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Only the Ball Was White

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When I was playing with the Benny Goodman Quartet back in the late ’30s and early ’40s, Kansas City, Mo., was like our headquarters. We played there all the time, and I used to go watch the Monarchs — they were the Kansas City franchise of the old Negro Leagues, where blacks used to have to play before the big leagues were integrated. I’d sit on the bench with the players and joke around with them. One day the manager, Buck O’Neil, said, ”He’s here so much, he should be part of the team.” So they made me the first-base coach — gave me a uniform and everything, No. 26. The players didn’t get much money to play, but I would’ve paid them to be on the team. I’m crazy about baseball.

Man, those were some good days. This documentary, Only the Ball Was White, brings back memories, with old footage and interviews with guys like Satchel Paige. Satchel, who played for us, was the greatest pitcher ever in the Negro Leagues. I remember another player asked him, ”Satchel, how many kinds of balls you throw?” Satchel was crazy. He said, ”There’s my fastball, my curveball, and my be-ball… it be’s anywhere I pitch it.” Satchel was also a huge jazz fan — he played guitar.

The greatest hitter I ever saw, black or white, was Josh Gibson — the tape’s right about that. He could hit the ball over the fence with either hand. But what this tape doesn’t show you is a guy on our team named Willard Brown. Willard hit the ball so hard that the infielders on the opposing teams would put grass in their gloves as a cushion.

Racism separated black and white ball players, although most whites accepted me because I was in Benny’s band, which was one of the first interracial groups in the public eye in this country. There was me, Benny, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson — I think we opened the door for interracial baseball in a way. I think the public acceptance of our mixed band trickled out and helped let blacks like Jackie Robinson play for the white Dodgers.

It’s too bad it took so long for a movie like this to come out. It’s the only thing I’ve seen on the Negro Leagues — there ought to be more. It’s important to show these players, show how much they loved baseball, and how much they achieved. Hearing those great old names again is really music to my ears. A