America's so-called "national sport" and pasttime is finally beginning to pay the proper homage to black players and its contributors- through inductions made and proper statistics published- by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I had read plenty about the Negro Leagues but it was my pleasure to meet someone with an attachment to their history, ROBERT TURNER, who served as bat boy for the black teams. [And my exasperation since- as I've been unable to find him again for more discussions.] For how many fans realize that the Negro Leagues regularly featured their teams at Red Wings Stadium? Would the stars of today be shooting for an all-time home run record posted by Josh Gibson- if he only had the chance to play? My hour or so get-together with Turner at a Rochester cofee shop endures as one of my favorites.
Negro Leagues Batboy
Rochester's ROBERT TURNER reminices about the two summers he spent as a batboy for the teams that played the New York Black Yankees, an entry of the American Negro Leagues in the 1940s. It was an experience that helped him come to grips with his place in Rochester society and later in life.
APRIL 1995 5:54
Kneeling down near the visitor's dugout, Robert Turner set poised- ready to bounce
up and retrieve the next discarded bat or dash into foul territory after the next foul
ball. When the umpire spied Robert through the pass gate earlier that day and asked if
the kid wanted to tote bats and shag balls, the 12-year old couldn't think of a better
way to spend his free evening. And he set his own price.
TURNER: Two dollars and two balls. Two dollars was a lot of money in those days, for a
12-year old. School lunch cost 30 cents..go to the show cost 20 cents. Two balls- if you
trade them in at the stadium, they assume that they were balls from the Red Wings. So
this was the way they would re-collect balls that had gone over the fence. They allowed
two people to come in on a returned ball.
It was on an ad-hoc basis that I got the job. I got there early enough to make sure
that I could work. And a couple times, the fellas tried to slip another guy in on me,
but I managed to maintain.
A couple thousand fans would watch the games at Red Wing Stadium. The New York Black
Yankees did not dominate like the powerful white New Yorkers of Ruthian fame. But the
Negro leaguers had their superstars and super play and more than held their own when the
white teams had the courage to share the field with the ostracized blacks.
TURNER: Oh man, they were on the case, so to speak. They came out there to inflict
serious damage on the opposition. And I'm not talking physical, but psychological
damage in terms of the intensity of the rivalry that took place in the game itself.
I remember the Kansas City Monarchs. I remember a Newark team.. and Chicago- a guy
on Chicago, a slender fellow about six-two. And he hit that ball right into the lights
at Red Wing Stadium, I'll never forget that. People couldn't believe it. People got
quiet that ball went so far.
He hardly knew whose bats he brought back to the dugout. During all the games he
worked, Turner can't remember a single conversation with any of the ball players. But it
was just bats and balls. The players never had him running errands or shining shoes.
TURNER: No, no. These men were very independent anyway. Quite often they'd leave the park
in their uniforms, you see, at night to get out of town quickly and go on to the next
stop. They'd change uniforms on the bus or along the way somewhere I presume. They came
to the park to play ball and to put on a good show for the fans. They didn't have the
need to ego-trip off of people in lesser positions.
There was one player who everybody knew, and that was the great Satchel Paige.
TURNER: Oh.. Satchel was there! And I heard about his hesitation pitch. I actually
thought the hesitation pitch was that.. you threw the ball and in the air, the ball
would slow down. So I'm out there all bug-eyed waiting to see this hesitiation pitch.
I didn't know that it had to do with the motion, and the delivery involved. But there
was nothin' you could say about satchel Paige. You could tell that when that cat was
on the mound, he was in control. I don't recall a score, but I do remember in the game
where he told the outfielders to sit down. Showmanship or not, I don't recall what
happened but you gotta imagine: Satchel Paige, what he meant! He was like (Muhammad) Ali,
he was great. You were in awe, you were awestruck by him.
Over two summers, Turner can remember just a couple of times when the anger rode
high- when the hours of bumpy car or bus rides between cities for at times, triple
headers- got to the players: one incident during a clubhouse card game, another time
when a tossed bat rattled around the dugout. But there was time for humor too, when one
team, losing by a million late in the game sent a midget up to the plate to embarrass
the other team.
TURNER: He was a catcher, a batting practice catcher. They put him in the game, he had
a uniform and everything.. maybe four feet. And he was supposed to stand up there and
just take the count, and walk to first base. So at least they'd have laughing rights,
if not bragging rights when they get down to the bar, you see. And you know the midget
got up there and took pitches like he was supposed to. But then something got into him
and he began swinging at the pitches and he struck out.
Decades later, Robert Turner returns by memory to those dusty days of his youth..
when somebody would say "Lets go! Let's go to the ball game." And the group would walk
the mile or so down Joseph Avenue for Red Wings games. And if you didn't have money or
a knot hole pass, just jump the fence. And when the Wings were on the road, the Negro
leaguers came in. And Turner didn't have to hop no fence. He went in with the players,
the entertainers, the talent. And years later, he can evaluate what exactly that bat boy
TURNER: I was in control of the situation, which I enjoyed and which I prospered and
which I learned something about myself. I learned that these guys are just like we are
over here, and they're from all over the country. And they're intense, and they operate,
and they play to win. And they don't take second best in what they're doing. That was a
great lesson. It did something for me, looking back in retrospect that I didn't
understand. I didn't recognize the racial barriers that existed in Rochester back when I
was 12 years old, because they ddidn't exist for anyone. 12 years old on this side of
town you see. It validated for me to show that you could be known nationwide because of
your excellence, because you can do something better than anybody else. This kept me in
school, in high school where I was being invalidated.
Negro Leagues batboy, Robert Turner. Bill Flynn, WXXI 1370.
- Associated Press award - aired nationally