Veterans of black baseball experience share their stories

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Onetime Negro Leagues player Pedro Sierra, left, swaps baseball stories with former Orioles centerfielder Al Bumbry at the Babe Ruth Museum on Saturday as the Rev. Bill Benson of Manna Bible Baptist Church in Park Heights listens in.

Hundreds of years of collective memories of the black experience in baseball came together Saturday at the Babe Ruth Museum as players who followed in Jackie Robinson's footsteps told their stories.

In observance of Negro Leagues Baseball Day in Maryland, the museum brought together Negro Leagues and major league veterans to share their experiences.


There was Al Bumbry, a member of the Orioles Hall of Fame. There was Fred Valentine, who played for the Orioles and the old Washington Senators. There was Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, one of three women to play in the Negro Leagues before that vestige of segregation faded away.

The panel discussion came at a time when the role of race in baseball has re-emerged as a hot topic, with recent reports that Orioles star Adam Jones was pelted with peanuts and racial slurs two weeks ago during a game at Fenway Park in Boston. It was an incident that hit home for some of the participants.


"I know it to be a fact: Prejudice is out there so thick you can cut it like a knife," said Johnson, 81, who wore a cap with the insignia of her old team, the Indianapolis Clowns.

But Johnson wasn't dwelling on current tensions. She still revels in the memories of being a 5-foot-3 woman who could strike out the men and who compiled a 33-8 record between 1953 and 1955.

Johnson said she was treated "royally" by her male teammates, who included future major league home run king Hank Aaron.

"We had gentlemen then who were really ballplayers and had all the respect for women," the Washington resident said. "It was a beautiful thing, and I felt like I had 26 brothers."

Joining her on the panel was a former teammate from the Clowns, Pedro Sierra. A dark-skinned Cuban who wasn't allowed to play in the white amateur leagues in his native country, he joined the Clowns in 1954 at age 16 and said he was shocked to see women playing pro ball.

After five years in the Negro Leagues, Sierra landed a pitching tryout with the Washington Senators before being drafted into the Army. After his service, he returned to the Senators organization but never appeared in a regular-season major league game. He bounced around the minors for a decade.

Sierra, 77, said he can relate to Jones' experience in Boston. He said that when he was playing in Shelby, N.C., in 1966, he would stand in the bullpen and play catch with a young white boy.

Then one day the boy's father came and saw the name on the back of the pitcher's jersey. "SI-arrah, SI-arrah, what kind of name is that for a n——?" he recalls the man saying over his son's protests.


Valentine, 82, signed with the Orioles as an outfielder in 1957. He spent seven years in the majors, split between Baltimore and Washington.

One of his fondest memories was from 1964 with the old Senators. The perennial last-place team had set a goal of "off the floor in '64." When they finished ninth out of 10 that year, Valentine recalls, the team celebrated with champagne.

Valentine's memories of Boston are positive. There he could stay in downtown hotels, something he couldn't do in Baltimore and Washington.

Bumbry, a favorite of Orioles fans for 13 years between 1972 and 1984, said he talked with Jones after the Boston incident. Like Jones, he was a centerfielder who had robbed many Red Sox players of hits. But Bumbry said he had to tell Jones he couldn't share similar experiences.

"Personally, I never heard any derogatory slurs directed at me," said Bumbry.

Like other panelists, Bumbry said he's very aware that African-American players no longer dominate the top ranks of baseball as they did in the second half of the last century.


African-American kids "have gravitated to basketball and football," Bumbry said. "Baseball requires a lot more equipment."

An audience member asked why there were not more ballfields on which Baltimore children could learn to play baseball.

"You don't have enough advocates," said Tim Lacy, a longtime Afro-American sportswriter and son of legendary Afro columnist Sam Lacy. "There's nobody saying, 'Let's build something.'"

Ironically, the discussion came the same week the bleachers and dugout seating at Leon Day Park — named for a Negro Leagues star who played for the Baltimore Black Sox and Elite Giants, among other teams — were reported stolen.

Michelle Freeman, president of the Leon Day Foundation, attended the museum event. She said said the damage to the field near the Gwynns Falls Trail was extensive.

Freeman said the foundation is working with the city Recreation and Parks Department to get it repaired.


"It does set us back," she said, adding that she hopes members of the public will help with the task.