Lunch with a Gentleman Milbert O. Brown, Jr.
When his large frame entered the small hot room, his welcoming smile instantly cooled the sultry summer air. He was a giant man who stood 6 feet 3 inches tall. He endured the pains of discrimination while gracefully navigating the perilous avenues of Jim Crow to take his place in history. Joe Black was a history maker.
Often called “Gentleman Joe,” he was the first African-American pitcher to win a major league baseball World Series game. He pitched three games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1952 classic against the New York Yankees. “I never felt like a celebrity. God put me in the right place—at the right time,” said Black. The patrons at Mrs. White’s Rule Café made Black a celebrity during a recent visit to the soul food restaurant in Phoenix for an interview. The tiny eatery, slightly larger than a two-car garage, was as noisy as a ballpark on a Sunday afternoon.
We ordered lunch amidst the hurried rustling of hot plates landing on the tables in front of customers. The clang of dirty dishes being submerged into water echoed from the kitchen. However, Black’s powerful voice soared above the din, commanding attention. As he spoke, I imagined briefly how quickly his fastball moved across the plate. He was born poor in 1924, in Plainfield, N.J. He was an excellent student who dreamed of playing professional baseball.
“I was batting a .400 when I was a senior in high school. The scouts were talking to other people, but they didn’t talk to me. I said, “Hey, I am the captain of the team. I out-hit them all—why don’t you sign me?” A scout said, ‘Because you are colored and they don’t play baseball in the big leagues.’
Black paused, staring deeply into the past. He began again, recalling his first brush with the disappointment of discrimination. “I got mad and hateful. I had a scrapbook of ballplayers and I tore up all of their pictures—they were all white. The one picture that I didn’t tear was Hank Greenburg, my idol. He was big and hit home runs, and that’s what I wanted to do,” said Black. “Because of the hurt, I just stopped playing.’’
My mother said, ‘Son you can’t be mad.’ I said, “but mama, white people won’t let me play!”
In 1943, Black was drafted into the Army to serve in WWII. His military duties allowed him to play pitch for the Negro Leagues’ Baltimore Elite Giants. After two years of military service, he accepted a scholarship to play baseball at Morgan State College in the spring while continuing to play for the Elite Giants in the summer.
Even in Baltimore, far from the deep south, Black felt the sting of Jim Crow.
“When, I got off the train and arrived on the campus, I walked one block that first Sunday to a Presbyterian church. The man said, ‘You can’t come in here—this is for white people.’ I replied, “Why? I’m a Presbyterian.”
The tentacles of racism touched every facet of his life.
“You would go into a store to try on a pair of shoes and you couldn’t try them on. You couldn’t try a coat on. You bought stuff, but you couldn’t bring it back—whether it fits or not.”
“It was frustrating, he said. Your life turns all around.” Your parents knew-- they came from the south. They would say, ‘You’re learn to survive.’
“At Morgan, I learned what it was to be colored, but I also learned that I was somebody,” said Black. Before graduating from Morgan State in 1950, he helped the Baltimore Elite Giants win the 1949 Negro League National Championship.
At the restaurant, Black gleefully leaned back in his chair, like a fisherman just as his line enters the water in search of a catch.
“When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in ‘45—everybody became 17 again and started dreaming about playing in the big leagues,” Black said with a smile. He and other Negro League players hoped that one day they would play Major League baseball. In 1950, at age 26, Black was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and made the Major Leagues roster in the spring of 1952. “I got into the Majors because Jackie needed a roommate.”
Black said Jim Gilliam, Robinson’s roommate had a problem adjusting to integration. “He grew up in the south, he never played with white guys, never went to school with them. He would get on the bus and go sit in the back by himself. In the dugout, he would go sit in a corner by himself. He didn’t know how to talk to white guys, so they sent him back to the Minors. That’s how I got here.’’
For Black, his lifelong fantasy had come to life. “Pitching the first game of the World Series was a dream come true. I looked at third base, and there were the Yankees: Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, but no dark faces. I found myself saying, thank God for the United States because you do have a chance to make your dreams come true.’’
During his first season in the Majors, Black had a 15-4 record with a 2.15 earned run average. The pitcher, who was armed with a lightning fastball and a fading curve, appeared in 56 games for the Dodgers. Because of his outstanding season, he was named the 1952 National League Rookie of the Year.
After his first season, Black lost some of his power due to a stress fracture in his pitching arm. He retired in 1957. Black went to graduate school at Seton Hall and Rutgers Universities, receiving a master’s degree in education. He taught health and physical education for a few years before joining the Greyhound Corporation as an executive.
While at Greyhound, Black rose to vice president. He began writing a syndicated column, By The Way that appeared in Ebony and Jet Magazines. His column also was featured in several African American newspapers and heard on African American radio programs throughout the nation.
“When my mother died, I leaned over into the coffin and kissed her. I became a different person--I could feel something. I guess it was my mother’s spirit coming to me. After that kiss, I thought more about other people and I wanted to share. She was the biggest influence in my life,“ said Black.
Because of that epiphany, Black became better known for his public service work after baseball than his 90-m.p.h. fastball. He helped start a pension plan for Negro League players who played before 1947. Active in baseball well into his 70s, Black was on the board directors of the Baseball Assistant Team, an organization that provided aid to needy former baseball players. In Phoenix, he served as a community relations consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Major League baseball team.
As the interview came to a close, Black limped away from the table. Like many former athletes, the combination of time and weight gain stressed his once-powerful limbs. Ever the gentleman, Black insisted on paying for lunch.
“This check is not big enough to even buy a tire for your car—how do think I am living?”
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