Pedro Sierra looks back with pride on his time playing in the Negro Leagues

Twelve-hour road trips on hot, stuffy buses. Hostile hotels that turned "his kind" away. Crude taunts from baseball fans aimed at getting under his skin.

Yes, Pedro Sierra said, he would do it again.


"I am proud to have played in the Negro Leagues," said Sierra, 77. "To me, it's the most important chapter in the history of baseball in America. I ride on the shoulders of those who came before me, like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, whose burning desire opened doors for the rest of us."

A pitcher, Sierra played in the 1950s, in the wake of baseball's integration, in the then-fading Negro Leagues with hopes, somehow, of reaching the majors. He didn't make it. The closest Sierra got was to pitch batting practice for the Washington Senators in 1970.


He'll be on hand from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday to sign autographs at the Black Memorabilia Fine Art and Craft Show at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum as part of the museum's Black History Month celebration — one of a dwindling number of survivors of the Negro Leagues, albeit toward the end of that organization's storied 42-year run.

Born in Cuba, Sierra broke into the game in 1954 with the Indianapolis Clowns, seven years after Robinson broke the majors' color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A black Latino, Sierra, then 16, strove to follow on the heels of Minnie Minoso, the first black Cuban to integrate the big leagues in 1949. (White Latinos had reached the majors in 1911).

"I made a ton of money — $150 a month, plus $3 a day for meals," Sierra said.

From 1955 through 1957, he played for the Detroit Stars, then one of four remaining Negro Leagues teams along with the Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox and Kansas City Monarchs. With no field of their own, the Stars played in Briggs Stadium, then the home of the Tigers, when that club was on the road.

"Going out on that field, before about 18,000 people, made you want to make the majors even more," Sierra said.

The Stars often played at neutral sites — minor-league parks in mostly Southern towns, where racism was rampant. Routinely, Sierra said, when confronted with slurs, "I found it easier to pretend I didn't know any English and to speak only Spanish."

How good a pitcher was he? Records are sketchy but, in 1956, Sierra pitched in the Negro Leagues East-West All-Star Game.

"I had a good fastball, and I was aggressive. My best pitch was the brush back," he said. "My philosophy was, the pitcher is the cat and the hitter is the mouse — and you've never seen a mouse catch a cat."


Tired of the travel, Sierra left the team, caught a break and signed with the Washington Senators, who sent him to their Class D team in Lynchburg, Va., in 1959. Soon after, Sierra called his father, in Havana.

"You got a letter from your Uncle Sam," his dad said.

"What do you mean? My uncle's name is Raul," Sierra said.

The letter was his draft notice. He served three years in the military where, in 1961, he pitched for a U.S. Army team, going 17-5 with a 1.75 ERA. Discharged a year later, Sierra returned to baseball and played five years in the minors for the Minnesota Twins, winning 37 and losing 45. Even then, he felt the sting of bigotry.

"In 1966, while pitching for Thomasville, [N.C.], I was playing catch before a game in Shelby with a young [white] kid when his father showed up, wearing coveralls and chewing tobacco. He looked at me, then at my name on the back of my uniform and said, 'See-air-ah? What kind of name is that for a n— —?'

"The kid said, 'Daddy, don't say things like that.' And I said, 'That's OK, son, he doesn't understand.'"


Sierra went on to play three years in Canada, two in the Senators' organization and three in Mexico before retiring at age 32. He settled in Maryland and worked 25 years for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation, helping at-risk children and refugees.

In 1993, he joined Essex Community College (now CCBC Essex) as assistant baseball coach for three years. While there, he got a bit part in the movie "Major League II" as third-base coach for the Chicago White Sox.

In the film, Sierra said, "You can see the back of my uniform as I applaud a runner rounding third on a home run."

Four years ago, he and several other Negro Leagues players were invited to the White House in August to meet with President Barack Obama to "mark their contributions to American history, civil rights and athletics." Sierra wore a suit and, proudly, the sky-blue cap he'd saved from his playing days in Detroit.

"When the president came into the room, Minoso started singing 'Happy Birthday' [Obama's birthday was the day before], and the rest of us joined in," Sierra said. "Obama laughed and said, 'You sing pretty good.' When I shook his hand I said, 'Happy birthday, Mr. President — from one Leo to another.'"

That photograph hangs on the wall of Sierra's house in Mays Landing, N.J.


For 10 years, he has made appearances at events commemorating Negro Leagues baseball.

"The first thing people ask is, 'Do you miss the game?'" Sierra said. "What I miss is the guys I met and the people in towns where we stayed who opened their homes to us [when hotels would not]. Playing in the Negro League gave me a foundation to understand baseball and all of its intricacies. I learned more, I think, than if I'd started in the minor leagues. I learned the respect that you have to have for the game — and that I belonged at that level."