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Still a winning season for New Windsor Cubs

BaseballBaltimore OriolesOriole Park at Camden YardsMarvel Entertainment, LLCJackie Robinson

Sunday was Little League Day at Oriole Park for the New Windsor Cubs. Forgive the fans if they didn't recognize the undefeated team from 1954. Instead of gangly kids in baggy uniforms, they were gray-haired granddads in matching T-shirts.

On the front of the shirts: CUBS FOREVER.

Fifty years after this Carroll County team won a pennant on its first try, the players still flock for reunions from places like Wyoming and North Carolina.

Three still have their Little League uniforms, neatly folded and tucked away. Outfielder Barton "Skip" West kept his bat, a weathered Jackie Robinson model. And a while back, coach Herbert "Humpot" Brooks, 86, was seen around Westminster wearing his beat-up "NW Cubs" cap.

A photo of the 12-and-under club's youngest player, Ken Robertson at 8, hangs in the Laramie, Wyo., office of the physician he became.

"I think about that team every day," said Robertson. "I tell people how we went 21-0, a bunch of black and white kids, at a time when schools were segregated.

"Who'd have thought, in 1954, that a small town in a southern state would allow that to exist?"

They were a country brood who had been pals long before Little League. They swam the same creeks, biked the same trails and dawdled outside Brownie's Corner, the town's soda shop, sipping 5-cent cherry Cokes and wrangling over whose Topps card was better, Mickey or The Duke.

When organized baseball beckoned, they joined en masse - 15 eager schoolboys who would shake up the newly formed Frederick-Carroll Little League. Of the circuit's four teams, only New Windsor (population 800) bore an integrated lineup. Westminster and Frederick, the area's largest towns, supported their own youth programs. Those, too, were for whites only.

On June 5, 1954, three weeks after the Supreme Court's landmark decision barring segregation in schools, New Windsor played its first game, with three African-Americans on the field and another, Brooks, in the coaching box.

The Cubs won, 16-4, over Woodsboro, a team from Frederick County.

"To us, [race] was no big deal," said shortstop Mike Schlee. "We weren't black. We weren't white.

"We were kids."

Others saw it differently. A half-century ago, most lunchrooms, bars and theaters below the Mason-Dixon Line relegated blacks to second-class accommodations.

New Windsor was no exception. "You could walk into the drugstore and buy a Coke, but you couldn't sit there and drink it," said left fielder Edward "Buzzy" Davis, who is black. "That was the way of the world.

"We had no problem assimilating into the team, because we were friends. But we still knew that, after a game, we couldn't go into a restaurant and eat with the [white] kids."

Davis is dean of the business school at Clark University in Atlanta. At 10, all he wanted was to play ball. Rebuffed by the segregated team in his hometown of Union Bridge, Davis bicycled the 4 miles to New Windsor, where he made the starting nine - alongside Herbert "Sonny" Brooks, the coach's son and a strapping power hitter, and Richard "Jasper" Hill, perhaps the fastest of them all.

They sat among their white teammates on the bench, wiped their brows with the same towels and drank water from the same galvanized bucket.

"The fact that we all used the same dipper offended people in Union Bridge," said outfielder Jim Dyer. "They threatened to forfeit a game because of that."

Others tried more subtle means of aggravation.

"Whenever the black guys would bat, you'd hear derogatory comments from the stands, murmurs that were barely audible," said Schlee. "Some people would throw stones against the backstop, to distract the batters.

"If it bothered our guys, it never showed. Sonny hit some home runs of gigantic proportion, including one that sailed over the fence - and a house - at Union Bridge."

Only once did the Cubs respond to a racial slur from the stands. Sonny Brooks was at bat when his manager, Ray Wilson, charged the fan, grabbed his shirt and gave him what-for.

"I didn't hit the guy, but I gathered him up," said the manager, now 75.

And Brooks?

"I just made 'em pay for it by hitting," he said.

The media took note of the ethnic mix. Reporting their scores, the Frederick Post referred to the Cubs as "New Windsor's non-segregated nine."

The Cubs circled the bases and forged ahead.

"To us, it was never `Sonny is black' or `Sonny is colored.' It was just `Sonny,'" said third baseman Josh Owings. "If you picked on him, or Jasper or Buzzy, you were pickin' on all of us."

After five games, they had outscored opponents 108-26.

New Windsor was said to be piling on. West, the outfielder, was sitting in the chair at Wimpy's Barber Shop, getting a flattop, when a rival coach sauntered in for a shave.

"The coach asked me why we kept running up the scores. I told him, `It's not our fault that you can't get us out,'" said West.

Said Davis: "Having different races on the team made us work harder. We didn't want to lose to anybody."

Racial strife was sometimes hard to ignore. After New Windsor's Methodist pastor delivered a sermon in support of the Supreme Court decision, segregationists burned a cross on his front lawn.

"I remember seeing the charred `X' the next morning," said Schlee.

Nor did everyone in town approve when the hungry Cubs met at catcher Bob Cairns' house on Main Street for post-game meals of Minute Steaks and macaroni.

"Some people were infuriated, that we'd invite the whole team inside," said Cairns' mother, Julia, 91. "We got some nasty notes in the mail about that."

While there were contentious issues, the community had rallied round to make playing possible in the first place.

Heretofore, kids had played sandlot games in the pasture on Buzzy Lambert's farm, after shooing livestock and shoveling cow piles.

Townsfolk eyed the vacant lot behind New Windsor School, and erected a field on the cheap. Materials came from barnyards and back yards. A red snow fence, on loan from the county, circled the outfield. For a backstop, they strung turkey wire between discarded phone poles.

Home plate was a chunk of plywood until midsummer when the club could afford a rubber one. Parents cobbled together the team benches and refreshment stand. The feed store supplied bags of crushed lime, with which the Cubs lined the base paths, dribbling it out of rusty coffee cans.

After each game, a volunteer would drag the field, attaching an old bedspring to a pickup truck and circling the bases.

Shopkeepers chipped in to buy uniforms for the players. Cairns remembered the day they arrived: gray flannel outfits that shouted "CUBS" in bold blue letters.

"It was like Christmas morning to the fourth power," he said.

Having tried on the uniforms, no one wanted to take them off.

"Do you sleep in that thing?" his grandmother asked Schlee.

The shortstop smiles now, recalling the question. "I may have, once or twice," he said.

The Cubs breathed baseball. Never mind that, 40 miles to the east, the fledgling Orioles had just arrived in Baltimore.

"With our elevated egos, there was some thought in our minds that we were better than the Birds were," said second baseman Herb Weller.

The Cubs were no bumpkins. Wilson, the manager, was fresh out of the Air Force and drilled them hours on end. No one complained; what else was there to do? Video games and computers were the stuff of Marvel Comics, and the gang only knew one kid who had a television.

In a weedy field, the manager built a sliding pit and had players do hook slides until their thighs burned. The Cubs practiced dropping bunts and shagging flies hit way over their heads. A ground ball was fair game for Owings' mutt, Cookie, who'd seize it and race toward her yard, the team in pursuit. That was the only break they got during practice.

"I probably took it more seriously than I should have," said Wilson. "I never let up - and they never quit."

The manager doled out salt pills for dehydration and linseed oil to soften gloves. To keep the rooting balanced, he paid a fan to cheer the Cubs on the road.

"Ray would give Les Davis, who worked at the local cement plant, a buck or two to holler," says Dan Hartzler, star right-hander. "Then, all game, we'd hear, `C'mon, babe, knock 'em in!' or `strike 'em out!' "

Most spots on the team were up for grabs. Hartzler would pitch; that was a given.

Hartzler was always horsing around, firing fastballs, breaking glass. "In the history of New Windsor, I must've busted more windows than anyone," he says, bold talk considering the town had been ransacked by Rebel troops during the Civil War.

"Danny could throw a strawberry through a battleship," said Weller.

A tall, limber 12-year-old, Hartzler had honed his control the previous winter, hurling snowballs at fence posts and passers-by.

The last man he wanted to hit was Albert Benedict.

One afternoon, Hartzler was warming up along High Street, lobbing snow at a lineup of linden trees, when he grabbed a slushball and uncorked a screamer. Just then, Benedict - a burly ex-Marine - appeared and took it flush in the head.

Hartzler paused. "I was petrified," he said. "I mean, Albert just kept walking and never wiped his face."

Without turning, Benedict growled, "Danny Hartzler! Do that again and your butt'll be in a sling!"

Cairns, the catcher, witnessed it all. "That," he said, "was the most famous pitch Danny ever threw."

Come summer, Hartzler would spin two one-hitters and a two-hitter as New Windsor routed all comers, then defeated the Frederick-Carroll All-Stars, 5-4. There would be no playoffs. Though the Cubs followed Little League rules, they couldn't afford the fees to join.

Their reward was to be more far-reaching.

On Sunday after the second inning, the Camden Yards scorecard flashed: "A Special Welcome To The New Windsor Cubs' Undefeated 1954 Team." The players knew their bond went deeper than their record in that long-ago summer.

"We came from a very small town at a very special time in this country," said Cairns. "We were a fraternity of children, black and white; the game was the common denominator. ...

"Now, we're a bunch of old men who still obviously care about each other. That's the biggest gift of all."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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