One quarter century ago my life changed forever. Besides my wife, kids, parents, siblings and closest friends, the most influential relationships in my life have been the men (and one special woman) who played in the Negro Leagues and allowed me to be a part of their lives.
Although I started researching the Negro Leagues during college while playing baseball and working for the school newspaper at Winona State University, and though I interviewed about a dozen Negro Leaguers before a 10-day period in November of 1992 and eventually interviewed 60 players, it was that 10-day period that will stay with me until I die.
In early 1992, fresh out of college, I was given the Chicago home address of Double Duty Radcliffe by an acquaintance, who warned me that he wasn’t sure if the player was still alive. I wrote Radcliffe a letter and was pleasantly surprised when I received a handwritten note from the 90-year-old player asking me to call him anytime at midnight and he would tell me anything I wanted to know about Satchel Paige, the Negro Leagues, etc.
I got the courage to call Radcliffe a few weeks later, at midnight, and I barely got a word in as Radcliffe told me in great detail about the Negro Leagues, Satchel, and the career of the greatest player he had ever seen: himself. Without the internet, and very few books available about the Negro Leagues, I didn’t know if Radcliffe was just bragging or if he was truly as great as he said. He was both.
After a few more phone conversations over the next month, Double Duty asked me why I was asking so many questions. “I just love the subject,” I explained. “Maybe I’ll write an article or book someday.”
“Why don’t you write a book about me?” asked Double Duty. “Everyone would want to read it!”
Long story short, I agreed to write the biography of Double Duty, and asked him when I should visit him in Chicago to work on the book.
“No, I want to come to Minneapolis. I used to play there at the state fair grounds in the 1920s, and I want to bring two other players, Lester Lockett and Jimmie Crutchfield.”
I could barely contain my excitement! I asked him when he wanted to come so I could get him airline tickets.
“No, I don’t like to fly,” Double Duty explained. “They say you don’t go before your time, but what if it’s the pilot’s time and not Double Duty’s? We’ll take the train.”
I couldn’t argue with Duty’s (his friends called him Duty for short) logic so we scheduled the visit for a 10-day period around Thanksgiving 1992. On September 23, 1992 my wife and I had our first child, Ryne. When I called Duty to tell him the news, he said, “Are you going to name him Double Duty?” “No, I explained, but he’ll grow up to know all about you!” I said. “Well,” said Duty, “all I can hope is that he turns out as beautiful as me!”
As the trip approached, Jimmie Crutchfield became ill (he would die of cancer not long after) and was replaced by Bobby Robinson. Though I would have loved to have met Crutchfield, who was a great player and wonderful person, I was meant to meet Bobby. Bobby, 89, was one of the best third basemen in Negro League history, and I’ve never met such a wonderful man. Lester, by the way, was the youngster of the group at 83, and was a slugger who also won a Negro League batting title.
It would take 100 pages to describe the amazing time my family and I had with those three wonderful men, so I’ll just list a few highlights to give you an idea of why I will always remember that visit.
– On the night the players arrived, I picked them up at the train depot, and on the way to their hotel, at around 10pm, they said they were hungry so we went to Perkins. Over the next 10 days we went to Perkins another 10 times because they loved how big the portions were! When I got home around midnight I was so excited, I told my wife, “These guys are amazing! They’re going to live to be 100!” Well, Duty lived to 103, Bobby to 98, and Lester to 93. I got to sleep that night around 2am, and Duty called me the next morning at 6am. “Where you at?” Duty yelled. “Let’s go, we got stuff to do!” That’s the way it was for 10 days.
– On Thanksgiving my mother-in-law invited the three players to her house to celebrate with our family. Duty was as charming as ever and signed autographs for all the kids. How many people get signed autographs of baseball legends on Thanksgiving?
·- After the third day at the hotel, I moved the guys to an executive suite that was rented by the week. On the way to the suite Duty remarked, “Don’t ever put us in that hotel again! It had a terrible lobby!” “Lobby?” I said. “What was wrong with the lobby?”
“We were there three days,” explained Duty, “and not one pretty girl walked through that lobby!” I found out that during the heyday of the Negro Leagues, when money was tight, an afternoon in a big hotel lobby watching pretty girls was cheap entertainment to Duty!
– Over the 10 days I got a chance to spend hours with each player, interviewing them about their careers. My favorite moment was when Bobby told me that he still swung the last bat he ever used in a game. “The other day I couldn’t find it,” explained Bobby. “Then I got down on my hands and knees and reached into the closet and found it. I pulled it out, got up and swung it. I looked at it and said, ‘boy, you used to hit some line drives!’ My wife caught me and just shook her head!”
– The owner of a sports memorabilia shop at the Mall of America invited us to his place, the guys were allowed to set up chairs in the mall and sign autographs for $5 each, and we were then invited to a nice restaurant at the mall for a meal on the house. While waiting for our food, Duty had escaped his wheelchair (he didn’t really need it but would let Lester push him if he felt tired) and was flirting with a 25-year-old woman in an adjoining booth. Lester, who had been the target of Duty’s good-natured teasing for 60-plus years, brought Duty’s wheelchair over to Duty and said, “Mr. Radcliffe, don’t you think you should get in your wheelchair and come back to our table?” Oh, Duty was mad! Duty, by the way, didn’t like his meal—“they only gave me six shrimp!”—and he demanded that the next time we go to Perkins instead.
– Lester always had to “get his numbers” for the Daily 3 lottery, a habit he picked up more than a half-century before, and he and Duty always had to have an ample supply of El Producto cigars.
– During the 10 days I got a glimpse of what it was like to go out on the town with three baseball stars in their primes. Though I was only 25, I could barely keep up with them, and they always were dressed to the 9s and ready for anything. I realized that it was their zest for life, and the fact that they never stopped thinking about what they could do the next day. The calendar said they were quite old, but in mind they were young. And the best part of being with these men was that they were incredible friends to each other. When Bobby died he had been friends with Duty for more than 90 years! They teased each other relentlessly, but also loved each other dearly.
For reference sake, most Negro League fans know about Double Duty. He was an all-star as a pitcher and catcher, could hit for power, was a trash-talker who could back up his boasts, and belongs in the Hall of Fame. Many do not know my other two guests.
Lester Lockett was a power-hitting all-star outfielder for teams like the Baltimore Elite Giants and Birmingham Black Barons. He used a 38-inch bat, won a batting title, and was similar in size and skill to Dusty Baker.
Bobby Robinson was on the short list of greatest fielding third basemen in Negro League history, in the same class as Ray Dandridge and Judy Johnson. His nickname was “The Vacuum Cleaner,” and not because he sold Kirbys door-to-door! Bobby wasn’t quite the hitter Dandridge and Johnson were, but he could hit, bunt and run. I was told by one Negro Leaguer that Bobby did everything well and was fundamentally sound, not unlike Brooks Robinson with a bit more speed and less power. His greatest fame came as a member of the St. Louis Stars and Indianapolis ABCs. One year Bobby led all third basemen in votes for the East-West All-Star game but couldn’t play due to injury.
Though I haven’t become rich by researching and writing about the Negro Leagues, I wouldn’t trade those 10 days for anything.