We grew up in a Doylestown household where the radio carried sounds of baseball games—especially after 1947 when Jackie Robinson was signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before we got our first television in the mid-50s, Daddy’s ear was always glued to the radio listening to Dodger games. Like many African-Americans at that time, a ‘Negro’ playing Major League Baseball was Big. After Willy Mays was signed by the NY Giants in 1951, Daddy’s baseball allegiance split between the Dodgers and the Giants.
My brother John was an exceptional pitcher for the Central Bucks High School Baseball Team. After graduating in 1958 he played semi-pro baseball in the Perkiomen Valley League, when scouts from the Phillies, Pirates, Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and Cardinals came to watch him pitch.
A few years ago John and one of his high school buddies sat in our living room reminiscing about the “old days”. I had joined them as we shared a bottle of wine. When the conversation turned to the tryout, there was a regretful tone in John’s voice. I realized there were parts of this story I had never known. I asked him to write it down for me.
It was 1959 when a letter arrived from the Pittsburgh Pirates inviting John to try out for their All-Rookie minor league team in Salem Virginia. Daddy was ecstatic. The scout sat in our living room and discussed the proposal with my father and John, recommending that John ask for $600 a month, a customary figure for new players.
Within a week Daddy drove John to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station where he met another potential player also on his way to Virginia. Ray—an Italian-American–was an outfielder from Norristown who had played in the same league as my brother and recruited by the same scout as John. With tickets in hand both headed to Virginia dreaming of a professional baseball career.
They changed trains in Washington, DC for a local that would take them into Salem. A segregated train, the conductor must’ve thought John with his “tan’ skin was white, and the two took their seats. Some children about age 8 or 9 were running up and down the aisles when one of them stopped where Ray and John sat, looked at them and hollered, “We have a ghost on the train!” John got nervous because he suspected “ghost” was another word for “colored”.
It was morning when they arrived at the Salem depot to be met by two cab drivers: one White, the other Black. When the Black cabby, with John as his passenger drove over the railroad tracks and Ray’s cab drove in a different direction, John discovered his destination was a boarding house. Greeted by a middle-aged warm and friendly Black woman, she showed him to his room which he shared with another African-American. John was one of seven players of different ethnic backgrounds: Latino. South American or Black.
After a good meal the same Black cab driver returned and drove the players to the ballpark. At the park while the players changed into uniforms, John and Ray compared their temporary living conditions–Ray at his hotel and John his boarding house. Ray said, “This isn’t right.”
With Ray trotting to the outfield, John stayed on the sideline where he was instructed to “get warmed up” before taking the pitcher’s mound. It had only been a few hours earlier that same day when they had arrived in Salem. John had just begun warming up when a potbellied tall white coach walked over to him and said, “Let me see your fastball”.
He knew pitchers needed to break a sweat before going to the mound, and a couple throws wouldn’t bring on the juices, the strength and the intelligence that flow only after the body is primed and ready to pitch.
He gave his best effort but as an athlete he sensed everything was off. He thought, This is not good. After about ten pitches, the coach said, “OK that’s enough. Go in and shower and we’ll talk.” John hadn’t broken a sweat.
When he entered the locker room Ray was already there. “They sent me in here to get showered and I didn’t even get to swing the bat”. John was speechless because having pitched to him, he knew Ray was a Mother Fucker who could sail balls out of the park.
The manager came in the locker room and said to both of them, “At this time we can’t use you.” He then asked if they wanted to stay around to see the game. They answered “No”; then the manager assured them they’d receive travel money to get home. After they left the locker room, John saw a sign in a section of stands he’d not noticed earlier.
He turned to Ray and said, “Man! Look at that!”
Ray said, “Let’s get outta here.”
John commented, “If we stayed to watch the game, we wouldn’t have sat together.”
Ray responded, “That’s why we’re leaving.”
John wondered if the South was also prejudice against Italians.
Back home in Doylestown he told my father, “Daddy, I wasn’t good enough.”
That really upset my father because from an early age he had supported John’s pitching skills, attending all his games into high school and his Semi-Pro competitions. Faithful watchers of the Dodgers on television, Daddy and John always made sure the rabbit ears were pointed in the direction of New York so they could watch Jackie, Roy, Duke, Carl and Pee Wee.
John could feel his father’s disappointment for a dream that was not to happen. John began to question his ability, whether he really was good enough for the pros. He even wondered if his height of 5’6” was a liability. He recalled a pitcher in the Perkiomen Valley League he had played against. The guy was 6’3” but couldn’t break glass with his fastball. Yet in 1958 during John’s first year in the Semi-Pro League, the Cincinnati Reds signed him for $15,000.
John returned to the Semi-pro League and had a real good year. Some of the scouts who had seen him before the trip to Virginia asked in bewilderment, “Why didn’t they keep you?”
His teammates and even players from opposing teams thought he got a bad deal. Some who were ex-minor league players expressed disbelief when learning the outcome of John’s tryout. They told John the Salem Pirates were made up of rookies who had no experience in organized baseball.
My father, angry about John’s rejection of his tryout, wrote a letter to Edgar Williams, a sports writer at Lansdale’s “North Penn Reporter”. Williams then wrote a column that ripped the Pirates’ treatment of how they handled the ‘Try Out’, accusing them of racism, suggesting they should have instead sent him to one of their minor league teams in the north. The reporter’s quote in his column: “Treating a fine young man in this manner was a disgrace and the Pirate organization should be ashamed of itself.”
(Doreen Stratton photo)
Final Note: In 2008 John was inducted into the Central Bucks High School/Central Bucks High School West Hall of Fame for his athletic achievements as a pitcher on the Baseball Team.