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Players in baseball's segregation-era Negro Leagues unite to keep the legacy alive

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

During the decades in which professional baseball was segregated, there were the Negro Leagues and the so-called major leagues. I say so-called because was it really a major league without major stars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Dandridge? I could go on. Today, more than 75 years after Jackie Robinson broke that barrier when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, some of the surviving players of the Negro Leagues, friends and family members have formed the Negro Leagues Family Alliance to keep alive the legacy of the Negro Leagues. We're joined now by Ron "Schoolboy" Teasley, a former Negro Leagues baseball player, and his daughter Lydia, both instrumental in forming the alliance. They join us now from Michigan. Thank you both very much for being with us.

RON TEASLEY: Glad to be with you.

LYDIA TEASLEY: Thank you so much.

SIMON: And Lydia Teasley, let me begin with you, if I could. Tell us about the idea behind the Negro Leagues Family Alliance.

L TEASLEY: The idea pretty much started from Sean Gibson, who was Josh Gibson's great-grandson, Satchel Paige daughter, and I believe it was Buck Leonard's daughter - just kind of sat around and were putting things together. And they thought that maybe they could contact other families to get together and put together some initiatives to preserve the legacy of these great players and just keep everybody educated and informed what a great legacy they have.

SIMON: Mr. Teasley, may I ask how old you are?

R TEASLEY: I'm 96 years old.

SIMON: Boy, you sound good.

R TEASLEY: Well, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

R TEASLEY: Appreciate it.

SIMON: Of course, you played semipro baseball in Michigan against Negro League teams. What are some of your memories?

R TEASLEY: You're correct about that. When I was very young, I met the former Negro League players. They were working out on a field across from the recreation center where I attended. And pretty soon I started working out with them, and I was 12 or 13 years old.

SIMON: Oh, gosh.

R TEASLEY: You might say they became my second parents because I spent quite a bit of time with them, and they told me stories about the Negro League and how the travel was and how it was a problem when you - with certain states it was more of a problem than in other states. But they needed a player. A player did not show - like, lots of players did not show up. They would actually put me into a lineup...

SIMON: Oh, my God.

R TEASLEY: ...Usually in right field. And so that was quite a thrill, and I was able to hold my own. Luckily, not too many balls hit the right field, but...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: That's an old strategy. I'm sure you were great. I have to ask, did you ever bat against Satchel Paige?

R TEASLEY: Yes, I did. I was playing with a team in Detroit called the Detroit Wolves, and we played an exhibition game against Satchel and his - another local team. The first time I faced him, I hit a triple.

SIMON: Oh, you hit a triple off Satchel Paige. Not many people can say that.

R TEASLEY: Yeah, right, right. Well, I did, and that was quite a thrill. And he was quite a showman. Whenever he arrived at the park, everybody's attention was centered on him.

SIMON: Oh, and a great showman. I have to ask, when Jackie Robinson was signed and then in the years that followed, you know, other great Black ballplayers - I'm thinking of Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella - what was the feeling among some Negro League players? Were they happy, or was it a little bit mixed?

R TEASLEY: There were mixed feelings because maybe morally and socially it was a good thing, but that put a lot of men out of work.

SIMON: Yeah.

R TEASLEY: Like I said, they enjoyed the game so much, and the idea of their best players being taken by the other league was troublesome to them.

SIMON: Yeah. You had a tryout with the Dodgers once, I'm told.

R TEASLEY: Yeah, I had a tryout. I was invited to come down to Vero Beach, Fla., and at the end of the two weeks, evidently, they were happy with our play. And so we were signed. We were signed to play in Olean, N.Y., in the PONY League. And that was a wonderful city. I enjoyed it very much. The other player was named Sammy Gee. And both Sam and I were playing outstanding baseball. And we played in 23 games. I know I had 23 hits in 23 games, and I was league lead in home runs as well. And so they called us one day and said, I'm sorry to report - to tell you this, but we have - are breaking players down from a higher classification, and we're going to have to release you. And naturally that was rather devastating. And after that, came home, then got a call from the - a gentleman who very instrumental in working with players and fellow named Will Robinson. So he arranged for us to go play with the New York Cubans.

SIMON: The New York Cubans were one of the great Negro League teams, but the Negro Leagues went out of business just a few years later.

R TEASLEY: That was a sad thing. Yes, it was a sad thing. So like I say, it was - maybe morally and socially, it was something to be considered, but it still put a lot of players out of work. It was mixed emotions, actually.

SIMON: Lydia Teasley, just last week, I'm told, you - the Negro Leagues Family Alliance had a meeting with Major League Baseball.

L TEASLEY: Yes.

SIMON: How did that go? What would you like to do?

L TEASLEY: One of our main objectives is the Negro Leagues Day that we're hoping to get on May 2. And so that was one of the main initiatives that was discussed. And they seemed very excited about that. And we want that to go through every major league team. Every May 2, it's almost like a Jackie Robinson day. And graciously the Tigers are doing it this year, and on a small scale we are doing it this May 2.

SIMON: And why May 2?

L TEASLEY: In 1920, the first Negro League team played a game on May 2. So that's why it's symbolic to that day.

SIMON: What do you want fans of today to know about and appreciate about the Negro Leagues?

R TEASLEY: Well, I think the Negro League had quite an effect on my life. When I first started playing, I had no idea that I'd want to go to college or go - you know, further my education. But after being with - around the players and who were really, really family men, they set good examples. They just simply loved the game of baseball.

SIMON: Lydia Teasley, what do you hope people today will appreciate about the Negro Leagues?

L TEASLEY: I think the main thing is just the wow, just the courage that they had to step out on faith and form their own league and just letting them know that you can do it, too, that you can do it. You know, you can step out on faith. You can do what these amazing men did. You can carry on a legacy. And the main thing is just how great it is to play in a sport, the camaraderie that it brings and, you know, just how much learning you get, sportsmanship, patience and everything that you get from being together on a team. That is a great thing that I think all children need to learn at an early age.

SIMON: Ron "Schoolboy" Teasley, former Negro League player, his daughter Lydia Teasley of the Negro Leagues Family Alliance - thank you both very much for joining us. I feel better just talking to you. Thank you.

R TEASLEY: Well, Scott, thank you so much for having us. Really appreciate it.

L TEASLEY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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