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Excerpt: 'We Are the Ship'


"It was a rough life — ride, ride, ride, and ride." — Hilton Smith, pitcher

We played in a rough league. We had a number of really unsavory characters like Charleston or Jud Wilson to contend with, as well as pitchers who didn't have a problem throwing at us, but that was something we had accepted as part of the game. I think what made our time a bit harder than most is what we had to deal with in addition to that. White fans would call us names and throw stuff at us on the field, and we couldn't say a word. In some places we traveled to, we couldn't get a glass of water to drink, even if we had money to pay for it — and back then, water was free!

We did an awful lot of traveling, mostly in buses. They were nice buses to begin with, but they weren't the kind that were made for ridin' every day. We ran those poor buses ragged. Many a time we'd ride all day and night and arrive just in time to play a game. Then we'd get back on that hot bus and travel to the next town for another game, often without being able to take a bath. This was all season long. All of that traveling would wear on you. Many times the only sleep we got was on the bus. But that could be hard because we had to take the back roads to get to some of those little towns, and they were so bumpy they'd have us bouncing around the bus like popcorn on a hot stove. Fastest we could go was about thirty-five to forty miles an hour. If the driver got sleepy, a couple of the guys on the team would take turns driving the bus. To pass the time we played cards or sang old Negro spirituals or barbershop numbers. Just about every team had a quartet. They'd be our entertainment for most of the way. Some guys could really sing. Most people don't know it, but Satchel Paige had a wonderful singing voice, and so did Buck Leonard. We would listen to them and try to join in.

Traveling was even rougher down South. They didn't take too kindly to black folks down there — especially if you were from up north. We would have to travel several hundred miles without stopping because we couldn't find a place where we could eat along the way. It's a hurtful thing when you're starving and have a pocket full of money but can't find a place to eat because they "don't serve Negroes." And you could forget about trying to use the restroom in those places. You would just have to hold it, or stop the bus and do your business in the woods. We had to get used to it. After a while, we learned which places we could stop at and which ones we couldn't. They didn't have any fast-food places back then. Many times we wouldn't get food to eat before a game, and if we did, it usually wasn't much. We would have to play a doubleheader on only two hot dogs and a soda pop. If we couldn't buy food from a restaurant or a hot dog stand, we'd stop at a grocery store and get some sandwiches or sardines and crackers. Sometimes those grocery store clerks didn't want to serve us, either. One time a store clerk told us to put our money in an ashtray if we wanted to buy something. He grabbed the money out of the ashtray and put the change back in it. He didn't want to touch our hands, but he sure did touch that money. I guess he had to draw the line somewhere. Just didn't make any sense.

It was segregated in the North, too. They wouldn't serve us inside a restaurant, so we had to get our food from the back door and eat on the bus. We'd send one guy to buy food for the whole team. Hotels were segregated, too. Many times we would get to a town after riding all day, only to spend a few more hours searching for a place to stay. The minute we arrived, inexplicably, every hotel would be full. If we couldn't find anyplace to stay, we would have to sleep on the bus.

Some of the smaller clubs slept crammed in their cars or even in the ballpark because they couldn't afford to stay in a hotel. Some teams slept at the YMCA, the local jail, even in funeral homes. In cities, we stayed in Negro hotels or Negro rooming houses. We slept two, three guys to a bed. That's all the team owner could afford. A number of the Negro hotels were very clean and neat. But more than a few times, we'd run into those places — and I won't call out any names — that had so many bedbugs you'd have to put a newspaper between the mattress and the sheets. And then in other places, we had to sleep with the lights on because the bedbugs would crawl all over you when the lights were out. Can't sleep with a bug on your leg — I don't care how tough you are.

In small towns we'd stay with local families. During the game, the manager would send someone to find people who would put us up for the night. By the time the game was over, we all had places to stay. Sometimes the colored church would fix us a meal, and I'll tell you, that was some good eating. If we got to a town and we had a little time to kill, we'd go fishing or catch a movie. Back then, a movie ticket only cost about twenty-five cents, and you could stay in the theater all day if you wanted to. We had to go through the back entrance, though, because they only allowed Negroes to sit in the balcony. There would usually be three levels in the theater, and the white audience would sit at the bottom. That whole middle section would be empty, as if the owners wanted us to be as far away from the white audience as possible. That kind of thing seems silly today, but that's how it was back then.

From WE ARE THE SHIP: THE STORY OF NEGRO LEAGUE BASEBALL by Kadir Nelson. Text and illustrations copyright (c) 2008 by Kadir Nelson. Rerinted by permission of Hyperion Books for Children. All rights reserved.

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Kadir Nelson