymore. The coach talked him into staying on the team. The boy asked the coach to let him play another position because he was afraid to play third. Watching him cry made the other guys afraid to play third because they too thought it was too close to the batter. He didn’t ask me to play third. Instead he told me to play third if I wanted to stay on the team. The first guy to bat after the switch hit a high foul pop off of third base and I caught it with my back to home plate. Everyone seemed amazed at the catch, but it was nothing I hadn’t done a thousands times before when I used to throw a ball against the project building and catch it with my back to the building. The next batter hit a smoker down the third base line and I dove for it and backhanded it. When I got up there was the guy who was on second base two-thirds the way to third base. I ran him down, tagged him out, and the inning was over. When we came to bat, we had a guy on third, because of an error and it was the run we needed to win the game. The two guys in front of me struck out. When I stepped to the plate, the other manager went to the pitcher’s mound to talk to the pitcher. As they talked, I could hear my father’s voice predicting what was going to happen. We had seen this situation a million times on television. I already had three hits and I knew the manager was telling the pitcher not to throw me anything I could hit, but to walk me would be OK too. The pitcher didn’t listen and threw a pitch close to the middle of the plate and I smoked it into left field for the game-winning hit. As I walked off the field, I could see the losing manager looking at me. I looked right back at him with a look that said, “Remember me, I’m the guy you didn’t want on your team.” After the celebration, all the players on my team pilled into two station wagons, all that is, except me. As the car doors were closed in my face, the manager said, “I’ll see you next week”. What I didn’t understand was that two of the players in the car lived in my building, so if they were going to drop them off, why didn’t they drop me off too? So I walked home and waited to tell my father all about the game. As we talked about the game, he asked me questions to test my knowledge of the game. It was just like the times when we watched games on television when he would ask me, “What is the batter going to do or what will the pitcher throw?”
At the next game, I was told to play third. As we were warming up, I was talking to the shortstop, who lived in my building. He asked, “Why didn’t you like White Castle Hamburgers?” When I told him I did like them, he said I should tell the coach because he thinks you don’t. He went on to say that they went to White Castle’s after the game and when he asked the coach why I wasn’t with them he said, “He doesn’t like White Castle.” I didn’t comment because I only wanted to play ball. Midway through the season there was an all-star game just like the pros had and I couldn’t wait. After each game the guys would go to White Castle and I would walk home, but that was OK because my sights were now set on being picked for the All-star game.
When our coach told us who had been picked for the All-star game, my name was not one of them. But the kid who played third before me was picked and that hurt. After getting four hits in that day’s game, I walked home and for the first time I walked home with tears running down my face. I was hurt because I was batting close to 400. I had made defensive plays that none of the other guys had come close to making and I felt like I had let my father down.
The next week was the All-star game and I decided not to go. Instead I played basketball with the other black kids and not once did I feel like I didn’t belong. My next game would be my last game because the racism that I did not see before was beginning to show its ugly head. Coupled with what I was seeing on television across America I was starting to lose my color blindness. Even though I knew that black and white people were different I thought that this is baseball and I was sure Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and the other black baseball players were not experiencing racism because they played the game too well. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had always lived in black communities and as a result, my interaction with whites was limited to school, the projects and the baseball field. I was too young to understand what had happened to Jackie Robinson when it happened and my father never said anything bad about white people. Matter of fact he had white friends that treated me like I was any kid.
The not going to White Castle after every game plus the all-star snub was too much and I decided to play basketball with the other sblack kids. Although I was pretty good at basketball I was nowhere near as good as I was at baseball. Baseball was my reason for getting up in the morning. One day my sister was walking past the area that I used to play by myself and she decided to check out my game. She pitched to me and I hit the ball so far and so often that she got tired of traveling the long distance she had to travel to get the ball. When we were finished she was a definite believer in her little brother’s skills.
About the Author
Kenneth Brown has been deeply influenced by such people as: Carl Brown, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Siddhartha Gautama and Gurumayi Chidillasananda.
Kenneth Brown had a book published titled: “The System versus the Law”
Kenneth Brown published these articles: Black History, The Future of Black History, Fathers, Message To My People, Religion, Emotional Awareness, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Independence Day, Christianity and Slavery, Black Republicans, The Politics of America, Activist, Iraq and My Show.
Board Member of: “Freedom Behind Bars Foundation, Inc.”