But I never saw Cool Papa Bell or Oscar Charleston or Josh Gibson play. I didn’t see Buck O’Neil play, either, but I did meet him and listened to him deliver perhaps the best banquet speech I’ve ever heard.
All of those men were stars in the Negro Leagues — for you youngsters, that’s where Black baseball players got their chance to play professional ball before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
I wish I could have watched these men in their prime. The stories I’ve heard have always entertained me. It was amazing these players were not allowed to be in the big leagues, obviously. We were deprived of their talent and their enthusiasm.
I speak about this because this week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Negro leagues. Many stories have been told about those days and a good many that I’ve heard speak to the love of the game these men had.
They weren’t paid much, didn’t always play in the best ballparks and often were treated as second-class citizens as they moved around the country. But what I always seemed to hear about was joy. Excitement. Fun. They were playing a game they loved, with teammates they loved.
Wilson became an icon in Portland when his playing days were over. He brightened up every room he entered with a ready smile and caring heart. I loved him and treasured time spent listening to his stories.
He got his start with the legendary Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League, played for several teams in the PCL, but loved Portland and retired here. He spent 30 years selling cars for the same company, Gary Worth. He won batting championships in the Coast League, led the league in stolen bases and was a terrific infielder.
He got his only 22 at bats in the major leagues in 1951, before being sent back to Triple-A, so the New York Giants could call up some young kid named Willie Mays.
In 1962, at the age of 42, the Beavers ran short of infielders and signed Wilson, who didn’t hit much but fielded well and acquitted himself well. The sight of him at that age, flashing a big smile, in the infield for the Beavers is a lasting memory.
But playing into old age was what Paige was known for. He toiled on the mound for two decades in the Negro Leagues, pitching nine innings almost every day, they would say. He was known for a fastball that was regarded as the swiftest in baseball. As the years went along, he added curveballs, knuckleballs, his famous hesitation pitch and every other pitch you could imagine to his arsenal.
But he didn’t get as much as a sniff of the big leagues until 1948, when Cleveland signed him as the oldest rookie in MLB history at 42. He managed to pitch in the majors until he was 46 and then spent many years in the minors, including his stint with the Beavers in 1961, when he started five games and had a 2.88 earned run average — at the age of 54! He actually threw one inning for Kansas City in 1965, when he was 58!
If you want to know more about O’Neil and the others, I recommend a book by the great sportswriter, Joe Posnanski, «The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.»
Posnanski — along with Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick — has been the one who has sparked this celebration of Negro League baseball.
The idea was originally to get major-league players, during a game, to come out of the dugout together and tip their caps to the players from the Negro Leagues. But the pandemic changed that plan, leaving something even better.
It became Tip Your Cap 2020. And you can read the wonderful story of how it came about, here.
And, I implore you to go to the website tippingyourcap.com to feel the love and emotion of all those who offered video tributes, including four living former presidents and a who’s-who of athletes in all sports.And what better day could you have than the Fourth of July for this — a perfect time to combine baseball and history.