The Journal of Biddy Owens, the Negro Leagues, Birmingham, Alabama, 1948, p.1Walter Dean Myers
Birmingham, Alabama 1948
May 22, morning
May 22, evening
June 24, morning
Fourth of July
July 25, night
September 11, night
September 12, second time
September 26, night
September 28, midnight
Life in America in 1948
About the Author
Baseball. Man, I love this game! This was probably the most exciting day of my whole life! All the exhibition games were good, and the working out and getting into shape, but there’s nothing like opening day.
People were taking pictures of the team getting ready, some pictures of us in front of the team bus, even me putting the bats and bases in the equipment bags. Charlie Rudd, the bus driver, helped me get the equipment bags on the bus, and I could see that he was happy, too. Some of the Negro businessmen were around, talking to the guys, slapping them on their backs like we were on the way to a party. One photographer had us all kneel on one knee in front of the bus, making sure that he could see BIRMINGHAM BLACK BARONS behind us.
We had met at Bob’s Savoy Café, and when Piper Davis told us it was time to go to the stadium I was as jumpy as a cat. Piper, who played second base and managed the team, said I looked like a tadpole in a frying pan. I didn’t care — I was starting the season with the Black Barons, and you could not ask for more than that. Mr. Hayes, who owned the team, had got a bunch of cars together for the opening day, and we piled into them for the drive to Rickwood Field. When we did that, people watching us started cheering. Boy, it sure made me feel good. The Parker High School band struck up a tune and started high-stepping ahead of the cars to lead the procession. Yes!
So there I went, Biddy Owens, equipment manager, scorekeeper, errand boy, and sometimes right fielder, which I really want to play.
Our opening game was against the Cleveland Buckeyes, and they had changed into their uniforms down at Rush’s, the best Colored hotel in Birmingham. When the Birmingham crowd saw them drive up in their bus, they gave them a cheer, too.
The drive to Rickwood Field took thirty minutes. Rickwood holds about 12,000 people, and it was already crowded. People were buying lemonade and sodas, and you could smell the roasted peanuts and hot dogs.
“It is truly beautiful.” That’s what Piper said as we started carrying the equipment into the Barons’ dugout.
When I put the bats in the rack I was not thinking this was the Negro Leagues or anything like that. I was just looking at how green the grass was and how the blue sky looked like it was going to stretch on forever over the whole world just for us. I was mostly the equipment manager, but Piper knew that I wanted to be a regular with the team. He told me that if I put on a couple of pounds I would get the chance.
I’m tall enough — five foot ten inches tall — but I only weigh 135 pounds. Looks like nothing I do is going to put more weight on me right away. Daddy says the weight will come with age (I am seventeen), and Aunt Jack says I’m skinny because the good Lord don’t want me to be no ballplayer. Aunt Jack blames a lot of things on the Lord.
The Parker band started up the national anthem at exactly five-thirty, and the game started right after. That is a funny time to start a game, because the sky is still light enough to see but changing color. That is why they turned the lights on. Right off you could see that the Barons were going to outplay the Buckeyes. Everybody was on their game and they were making plays in the field like they were back at Alabama State on the practice field. Just nothing to it at all. It was a few innings into the game when Ed Steele, our left fielder, jumped on a fastball and hit a blast out toward left field. Ooo-wee! It looked to me like the whole world was holding its breath as that ball went flying. At first you could see it good, white against the deep blue sky, then it turned dark for a few seconds, and then gold as the lights caught it on the way down into the stands. They stopped the game right then and there, and this is what Ed got for hitting the first home run of the season:
Two chicken dinners from Porter’s Club
One chicken dinner from the Brown Derby Café
A diamond-studded watch
Five dollars from the Davenport and Harris Funeral Home
Another five dollars from the Orange Bowl Drink Stand
And two dinners from Bob Reed’s Blue Bird Inn
The Barons went on and won the game 11 to 2. Everybody went home happy.
The little hand of the clock on top the icebox was already just about on twelve, and I knew I was supposed to be at Rickwood by one-thirty. Aunt Jack was making lunch, like she always did after church on Sundays, and taking her good, sweet time about it. Daddy was sitting in his chair nursing a cup of leftover coffee, and Mama and Rachel were upstairs changing out of their church clothes.
Aunt Jack asked me how many games they were
I explained to her again that I was working for the Birmingham Black Barons and had to know what was going on with the team. She gave me one of her big humphs and went back to stirring the grits. She was making grits, eggs, and sausages, and those sausages were smelling good. I knew she’d be making redeye gravy, too, and she knew I was hungry.
Aunt Jack is my daddy’s sister. They look a little bit alike, but Aunt Jack is darker than Daddy and Daddy’s nose has a little more pinch to it than hers. Their father, Grandpap Owens, was an AME minister. Aunt Jack wants me to be a minister, or at least go to college. I was thinking about going to college when Daddy got hurt and couldn’t work for almost five months. He’s back at work now, but I am still working for the Black Barons. Maybe I’ll go to college next year.
We split a doubleheader with Cleveland, and it was their first win of the season. Some of the Buckeyes were going on about how they liked Rickwood Field, and Bill Greason, our best pitcher, said that it was the best Negro League stadium in the whole country.
Most of the guys had played in major-league stadiums like the Polo Grounds up in New York, and Comiskey Park in Chicago. They said they were bigger than Rickwood Field but they weren’t any better.
Pepper Bassett said they had to be better than Rickwood because they were built for white folks ball. Piper told him to keep his mind on his game and not to worry about white folks ball.
It’s hard not to worry about white folks ball because now that Jackie Robinson is playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Larry Doby is playing with the Cleveland Indians, everybody is thinking about going up. Just a year ago, Jackie played with the Kansas City Monarchs, and Doby played with the Newark Eagles. Piper said that some of the players were so busy looking around for white scouts, they couldn’t find the white ball.
Pepper is a huge dude. Wiley Griggs, who plays infield, said that Pepper is so big that when he was growing up his mama had to go out and buy some extra black just to keep him covered. He is too big to run fast and he can’t hit all that good, but when he’s in a good mood, which is once in a while, he’s all right with me. When he isn’t in a good mood, he isn’t all right with anybody.
Piper gave me a copy of the opening day roster. I was sorry to see my name was not on it.
The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons
Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, manager, second base
John Britton, third base
Bill Greason, pitcher
Bill Powell, pitcher
Norman “Bobby” Robinson, center field
Joe Scott, first base
Ed Steele, left field
Sam Williams, pitcher
Arthur “Artie” Wilson, shortstop
Jim Zapp, right field
Jimmy Newberry, pitcher
Alonzo Perry, pitcher, first base
Herman Bell, catcher
Joe Bankhead, pitcher
Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett, catcher
Jay Wilson, infield
Wiley Griggs, infield
Jehosie Heard, pitcher
Clarence “Pijo” King, outfield
William Morgan, pitcher
Nat Pollard, pitcher
One of the nice things about working for the Barons is that we get to travel all over the country. Pepper said that in two months every time somebody mentioned “home” we would all think of being on the bus. Our first trip was to Anniston, Alabama, where we played (and beat) the Buckeyes again. Sad Sam Jones, who lost the game, came over to the bus when we were loading up and started talking about how we were not that good a team when you broke it down man to man. I looked at Piper to see if he was going to say something back but he was just smiling from ear to ear.
On the way home we stopped at a small store to pick up some bread and cold cuts for supper. When me, Piper, Charlie Rudd, and Jimmy Zapp went into the store to get the stuff, the clerk acted as if he didn’t see us, just kept on talking to a customer. They were both white, and so we figured we knew what that was about. When the clerk finally asked us what we wanted, Piper said that he needed food for twenty men. The clerk looked outside and saw the team bus and asked us were we the same Birmingham Black Barons that he had heard about.
Piper said we were. Then the clerk told us he could give us five loaves of bread and ten cans of sardines for twenty dollars. Piper said we were ballplayers, not fools, and there was no way they were going to pay that much for sardines and bread.
The clerk told Piper that he had better mind his manners, and Jimmy pulled Piper on out of the store before things got rough. When we got back on the bus, Pepper asked how come we didn’t get the food and Piper told him what had happened. We didn’t have anything to eat until we got back to Birmingham.
All of us were hungry and all of us were mad. Just about any white person could mess with you if you were black, and the thing was it made you mad for a little while and then it just left a hurt feeling inside of you.
When I got home my sister, Rachel, was sitting on a crate between Mama’s legs, getting her hair braided. It was past seven, so I knew Daddy was off to the steel mill, where he worked. I looked in the icebox, and Rachel told me not to touch the potato salad because Aunt Jack had made it special for her. I told her to shut up because she was nothing but a half-pint, anyway. Then she said that was all right with her because men like little women.
Slap! Mama held Rachel by one of her braids and gave her a good slap. “You ain’t old enough to smell your pee, girl!” Mama said. “Don’t talk nothing in this house about what men like until you’re grown! You hear me?”
There were some collard greens in the icebox, and I warmed them up with a ham hock and had that with some potato salad. It was good, too.
Pepper Bassett always wants to know what I’m writing in my notebook. I told him it’s mostly about how the games are going and how the equipment is holding up. He told me not to write anything bad about him.
We’re on the road again. Betsy, which is what Charlie Rudd calls the team bus, is running pretty good, and we are making good time. There are blankets and pillows on the overhead racks. The bats, bases, balls, and gloves are all kept in equipment bags in the luggage department. Once you get on the bus there are a thousand different smells. Bill Greason said that when the smell of fried chicken is stronger then the smell of the rubbing liniment it means the team is going good. All the players have their favorite spots. The veterans get the best seats.
We have two catchers, Pepper and Herman Bell. Bell said that the Monarchs are good, but no better than a half dozen other teams in the Negro Leagues. Only he was so tired, he was half asleep when he said it.
That’s the thing, how tired everyone is. We played in Birmingham against the Buckeyes on Sunday, and as soon as the game was over we got on the bus and drove over to Anniston, where we played them again. Then we played against a team from the YMCA league, and finally a game against Bessemer Steel. Then we got right on our bus and were headed toward Cleveland.
My first time in Cleveland, Ohio, and it is a good city. They don’t have all the WHITE and COLORED signs the way they have in Birmingham. Piper said that just because they didn’t have signs all over the place didn’t mean that we were welcome everywhere we went. It’s just that when they didn’t want Colored folks around they were more polite about it.
The big talk in Cleveland is Larry Doby. I asked Ed Steele, our left fielder, h
We played a single game in Cleveland, and then a doubleheader in Toledo.
There was an article in the Cleveland newspaper about whether the Red Cross should separate “white” blood from “Negro” blood. Pepper asked how they could tell once it came out of your body, and Bill said they could tell by the taste. Everybody gave him a look, but then he started laughing and we all laughed, except Pepper. He said he was thinking about breaking Bill’s neck.
Jay Wilson is a skinny little guy with a high voice who always has something funny to say. He told Piper that he needed a rest because he’s played so many ball games, he was dreaming about them. Bell asked him if he fielded as badly in his dreams as he did when he was awake.
That got Jay mad but not mad enough to mess with Bell, who has muscles in places some people don’t even have places. Catchers are funny people.
Most of the guys don’t mind traveling all over the country. Playing baseball pays more than most jobs, and it is a lot more fun. I think that if every Negro League team had a stadium of its own we could get more people to come to the games. When the Homestead Grays play in a big-league stadium, they draw at least as many fans as the white teams do. Another problem with our league is that our owners don’t have the money to just pay us out of their pocket, so we have to get as many exhibition games as possible to keep the money coming in. That’s why we travel so much.
Most of the complaining is good-natured. There isn’t a man on the team who wants to give up baseball and do something else. Piper says that if any of his players is too tired to play ball, he should get into another line of work. He means it, too.
The Journal of Biddy Owens, the Negro Leagues, Birmingham, Alabama, 1948 by Walter Dean Myers / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes