The History of the Negro Leagues - PDF by sammyc2007

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									The History of the Negro Leagues An Interview with Negro League Pitcher Ernest Burke
By M. Bryan February 9, 2004


The purpose of this Negro League oral history project is to examine a neglected piece of baseball history. Understanding the impact that the Negro League players had on baseball is vital to understanding sports history in America. Attaining knowledge of the athletic feats and personal sacrifice of the thousands of black baseball players who played in the Negro Leagues from the late 1880's to early 1950's adds to the collective memory and highlights the pain of the unyielding forces of segregation in America. The purpose of the interview with Mr. Ernest Burke, a Negro League pitcher, is to gain primary knowledge of this generation of athletes who, despite being forced to play on segregated fields, were determined to exhibit their talent, courage and passion to play the game of baseball. TABLE OF CONTENTS


Ernest Burke was born in 1924 in a small town called Harve de Grace, Maryland. As the son of the only black family in town, he played with the French Canadian children in his neighborhood. Mr. Burke never knew his father. His mother died when he was ten years old. He dug his mother's grave and attended her funeral in clothes that a white family loaned him. As an orphan, Mr. Burke struggled to survive on rotten bananas and hard bread. Later, a French Canadian family took him to Canada and raised him. From the mid 1930's through 1942, this family loved and nurtured him. He attended school in Canada through the seventh grade. Mr. Burke returned to the United States to enlist in World War II in 1942. As one of the Corps' first black Marines, he fought in Guam in the Pacific. He earned a medal as a Sharp Shooter and his discharge papers noted his "excellent character." It was during his time in the Marines at Montford Point, North Carolina, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands that Mr. Burke first experienced insults, racial slurs and discrimination. During his last six months as a Marine, Mr. Burke first played the game of baseball. He was a hard-throwing, accurate pitcher. During a baseball game in 1946, Johnny Rigney, a Seabee and former White Sox pitcher, encouraged Mr. Burke to join the Negro League. Mr. Burke played for the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1946 to 1949 and earned a 4-1 record in his last

year in Baltimore. After leaving Baltimore, Mr. Burke played minor league baseball as an outfielder and third baseman for Pough-Kingston in the Western League and St. Jean in the Canadian Province League. At 6 feet 1 inch, 180 pounds, Mr. Burke posted a 15-3 pitching record in 1950. He continued to play ball until 1956. He played with and against some of the greatest Negro League players like Henry Kimbro, Jim Giliam, Pee Wee Butts, Joe Black, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby and Montie Irvin. After his baseball career, Mr. Burke played semi-pro football as a fullback. He worked for twenty years as a heavy equipment tester for Henry J. Knott Construction Co. in Baltimore. After he retired in 1986, he became a tennis pro. Because of a leg injury, he stopped playing and teaching tennis in 2000. Mr. Burke was married for a short time after his career in the Marines. Although he had no biological children, he raised three children. He remarried in 1999. Mr. Burke and his wife, Sandy, enjoyed maintaining Mr. Burke's voluminous memorabilia collection at their home in Pikesville, Maryland. He spent his retirement speaking at many schools and community organizations about the Negro Leagues and his life experience. The Smithsonian Institute, Baltimore City Council, 41st Marine Corps, Senior Olympics and other political and civic organizations have honored him. Mr. Burke died from cancer surgery complications on January 31, 2004.


HISTORICAL CONTEXTUALIZATION Professional Black Baseball in Segregated America
“Play Ball!” Today, all Americans can relate to these words as they signify that a baseball game is about to begin. People all over the world love and play baseball, America’s national pastime. This game is passed down from father to son and generation to generation. Baseball history is rich with stories of legendary folklore, feats of individual physical athleticism, and amazing team accomplishments. Baseball creates a special bond between all ages, all social classes, and all ethnic groups. Today, this sport creates, “a level playing field of dreams” (Riley xix) for any athlete with the passion and skill to play this game. Unfortunately, for many decades, the playing field was not accessible to thousands of skilled players. Baseball history has neglected and ignored the stories of the players who played in the Negro Leagues from the late 1880's to early 1950's. These talented baseball players did not play in recognized leagues, never earned the big money, were rarely discussed in the sports pages, and endured humiliating segregated playing and living conditions. By exploring their history, the national pastime can recover its “lost soul” (Riley xix). To have a complete understanding of baseball sports history, it is necessary to understand the unique style and flavor of a generation of talented, courageous, and determined men who spent extraordinary careers in the "shadows" of the world of black baseball during the era of American segregation. The passion and determination of these men not only changed baseball but also changed America. Historical texts trace racism and black injustices all the way back to 1619 when the first slave ship from Africa arrived in Jamestown, Virginia with twenty “black indentured servants” (Franklin 65). As the thirteen colonies emerged and gradually gained their independence from Great Britain, they continued to statutorily recognize slavery. Slavery lasted until December 1865 when Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery (Franklin 244). However, during the next thirty years, during the Reconstruction Period, white Americans continued to treat and think of blacks as an inferior race while creating new forms of

slavery. The Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, lynchings, the KKK, and the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, that upheld segregation by stating that blacks were entitled to “separate but equal” treatment, continued to enslave blacks (Franklin 248-290). Northern and southern politicians entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” that began with the Compromise of 1877 and lasted until the late 1930's. This political agreement ensured “white solidarity on the issue of race” and abandoned civil rights for blacks (Tafari 1). While the twentieth century began with “214 lynchings in the first two years” and racial tension was high (Franklin 291), many prominent black figures emerged such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, and Marcus Garvey. Each of these leaders used radically different techniques from angry protests to poetic dissertations on racism and segregation. Most "did not seek to subvert American constitutional government ... not so much revolting as they were protesting the unjust operation of the system" (Franklin 403). They were aware of the social problems and wanted to make changes to gain equal opportunity and respect. World War I and the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities energized blacks. Confident and impatient, blacks came together politically, artistically and socially during the period from 19201930 that included the Harlem Renaissance. This cultural and political renaissance unleashed the great talents that blacks possessed. Black artisans produced great works of art, literature, and music that both white and black audiences valued. These black artisans refused to let racism and discrimination deter them from leading productive lives (Franklin 401-417). After WWII (19391945), many blacks began to question why they were fighting for a country promoting equality and democracy while they experienced lynchings, riots, and discrimination. Finally, in 1954, the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, overturned the “separate but equal” decision, and blacks began to gain political and educational equality (Franklin 453). During the period 1954 through the 1960's, numerous events and people spurred on the Civil Rights movement, and blacks continued their struggle for social, political, and economic equality. Although racism exists today, blacks have made progress and have gained respect through their political, economic, scientific, athletic, and artistic contributions. The lives of blacks who played

baseball in the segregated Negro Leagues during 1880's through 1950's reflect the bitter experiences, self-sacrifice and human progress that blacks experienced in many parts of American life. The game of baseball emerged before the Civil War (1861-1865). In 1842, Alexander Cartwright met with a group of individuals regularly, and they began to play baseball in Hoboken, New Jersey. Three years later, they formed a social baseball club, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. Cartwright was instrumental in creating baseball rules for club ball (Baseball: Invention 1). Although in the early 1900s, a national baseball panel recognized Abner Doubleday as baseball's creator, historians at the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York stated that Cartwright's rules were the true beginning of organized baseball (Helgesen 1). During the Civil War, both Northern and Southern armies enjoyed playing the game. After the war ended, the game spread and started to become a “civilian pastime” (LaBlanc 521). Many newly freed blacks also enjoyed the game and began forming all-black teams in northern cities such as Brooklyn and Philadelphia. In 1867, members from these all-black teams sent representatives to meetings with the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), an organization of over three hundred teams. However, the NABBP voted unanimously not to allow any “colored” players to play (LaBlanc 521). In 1876, when Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert formed the new National League, the rule of not having “colored” players applied. This was not a written rule, but another “gentleman’s agreement” (LaBlanc 521). In 1882, the American Baseball Association began, and a few talented black ball players were allowed to play. John W. “Bud” Fowler, Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker, and his brother Weldy Walker were among the first professional black ball players. However, in 1887, white player/manager Cap Anson refused to play against Moses Walker. Anson’s refusal solidified the segregation forces growing in professional baseball that mirrored everyday America. The following year, team owners entered into another “gentleman’s agreement” that totally excluded blacks from playing baseball (LaBlanc 522). Nine years before the 1896 Supreme Court decision of “separate but equal” took place, baseball had already created a

separate but unequal playing field. This agreement lasted for fifty-eight years until October 23, 1945 when Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey, signed Jackie Robinson to a professional contract. Since team owners banned most black ball players from playing in the major leagues before 1887, these black players formed their own teams. In 1885, blacks formed their first team, the Cuban Giants (LaBlanc 526). This concept spread rapidly. The teams usually located near a Midwestern or Eastern city that had a white team playing because there was already a large baseball fan base. In the early 1900's, black teams operated as independent ball clubs and played series against each other as well as against white semi-pro teams (Riley xvii). These “short-lived” ventures moved from one ball club to another, leasing any parks they could, and having little respect for contracts. These teams survived by barnstorming. A team barnstormed when it bounced from city to city to play exhibition games against black, white, or semi-pro teams, (like basketball's Harlem Globetrotters today) in order to make some money (McKissack 152). While most black teams continued to barnstorm, Andrew “Rube” Foster created the Negro National League in 1920. Rube Foster was a great pitcher during the early 1900's for the Chicago American Giants. He was nicknamed Rube after out-pitching a future Hall of Famer named Rube Waddell of the white Philadelphia Athletics. Honus Wagner, described by critics as the best, white second basemen, stated that Rube Foster was one of the greatest pitchers he had ever seen (LaBlanc 528). At the end of his career, Rube Foster proposed bringing one all-black team to both the white American and National Leagues. After they turned down his proposition in 1919, he created the Negro National League that thrived during the “Golden Age” of black baseball (LaBlanc 523). The new Negro National teams played in the Midwest. These teams included the Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Dayton Macros, Cincinnati Cuban Starts, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC’s, Kansas City Monarchs, and St Louis Giants. Two eastern teams called the Atlantic City Giants and the Hilldale Giants also played at this time (LaBlanc 523). Many black teams used Giant as part of their name as a code for black. Whites enjoyed watching these black teams, but newspapers during this time refused to print photos of

black players or acknowledge them. The only way whites knew that a black team was coming to their town was by seeing “Giant” in the visiting team name (O’Neil 41). Three years later, another Negro league emerged. The Eastern Colored League was organized in 1923 and enjoyed success for five years until it fell apart due to financial difficulties in 1928 (McKissack 68). The Eastern Colored League consisted of the two eastern city teams from the National Negro League as well as the Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Lincoln Giants, and Cuban Stars. During 1924-1927, the two leagues played four World Series. The next year players developed another league, the American Negro League. However, after one season, the American Negro League fell apart and the east coast teams became independent (Riley xviii). During the "Roaring Twenties" and the Harlem Renaissance, many exciting players and teams graced the fields of the Negro Leagues. In the inaugural Negro League World Series match-up, the Negro National League Kansas City Monarchs faced the Eastern League Hilldale Club. The Kansas City Monarchs won the first championship in a terrific and grueling series. Large, boisterous crowds filled the stands to watch these games. While Babe Ruth and other white athletes were making headlines in the newspaper, this World Series showcased the best black talent to the rest of the nation (McKissack 52-53). During the 1920's, many Negro League stars were born. One of the most famous was Hall of Famer James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell. He played for over twenty years, including during the 1940's, but his prime years were during the twenties. Some sports historians say that he was the fastest ballplayer to ever steal a base. Olympic gold medallist Jesse Owens refused to race Cool Papa because of his great speed (McKissack 156). Satchel Paige, a famous Negro and Major League pitcher, said Bell could, “pull the light switch and run across the room, hop in bed, and cover up before the light went out” (qtd. in McKissack 63). James Bell got his nickname, Cool Papa, because of his cool composure on the pitching mound. His manager, Bill Gatewood, added the “Papa” (McKissack 63). Although “Cool Papa” lacked power, he certainly made up for it with his speed. He turned outs into singles and turned singles into doubles and triples.

Players and fans who watched him play say that his feet never touched the ground (McKissack 64). Two other famous Negro League stars who played during the 1920's were Oscar Charleston and Martin Dihigo. Oscar Charleston, born in 1896, grew up in a rough neighborhood in Indianapolis where he and his brother would have to fight their way daily to and from school. His brother became a boxer. Charleston joined the army at fifteen and excelled while playing baseball for his regiment. Charleston played for both the Indianapolis ABC’s and the Hilldale Club in the Eastern Negro League. He was a prolific hitter, good fielder, fast runner, and a fearless man, “fearless enough to snatch the hood off a Ku Klux Klansman” (qtd. in McKissack 60). Sports historians compare him to the legendary Ty Cobb because of his great hitting ability (McKissack 62). Another outstanding player during the twenties was Martin Dihigo. He was born in Cuba. He came to the United States hoping to play in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, because his skin was too dark, major league clubs refused to offer him a contract. Dihigo played in the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans and had an illustrious career. He could pitch, field, and bat very well and managed a team in his later years. Dihigo could “play with the best of them,” said Satchel Paige, who played against him in numerous AllStar games. Dihigo, the only Cuban in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was also honored in halls of fame in Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela. Many critics consider him one of the best players in the history of the game (Jamail 14-15). Just as great teams and stars were surfacing in the Negro Leagues, the Great Depression hit in 1929. This depression created “chaotic conditions” for many black teams and leagues (Riley xviii). During the years 1929-1933, many teams dissolved, and players relocated to different cities. The teams that stayed around had to either barnstorm or return to “clowning routines” (McKissack 70). These types of teams disbanded the rules of baseball in order to perform as entertainers. They would perform pantomime acts such as pitching behind their back or playing baseball with an invisible ball, known as shadow ball. Some of the clowning teams included the Tennessee Rats, the Ethiopians, and the Zulu Cannibals. All three of these clubs

were successful during the depression, however many people criticized these clown teams. Wendell Smith, a sportswriter, said that they “reinforce black stereotypes” of blacks being minstrel characters and clowns and not as smart as the white man. Although clown teams played imaginary shadow ball, they made money and were essential to the Negro League’s survival during the Great Depression (McKissack 70). Gus Greenlee was a bright spot during the Great Depression. In 1932, he developed a Negro team in Pittsburgh, called the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Fortunately, Greenlee purchased his own park so his team would not have to barnstorm or rent. After a dismal 1932 season, Greenlee stayed positive and reorganized the Negro National League that survived for fifteen years. The Negro National League prospered under Greenlee who controlled the entire league. In 1937 H.G. Hall, a club owner in the south and Midwest, created the Negro American League (McKissack 75). These two leagues survived together for eleven years while holding eleven AllStar Games and eight World Series. New stars began to emerge from these leagues such as the prolific hitter, Josh Gibson, great hitter, Buck Leonard, and unsurpassed pitcher, Satchel Paige. Josh Gibson was the black Babe Ruth and baseball statisticians estimate his career homerooms between 800 and 950 (Gibson 1 and Gibson Hall of Fame Statistics 1). Although he played more games in a season than Ruth, he played in a ballpark with dimensions of four-hundred and seven feet down the left field line, approximately eighty feet longer than most Major League parks, and four-hundred and twenty-seven feet to centerfield, twenty feet longer than Major League parks. Baseball writer John Holway said that if Babe Ruth had played home games where Gibson played he would have probably hit about four hundred home runs, instead of seven-hundred and fourteen (McKissack 92). Players such as Gibson, and teams such as the Pittsburgh Crawfords, allowed the Negro Leagues to grow and prosper. Thousands of white and black fans attended games, and over 51,000 fans came to the 1943 Negro All-Star game (LaBlanc 535). The 1930s and 1940s were the "Golden Age" of Negro League Baseball. Despite racism and segregation in America, black

baseball gained acceptance among whites because of the quality of the play. In the 1940s, the Negro Leagues grew to a two million dollar per year business making the League one of the most lucrative black businesses in America. Financially, the Negro League was the third most successful black business enterprise behind insurance and cosmetics (Falkoff 1-4). Negro Leagues historian Bob Kendrick stated, "This was a big business structure. It 's important to understand that Negro Leagues baseball was nothing like Hollywood portrayed it ... as some type of vagabond league. It was a thriving business enterprise, the third-largest black-owned business in the country" (qtd. in Falkoff 1). During the forty-year period, six separate leagues fielded over 80 teams of 4,000 players (Falkoff 1). Although the Negro Leagues were growing and showcasing incredible talent, the players and coaches suffered discrimination, especially in the south. Everywhere players went, hotels, restaurants, bathrooms, or water fountains, they came across humiliating signs such as “No Coloreds Allowed” or “Whites Only” (McKissack 97). Negro teams were forced to barnstorm and move from city to city playing as much as possible to survive. Their travel conditions were deplorable. They were forced to eat cold sandwiches, live in crummy hotels, and sleep on the buses or in the ballpark. They had to get up the next morning, get on a bus, and travel to another city to play ball. Although these conditions were horrible, players reminisce about their playing days in both humorous and angry tones. Buck O'Neil was one player who refused to be negative. He said that life on the road was not all bad as the south had great black restaurants, and black colleges treated them well (O'Neil 200). Throughout it all, they took incredible pride in what they did (McKissack 98). The successful Negro Leagues, the showcase for black talent, led the way for integration of the Major Leagues. After WWII, many owners and coaches could clearly see that these confident, proud, patient and talented black ball players should play in the Major Leagues. In the spring of 1945, both the Dodgers and Red Sox held tryouts for black players, however neither team signed a black player. While recognizing the talent, the owners lacked motivation to sign black contracts. They voiced several concerns: backlash from the white fans, non acceptance of

a black by fellow teammates and opposing teams, loss of rental revenue from Negro teams who could fail without their best players, and embarrassment for the black player in dealing with transportation and accommodations (Rickey 1-7). Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers believed he could not live with himself or "face his God" if he did not try to integrate baseball (Rickey 1-7). Rickey also had financial motivation for signing a black player. First, his Brooklyn team did not receive the lucrative rental income of $100,000 per year that the New York Yankees received. Second, Rickey's Dodger team was not profitable, and he needed exciting, cheap players. He recognized the talent in the Negro Leagues. "The greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game is the black race. The Negroes will make us winners for years to come. And for that I will happily bear being called a bleeding heart and a do-gooder and all that humanitarian rot" (qtd. in Goldman 1-3). Rickey searched for a player that could not only play baseball extremely well but also be a smart, educated man who could handle the racial slurs and insults that he would face each night. Rickey’s choice was Jackie Robinson, a US army veteran who was educated at UCLA (LaBlanc 538). Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a contract in October 1945 that caused controversy throughout the country. Most Major League authorities were upset with the signing of a black player and predicted that he would fail. Racist whites, especially the KKK, were infuriated. The Negro League owners also were upset and nervous that they would lose other black players and their teams would eventually disband. However, some people were thrilled by this contract, including the president of the Negro Leagues, J.B. Martin. He wrote a letter to Branch Rickey, printed on October 26, 1945 in the New York Times. “I take great pleasure on congratulating you for your moral courage in making the initial step which will give Negro ball players a change to participate in the Major Leagues. I feel that I speak the sentiments of fifteen million Negroes in America who are with you 100 per cent and will always remember the date of this great event” (22). Jackie Robinson’s contract was an enormous milestone for integration in America.

Jackie Robinson paved the way for black athletes to play Major League baseball. Negro Leagues historian Bob Kendrick stated that Jackie Robinson's contract led to "the ultimate socialization of America. We believe that was the beginning of the modern-day Civil Rights movement in our country. When you put it all together, you have a story that is actually bigger than the game of baseball itself" (qtd. in Falkoff 2). While historians clearly debate which event started the Civil Rights movement, it is clear that Robinson opened the door for integration in other sports. In 1949, the NFL drafted an African-American. In the 1950's, the NBA and tennis teams integrated. Hockey integrated in 1958. By the 1960's, blacks achieved significant praise and publicity and used their status to speak out against racial prejudice in the United States and the international sports community (Franklin 598-601). Robinson's contract also signaled the end of the Negro Leagues. McKissack describes the devastating impact of Robinson' contract on the future of the Negro Leagues. "Black baseball survived the lack of money, the death of Rube Foster, two World Wars, a gasoline crunch, player wars, and racism. But the league could not survive the major league raids that followed Robinson’s success” (142). The Newark Eagles attendance dropped greatly because they lost three players. Don Newcome, Larry Doby, and Monte Irvin joined the white Major Leagues. Other teams such as the Birmingham Black Barons, Baltimore Elite Giants, and Kansas City Monarchs all lost great players to the Major Leagues as well. However, some Negro League owners and officials tried to stop the “raiding” of their players. Wendell Smith, a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote on May 3, 1947: It is more important now we support Negro baseball than ever before. For it was that orphan of a diamond that produced (Jackie) Robinson and it has produced many other who didn’t get the break that Rickey gave Jackie...Owners of the Negro teams deserve consideration, too...they made big investments and are risking a good bag of dough each season. (Smith 1) Although the Negro League owners attempted to bring back interest and stop the raiding of players, they failed because fans flocked to see Negro players play in the Major Leagues and

finally achieve equality on the baseball diamond. The Negro League Baseball Players Association research shows that fifty-seven Negro League players eventually played in the white Major Leagues and eighteen players are in the Hall of Fame (Negro League Players1-4). The last Negro League World Series occurred in 1949 between the Homestead Grays and the Birmingham Black Barons. By 1949, only the Negro American League remained, however, their attendance was very poor. Over the next few years, all Negro teams become bankrupt and disappeared. In order to bring fans to the games, they continued to perform crazy stunts, including allowing woman to play. The only Negro team that lasted until the 1960's was the Indianapolis Clowns (McKissack 150). Many Negro players lost their jobs. Baseball lost great players whose accomplishments and statistics remain unrecognized. Although stars like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron shone in the Major Leagues and are household names today, many black ball players never had the chance to play Major League ball and remain unknown to baseball fans. Stars like Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson were past their prime by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. No one will ever know how many of those men and others might have made the Major Leagues if professional baseball had not drawn a cruel color line from 1887-1946. Inducting Negro League players into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame was one way to help reverse this mistake. It took until 1971 for Major League Baseball to select LeRoy Satchel Paige for the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, baseball decided to continue the segregation by placing Paige in a segregated wing in the Hall since he did not play in the Major Leagues. Paige, 65 at the time had played for forty years and had pitched against the best white players in exhibition games during his lifetime. He refused to be bitter. Soon after this event, MLB revoked the separate but equal plan and inducted Paige into the Hall of Fame (Paige 290-293). Although MLB has inducted a number of Negro League players into the Hall of Fame, many are still unrecognized. Furthermore, certain critics continue to believe that white Major League ball was far superior to black Negro League ball. Those critics disregard the fact that Negro League teams

won 309 out of 438 off-season exhibition games. Available statistics show that the black teams won sixty-five to seventy percent of the games they played against white teams (Gibson 1). During the 1950's, black players won a disproportionate number of outstanding player awards (Ruck 5). Buck O'Neil believed that black teams won because of their determination to prove that black baseball players were as good or better than white players (O'Neil 225-228). However, because of the differences in the number of games, field conditions, inconsistent caliber of competition, and limited Negro League statistics, history does not give a clear answer (Frequently Asked Questions 17). As many Negro League veterans leave this field of dreams, their stories leave with them. Much of their history lives in their memories and in the memories of those who watched them play. Their story is a chapter in American history full of struggle, survival, success, and glory. While these black players experienced the humiliation of segregation, many were simply glad for the opportunity to play ball. As Buck O'Neil states, "Don't waste no tears for me. I wasn't born too early. I was born right on time. Come on. Let's play ball" (qtd. in O'Neil 3). Fortunately, in 1991, a group of players established the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Cooperstown's Hall of Fame has a section dedicated to the Negro Leagues. Other black players are determined to preserve this history in other areas of the country such as the recently proposed Negro League Legends Hall of Fame in Northeast Washington. Through these museums, black children and white children will learn that Willie Mays was not the first or greatest black baseball player, and the world will learn about the men who played an important role in integrating America's national past time.


Interviewee: Ernest Burke Interviewer: M. Bryan Date: December 20, 2003 Location: Mr. Burke’s home Pikesville, Maryland M. Bryan: I would like to start the interview by asking you your full name? 47,46,48,

Ernest Burke: My name is Ernest Burke, and I played for the Baltimore Elite Giants

and I knew Joe Black [pitcher who played for Dodgers], Campanella [Roy Campanella, catcher for Dodgers, MVP 1951,1953,1955], we all played together. MB: EB: Where were you born and when? I was born in a little town called Perryville, Maryland on 6-26-24. [Mr. Burke's obituary, Feb. 5, 2004, stated actual birthplace as Havre de Grace, Maryland.] MB: I also read that you lived in Canada. Were there any differences between growing up in Canada and Maryland? EB: It’s a difference of night and day, growing up in Canada, well, I never had too much trouble in discrimination because I was born in a little town called Perryville, Maryland, and we were the only black family that lived in the little town. We also had a little area that French Canadians lived in, and we all got along like two peas in a pod (chuckles) you know we ate off ice cream bowls together, and we slept and ate together and everything, really I didn’t know too much about discrimination. Then my mother died (pause), and I was pretty well on my own, I had an older sister and brother, but they really didn’t do anything for me so when the French Canadians went back to Canada, they racked me up and took me back to Canada with them, and that’s where I stayed till I came, when the second World War broke out, and I came back and volunteered for the Marine Corps. MB: Did your family ever talk about segregation or politics?


Well, I found about segregation, really it hit me on the head, when I entered into the Marine Corps. I was in Montford Point [now part of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Marine training camp], and I never had anyone call me a nigger and black and run me, and I was used to sittin' wherever I wanted to sit but down there you were always discriminated against, and when you got on the bus you had to sit from the center of the bus to the back, you could not sit from the center forward since that’s for whites only and that’s on the training base where we were getting ready to fight for this country, and we still discriminated like that. We weren’t allowed out of area, not unless we had a white instructor to go with us to another part of the camp and it was really bad.


Since you grew up in the 1930’s, what was your family's experience during the depression?


Well, I just grew up in the time of the depression, I wasn’t that old but I still remember it, and I know things were really rough because I know a lot of people committed suicide because the banks went down, they lost everything, the stocks went down, they lost all their stocks, lost their homes and they were committing suicide left and right. It was a really rough time and I know (pause) the state started givin' out canned food and corn meal, and stuff like that, to everybody, white or black didn’t make no difference what it was, because times were hard. That’s what I can't understand about whites now, I mean you go through these things together and no sooner than things get better then goes it back to the same old way it was before with the hate and so on and so forth that I could never understand, could never understand, why it would happen that way. Same way when I was in the Marine Corps on the battle field, we died together, we bled together, and no sooner we came back to Pearl Harbor, we were discriminated. We wasn’t good

enough to stay with the white boys, and the white boys was too good to stay with us, but on the battlefield was all together with them. MB: EB: What games did you play as a child, did you play baseball? Well, when I went to Canada I was a great skier, I skied a lot. That’s about the only thing I did. But, I also remember as a kid in Perryville, before my mother died, swimming a lot, making a sled that we all played on, and doing other fun things. MB: EB: Do you still ski today? Well, I used to ski, but when I hurt my leg in 1998, it stopped me from skiing. I was a tennis pro here and I pulled a muscle in my leg (points to thigh) in the thigh and by 2000, it stopped me. For more than two year after the injury, I just kept trying to play through the pain, even though it was unbearable. During that time, I was still teaching eight hours a day, six days a week. Now, I can't run, and it has stopped me from doing a lot of sports that I was used to doing. I was so damn depressed, I was, I don’t know, about ready to give up everything, because I have been an athlete all my life, I played semi-pro football, played baseball, I just did a little bit of everything, and then when this thing happened it pulled a rug up from under me that’s kinda hard. MB: EB: What childhood memory is most vivid to you? It was great when the French Canadians took me to Canada because I remember many a day between the time my mother died and the French Canadian family took me to Canada when I was totally on my own, scrambling for myself. During those times, I ate hard bread, it was so hard that you had to put water on it to soften it to eat it, and I have eaten rotten bananas and taken and made a banana sandwich and things of that sort. When I went back to Canada, when they take me to Canada I seen jelly and butter sitting on the

table and bread, you, just something new, something so overwhelmed, I could go to the table get jelly, butter and make a sandwich, like everyone else it was just something I wasn’t used to, because I was living by myself. I think I was about ten years old when my mother died, so after she died I was pretty well on my own. And you know I’ll tell you this too because it’s very hurting. You know, when my mother died, me and two other boys, a friend of mine, we dug the grave for my mother and after the funeral was over, we covered her up. (pause) So you know, I didn’t have any clothes and this white lad that I used to go around with, his mother got me one of his suits that fit me, shoes, tie, and a shirt. I went to church, went to the funeral, and was dressed presentable. In other words, I didn’t have anything, I would have went there with raggedy pants and so on and so forth, that’s one reason why I say people has been good to me. People has been good to me and a lot of kids right now, when I go to schools and give lectures, they ask me, "As many things as you’ve been through, the hard things that you’ve been through, how can you be so nice, and treat people so good?" I said, "You’ve never know what I have been through, when I was in the Marine Corps, I was treated so bad. A dog wouldn’t be treated as bad as I was, that taught me how to treat people, and made a man out of me, it made me respect people, it gave me honor, I put myself on a pedestal and no one is going to bring me down." MB: EB: MB: EB: MB: You were living in Canada and then you decided to join the Marine Corps? Yea, that’s when the Second World War broke out. Did you volunteer to join the Marine Corps? Yes. When and were did you fight?

EB: MB: EB:

In the Pacific. Any specific battles? I was in a couple of battles, (pause) and that’s another thing. I joined the Marine Corps for my country, I joined it to fight, and just like I said before it was so discriminated and different things like that, and I, something hit me in my head one day, we were down on Guam and we were down there fighting and our lieutenant general came up there and said, “What these niggers doing up here” just like that, and said, “Get them out of here, get them in the back line, bring ammo up” or, and that’s when something hit me, you know I joined the Marine Corps to fight for my country and if they're stupid enough to send me in the back to send the ammunition up for all the white boys to get killed, more power to me because I don’t have to be duckin' them bullets. They have to be up there duckin' them bullets. So that changed the whole (pause) thing of my life of the Marine Corps because I did the things I was supposed to do and that’s how I got along and its quite (pause) hard when you doing something for your country and people mistreat you, its kinda a hard pill to swallow. I could have stayed in Canada and joined the Royal Army up there. But, I decided to come back home and fight for my country.


If you would have stayed in Canada and fought for the Royal Army do think you would have experienced any discrimination there?


No, No, No way, No way. After you got out of the service what jobs did you do? Well, after I got out of the service in 46, I joined the Baltimore Elite Giants. See here’s another thing, we're getting a little ahead of it, I never played baseball till the last six months I was in the Marine Corps. I never played ball before in my life. I picked it up in

the Marine Corps. They needed a pitcher, and I could throw hard, and had control, and that’s what I did, I was a pitcher. So I played against this guy named Johnny Rigney, he used to pitch for the White Sox, he’s old, dead probably now, he was in the Seabees ["CB" Construction Battalion of the U.S. Navy, composed of skilled men and women who could build as well as fight], and he said, "Ernest as good as you can play, you should play in the Negro Leagues." Well, by me growing up in Canada, I didn’t know a damn thing about the Negro Leagues. I didn’t know anything and explained it to him, and he turned around and said, "There’s a Negro League because they cannot play in the Majors on account of the color of their skin." So when I came home, I lived in Harve de Grace [Maryland] for a couple of months, and they had a little scrub team around there where I used to play, and we came to Baltimore at Bugle Field where the Elite Giants played, and we played the team from Baltimore there and I was playing right field and I caught a fly ball and threw it to second base and knocked the second basemen’s glove off. So the next day the Baltimore Elite Giants are up there signing me for a contract. MB: EB: Wow. That’s a great story! Yea, and then I went to spring training and I didn’t stay on the farm team I came straight up to Baltimore on the big team. MB: EB: MB: EB: So they had black minor league teams, too? Oh yea. How many divisions did they have? They had twelve (thinking), about twenty-four I imagine, because I didn’t pay to much attention because I just came out of the service, all the while, fighting one half the time

and everything, I just never paid any attention to it, I had a job and just did it, and that was it. Our farm team was at Nashville, Tennessee, where we spring trained at. MB: EB: When you were playing baseball in the service did you experience any discrimination? Yeah. I was discriminated against. As a matter of fact we had two white lieutenants that played on our team, and that’s the only thing, (chuckles) I don’t think they were good enough to play on any other team so they played on our team. They were pretty nice, you know, but they had their ways you know, they had their ways, they were pretty good, they were still officers, and a certain amount of respect you had to give them. MB: EB: MB: EB: MB: What years did you play for the Baltimore Elite Giants? From 1946 to 49. What positions did you play? I pitched I was doing research and came across that you were a much better road than home pitcher, is that true? EB: See I was a road pitcher, anytime we went away I pitched. See we had starters who had been with the team so long and were good so they usually pitched at home, they pitched on the road to, but usually when we were home, they had those guys pitch. Like the guy in the middle (points to framed picture on his wall of three pitchers for the Baltimore Elite Giants, Ernest is on the left) his name is Bob Rumby, he’s a left hand pitcher and the guy on the right he was “Applegate” (burped) he was from down in Florida, he was good, and of course that was me on the left. And that was taken in (thinking) Nashville, Tennessee. The park was named Sulphur Dell.


Could you go through a season in the Negro Leagues, like what was your game and practice schedule like and how long was your season?


Well, the season was about (thinking) six months. It's the same, everything was the same as the Majors, same identical thing. We also had an East and West game like the Major Leagues have an All-Star game, but we called it the East and West game. It was in Chicago, and we had good players, I mean players that you could never dream that they could play ball they could play in any Major League, the same way Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson. I mean Jackie Robinson wasn’t the best ballplayer in the Negro Leagues. We had baseball players that he couldn’t even carry their socks. I mean they hired Jackie because he was a college graduate, a three-letter man, he had been a lieutenant in the army, and he knew how to handle things. So, when Branch Rickey signed him up, he told him the things he had to do, and if he didn’t do them then there wouldn’t be any blacks in the Majors. And I understand that Branch Rickey called him every name in the book, he was at the desk getting ready to sign up and to see how his temper would be.


It seemed that the Negro Leagues jumped from ballpark to ballpark, did you have a favorite one?


Well, I didn’t really have a (thinking) a good ballpark to play. I mean we played at Yankee Stadium, Polo Grounds, we played at Brooklyn Stadium, Cleveland, all the Major League ballparks we had played at. So it was a lot different from our ballpark, our ballpark was good, but it was just the grass, the infield was so nice, but that’s what made us so good we could play on fields like that and catch the ball and hit balls and hit homeruns, and when we got up there it was like playing on a carpet.

MB: EB:

Did you play against any all white teams in exhibition games? Yes, sometimes we played against little towns, and we had to lose to get out of town, and sometimes we play in towns where they wouldn’t let us in the dressing room and we would have to go behind the billboard or dress on the bus and different things like that. And then we would have to lose to get out of town. And another thing is that we couldn’t go into hotels, restaurants, all we could do is travel down south and some places up north is that we go into these corner stores and buy a baloney, or many a day I have taken a loaf of bread and can of baked beans and dig out the center of the bread, pour the baked beans in it and then take the inside and slop the juice up and squeeze it and eat it, with maybe an onion, since we only had two dollars a day for eatin' money, so we had to make it stretch, and things like that. And you know for all the names and hardships we went through when we got on the bus it seemed like everything just passed, when we got on the bus we start joking, laughing, and talking and say, “did you see how Burke didn’t hit that ball, (chuckles) yet its toot sticking out the window on the curveball or something and get everybody laughing and you know different things like that. You know we were just like one big happy family, all ball teams were, because what I went through the rest of them went through because we all played in the same circle, so you know it was pretty bad you go in the store two or three white people, maybe four white people, you couldn’t get waited on till they got waited on. Yet still your spending that money, your money is just as good as theirs, it's just the color of your skin, and when they wait on you they ask, “Boy, what do you want.” We had to tell them you know, and things of that sort. Sometimes we get a real light guy and you couldn’t tell him from white and we would get in the bus, drive away and we would see a restaurant along the road, and we pull down

the road about a half a mile, and he would get out and go back and order all these sandwiches for everybody, and then he come carrying them back down the road, get in the bus and go ahead, now he’s black, but he’s white (chuckles) he’s black, but he has features of white and they don’t know no damn difference. (laughing) MB: EB: MB: A lot of Negro League ballplayers had nicknames, did you have any? (chuckles) No, I didn’t have a nickname. I never went for nicknames. You said that you played with Joe Black and Roy Campanella, did you feel that you were good enough to play in the Major Leagues? EB: No. You know after I came out of Marine Corps, it gave me a different feeling inside, it gave me a different dialogue of looking at things you know and I always figure if you be at the right place at the right time you go, it makes no difference how good you are or how bad you are, if you're at the right place then go. And I had no bitterness against anybody that went to the Majors because if they went to the majors, if they come up and ask me if I could help them, I would help them. That just the type of person that I am. MB: EB: What was your career highlight playing the Negro Leagues? The highlight of playing in the Negro Leagues is being able to play Major League baseball, a professional baseball, I wouldn’t say Major League, professional baseball and getting paid for it. MB: EB: Was there some specific game that you remember the most? Yea. I remember like Larry Doby, Montie Irvin, and Montie Pearson, [both Larry Doby and Montie Irvin are in the baseball Hall of Fame because of the stats they had in the Major League. They spent only a few years in the Negro Leagues] and guys of that sort I pitched against them in Newark, that was their park, and I beat them 3-2. That was a

murders row. It was just like a bandbox. Down the right field fence, it was two hundred feet, and things like that, and I beat them and that’s one of my biggest career highlights. MB: EB: In 1949 the Baltimore Elite Giants won the Negro League title, what was that like? I think I left the middle of that year [1949] that’s when I got released and that’s when (thinking) Leon Day [premier Negro League pitcher compared by critics to Satchel Paige] came. The league was getting ready to bust up anyway. I think Lenny Pearson [player and manager of Elite Giants] and Leon Day came from Newark to Baltimore and I think I got my release because Leon Day was a hell of a much better pitcher than I was, and that’s where I think I got my release. I left there and went to Poughkeepsie, New York. I played in a team up there for a year, two years, then I went up to (thinking) the Canadian League for about three years I played up there. Then I came back home and didn’t do anything for a couple years. I worked at a hospital. A boy got a hold of me and went to Thetford Mines and that was a team in Canada, so I went up and won the pennant there, the championship, and then St. Johns we won the pennant two times there. And then at Thetford Mines, we won it up there one year. MB: Is there one specific event or incident that you remember as being the worst example of discrimination? EB: Well, as far as discrimination it was bad all the time, ugh, you didn’t have a good thing because when people are so damn ignorant to discriminate because of the color of their skin, its very bad with the person because they are ignorant. I know when they first started letting blacks into restaurants and hotels, I was down in Biloxi, Mississippi, we were playing ball down there. Me and my buddy went to a restaurant and sat there almost a half an hour, and they finally came and waited on us and we ate the food, I don’t know

what they put in it, but we ate it anyway. While we were paying the bill, we saw them literally break the dishes and cups and glasses that we ate out of, broke 'em up. MB: EB: Where would you sleep at night since most hotels were segregated? Well, when we were down south the owners, this must have went on for years and years and years down south, they had these houses, people had houses, and they rent rooms out, and then the owner of the ball teams would pay for the rooms, and that’s the way that was. People had houses and had extra rooms, it wasn’t on the contract but it worked that way, they housed all the baseball players. MB: While you were playing was there any ballplayer that influenced you or had an impact on your life? EB: Well, Bill Bird, he used to be my roommate, was a spit ball pitcher and he was very nice to me and he told me a lot of things to do and what I shouldn’t do and how to pitch to different hitters, and how every time you sit on the bench watch hitters hit and where they hit the ball, and what part of the plate they like to hit it on, I found that to be very helpful, very helpful. MB: EB: What was the atmosphere like during a Negro League Baseball game? Well, fans yelled just the same as the Major League, but it wasn’t the same music, maybe at the seventh inning they play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” See that’s what people get wrong about the Negro League, they think, or some of them think that the Negro League was a bunch of clowns, but they wasn’t, they were professional baseball players just like the Major Leagues. And you seen the material of the Negro League players when they went to the Majors, and I think and will say this as long as I live, that’s why they didn’t want the blacks in the Majors, because when they went to the Majors they

broke all records. That’s why I tell people Jackie Robinson take Negro League baseball to the Majors. Jackie Robinson when he was playing second base, when an infield fly ball was hit and he catch the ball and drop it, and then get a double play, and it went on so long that they changed the rules so that any time the ball is hit in the infield it's an automatic out, see Jackie Robinson changed that. When have you seen before Jackie Robinson went there, Christ you hit a single and stretch into a double, hit a double stretch it into a triple. Jackie Robinson stole home, when have you heard of the Major Leagues steal home, never heard it, see that’s Negro League baseball, its what you call “head up baseball.” “Head up.” MB: EB: MB: EB: Would white fans attend your games? Yes. Were they like any other fan, or were they discriminated against? No, no. (chuckles) I used to laugh at that, they were never discriminated, they paid their money to come to the ballpark and they sat anywhere they wanted to, but when we when went to the ballpark of a white team we always sat out in the band box somewhere, that’s why I never went to any Major League ball games, because why the hell would you make me pay my money and sit out in some band box. “Down South,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “Duel in the Sun,” back in those days, (laughing) you don’t remember those days, back in those days they were big movies, and you go to the front window, the white people would go to the front window and pay a dollar and a half, we couldn’t go in the front so we go in the back of the movie, go in, pay fifty cents, sit in the balcony and see the same god damn movie, the same movie! (chuckles) For fifty cents and they pay a dollar and a half.


Clown teams would do stunts and were not as professional as other Negro League teams, how did you feel about them?


Well, I didn’t have no feeling because we never played them that much, they maybe came to Baltimore once or twice a year, something like that, to put on a show, King Tut, guys sitting in a rockin' chair, there was tuxedos on, but people, fans would loved it, you would say the Indianapolis Clowns were coming to town, and Christ, we'd get seven or eight thousand people, but it was twice when the clowns come in because they know what’s going to happen, and then there was another team, outfit, that had donkeys, (chuckles) you had to hit a ball and go get the donkey and make him run to first and if he didn’t want to go then you wouldn’t go. (laughing) And you know the Negro League is the first ones to have portable lights to play at night.


Did you think baseball would ever integrate when you first started? No, no I really didn’t. Now (thinking) the guy who organized the Negro Leagues, I can never think of his name.


Rube Foster. Foster, Foster when he organized the Negro League, he had his heart and mind that the National League [white Major league] would take a black team and the American League [white Major league] would take a black team, that’s what he had in his mind, but it never happened that way. And I think if it had happened that way the two black teams would play against each other every year, I do.


How did you feel about Jackie Robinson? Because of his major league contract, the Negro Leagues eventually collapsed?


Well, you know when Jackie Robinson joined the Majors, or when Branch Rickey, I'll put it that way, when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, I was so damn happy, that I could have jumped up on this roof, because what I figured was that we had the material to play in the Majors, the only thing that kept us out was the color of our skin. He picked the right man to go into the Majors, I mean to go and play in Brooklyn, than anyone else. Josh Gibson [one of the greatest and most powerful Negro League hitters of all time] got sort of angry, but he was a hot head and he wouldn’t last up there [Majors] for more than two minutes. Somebody call him a nigger or run into him he’d pop him, POP 'em, and that would be the end of it. That’s what Branch Rickey didn’t want. So, I was happy that he picked Jackie Robinson, and I had a lot of people asking if there was any dislike or against Jackie Robinson going. I’ll put it this way, my parents always told me it makes no difference if you have a crate of apples there is always one or two bad ones in there, and if you don’t get that one or two bad apples out the whole damn crate will spoil, and that’s what I say about Negro League when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, there’s always one or two that think they should go, that Jackie shouldn’t go, but the ones that think they should go are the very ones who wouldn’t make it, with all the pressure of that sort.


Jackie Robinson was able to take the insults and racist remarks and not fight back, if you were in his shoes could you have done that?


Me, oh yea I could do it, if I was good enough, I think with my upbringing and being in the Marine Corps and learned what I learned, and had a goal to accomplish, I could do it, I know damn well I could do it.


Did you think that the Negro Leagues were as good or better than the white teams, since statistics show that black teams won sixty to seventy percent of the time?


Yea, that’s the All-Star games, and they used to play barnstorming and things like that, every year, Bob Feller [Hall of Fame Pitcher for the Indians] and a couple of others would pick up a team and get all the best white players. The way I understand it, it was over before I started, we would just pick up nine men maybe thirteen, fourteen men for extra pitchers and we still beat them sixty percent of the time, we played 'em, out of all the players, all the good players they could pick up, we still beat 'em, the commissioner stopped 'em from playing us because it was embarrassing.


For the presentation I’m doing, I was going to highlight some of the best Negro League players, who do you think were some of the best?


Well, (thinking) its been so long ago its kinda hard for me to think, Pee Wee Butts, he played shortstop for the Baltimore Elite Giants, Bill Bird he was a pitcher, I would say (thinking) Porter, he was a pitcher, and Bob Rumby, Henry Kimbro, he played center field, Lester Lockett, see none of these guys made the Majors, but these could make the Majors any damn day, any day, and that’s what I say, you have to be at the right place at the right time. Larry Doby, see Larry Doby went around with a chip on his shoulder till he died, see because he figured Jackie Robinson got much more publicity, he was the second, I figure this way what Jackie went through before Doby got there, he broke the ice for Doby, he went through a lot who struck John, Doby did, but he didn’t go through half as much as Jackie did, by being the first one. I remember when Jackie came to Baltimore, playing for Montreal, and I’ll tell you this town is a prejudice town, that’s why they have no good baseball teams, no good football teams because they were prejudice, I

mean they called Jackie everything under the son of God when he played for Montreal. I mean you come to these towns, he couldn’t stay with the ballplayers he had to come uptown to stay at the black hotel and all the black ballplayers that came here with white teams couldn’t stay downtown with the players, they had to come uptown to the York Hotel, which was a big hotel as far as blacks were concerned, because they had Cab Calloway [famous black band leader], Joe Louis [famous black boxer], Jesse Owens [famous black runner], they stayed at the hotel, so it was pretty ?sidity?, pretty ?sidity?, see I knew Joe Louis, I knew Jesse Owens, they were great people. MB: EB: How did you meet them? Well, Joe Louis was having breakfast there one morning and I walked over and spoke to him, and told him who I was and I played baseball in the Negro Leagues, and so he said, "Sit down," and I sat down and ordered breakfast and talked about different things, not boxing or anything, general conversation, and that’s the way I met him, I only met him that one time. And Jesse Owens, he used to come out with ball teams and run against players and that was the best thing, well, they would say Jesse Owens is coming with the Baltimore Elite Giants to run. Sometimes they would have a horse out there and a sixtyyard dash, and they give him twenty-five, thirty yards, and he would beat the damn horse to sixty yards, and things like that, and people would come, because it was a drawing card, very much so. The main thing I want to say about Jackie, I put Jackie on a pedestal so high that nobody can reach him, but what people forget is his wife, Rachel. Because she sit in those stands, with the little baby in her arms, and listen to all the name-callings, and all the threats, and then she be home, fixing his dinner, and licking his wounds, and say you can do it. The next day he get up and get through the same old shit again, and if

she had a broke that much (finger gesture) he would quit, because he was that close to his family. And I always say, it makes no difference where I am, if they're interviewing me about Jackie or someone else, I always throw Rachel in there, Mrs. Robinson, I always had to put her in there because she was a strong black woman, very strong, and we have a long, just like I always say, every man who has a goal there is always a woman behind him somewhere, always a woman behind, mother, sister, brother, always a woman behind him. MB: Do you think Major League baseball has done everything to recognize the Negro Leagues? EB: Well, they don’t give you any publicity, but when you get voted into the Hall of Fame, you're up there with the rest of them. But as far as I’m concerned the Major League has done nothing. I guess five years ago the Major league gave the Negro League, I don’t know how many thousand of dollars it was, and Joe Black, he was affiliated with the Majors and anybody who had two years from forty-six to forty-eight and two years prior to that, they were eligible for that money, so I told Joe, I called Joe up when I found out about it, I didn’t know anything about it but when I found out about I called Joe and asked why I wasn’t getting any money, I said. " I know damn well I played, because I played with you and Junior Gilliam." He said, "Well, your name wasn’t sent in." I said. "Who the hell is supposed to send my name in?" and he say, "Fields." That’s the president of the League, well, I’m on the board with Fields, I look at him every two months, I look him in the eye every two months, well, he said. "That’s what happened." I said, "I’m for the older guys who played in the twenties and thirties and things like that. They should get more money than I or other players who don’t have much time, but

everyone should get a piece of the pie, everybody should get something," So, he got smart and I just hung up the phone and just said the hell with it, and my wife says, “Don’t even worry about it, you lived before you got into it, so you live now.” Its one heck of a mess, it is one heck of a mess, and I have been talking to ballplayers [current Major League players], and I have even gotten to the point where I stop talking to them about giving one percent of their pay to the Negro League so the older people and the wise and blind in their ninety and hundred years old, if they give one percent of their pay to the Negro Leagues, they would be living like kings. Then I turn around and said to myself, "You know the way things go in the Negro Leagues, if the black Major Leaguers gave one percent of their pay who in the world would they give it to, so it be issued out properly, they got all this money and got it all screwed up. Now, if the Major League gave you money what’s going to happen to that?" (chuckles) MB: Do you agree with this quote by Buck O’Neil. “Don’t waste no tears for me, I wasn’t born too early, I was born right on time.” EB: I’ll agree with Buck O’Neil because he was in the right place at the right time, he played with the (thinking) Kansas City Monarchs, then he was a manager, then he was a scout for the Cubs. See that’s one of the things that he’s talking of himself, don’t no tears, because he was born right time, it wasn’t the idea of he was born the right time, it was that he got the breaks that no one else got. MB: EB: So does that quote apply to you at all? No, and you know another thing about Buck O’Neil? He goes around to all these Congressman to collect money and says what he does for the Negro Leagues. Hell, he does nothing for the Negro League, all he does is take care of the museum and few

ballplayers that live out there [Kansas City], but as far as the Negro League is concerned, he does nothing, nothing. MB: EB: What do you think is the legacy of the Negro Leagues? Well, I think is one is that it's one of the most powerful leagues in the country, because besides black insurance, the Negro Leagues was the second biggest black business moneymaker in the world. The insurance was first, and the Negro League came second. MB: EB: MB: EB: After you left the Baltimore Elite Giants, how long did you play in Canada? I played up there about I guess four or five years between different places. And then after baseball what jobs did you do? I came back to Baltimore, and I got a job driving a dump truck for Eastern Contractors and helped them build the tunnel, the old tunnel, and after that, well, I worked for them till I finished the tunnel, and then I got a job for Henry Knott, he was a construction outfit, and when I wasn’t working in the yard, and I used to fly around and test heavy equipment. You see these big earthmovers when you go along the road with big wheels, that what I use to operate on, and that’s what I used to do. Then after I retired at 62, I went to school to learn how to teach tennis. I went to all the great schools, Van der Meer, Stan Smith, [tennis pros] places like that, and they taught me how to teach tennis, so I became a tennis pro. So I taught tennis up till about four or five years ago till when I hurt my leg, so now I’m living off retirement and takin' it easy. MB: Hold on, let me just switch the tape. END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE; BEGIN SIDE TWO, TAPE ONE. MB: What inspired you to become a tennis pro?


Well, (chuckles) that’s really funny, some boys invited me to the tennis court one day, some friends of mine, and I used to ride a bicycle quite a bit, I had a ten speed bike that I used to ride all the time, (drinks from coke bottle) so I went over to the tennis court, I could always play tennis, but I never was, I never liked it, I just tried to hit the ball as hard as I could. They were playing doubles and they asked me to play, and I said, "Man I can't play tennis." They said, "Come on, come on." So I played, and the next week the same thing happened, damn this thing's easy, all you have to do is keep your eye on the ball and hit it. (laughing) I was working at Bear Hill Tennis Club, and there are some tennis pros over there, and they said you ought to go to camp and get your license and become a tennis pro. I thought you know that’s a pretty good deal. So, I went and got my certificate and was a tennis pro after that. I was sixty-five or sixty-three, something like that, and I’d be teaching these young kids, nineteen, twenty, they thought they were gung ho. They said, "Come on, Mr. Burke, let me play you a game." I said' "Are you sure?" They said, "Yeah." So we play a game and I’d kick their butt, (chuckles) and after I kicked their butt I’d say, "You let an old man beat you like that." (laughing) Then say, "How old are you? I’d tell 'em, and their face would get red. I used to have more fun out of those kids. I used to tear them up.


When did you marry your wife, and how many kids did you have? Well, I remarried in 1999 after being married once before for a short time after I got out of the Marine Corps. But, I got three kids, they're not mine, never adopted them, but kids I raised--step kids, or whatever you want to call them, but I raised them. The youngest one, right there (points to framed picture) Valerie, put twenty years in the Marine Corps, right after I did. That’s her over there with me. (points to another framed picture)

MB: EB:

Do you have any grandchildren? Yea, I got about seven grandkids. (chuckles) [Mr. Burke's obituary, Feb. 5, 2004, stated five grandchildren.]


The last question that I’m going to ask you is if you were to write a high school history textbook about the Negro Leagues, what would you say?


I would write up how the Negro Leagues played, the hardship they went through, and they played like champs, and they didn’t let anything get them down, they just wanted to play ball.


Thank you very much for doing this interview.


Many years before Jackie Robinson sprinted to second base as a Dodger, black baseball had a vibrant and exciting history. While Negro League baseball players were celebrated heroes throughout the black community, most white Americans were only vaguely aware of the "shadow world" of black baseball. The typical history textbook has little discussion about the Negro Leagues; in fact, David Kennedy's The Brief American Pageant fails to mention the Negro Leagues completely. A reader has to go to various websites, Negro League baseball texts or player biographies to learn the history. Although the Negro League industry was the third largest black owned business during its "Golden Age," (Falkoff 1) historians write little about its success and influence. Because mainstream history texts omit or understate the influence of the Negro Leagues, the oral history of the players is an important means of recording these memories. During the late 1880's through 1950, more than 4,000 black men played baseball in the segregated Negro Leagues (Riley 1). One of these players, Mr. Ernest Burke, pitched for the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1946-1949. He continued to play baseball in the minor leagues and in Canada until 1956. Mr. Burke played during the final years of segregated baseball, through the beginnings of integrated baseball, and the end of the Negro Leagues. The oral history of Mr. Ernest Burke's experience as a Negro League player is historically valuable because he can recount in detail the degrading humiliation of racism and segregation of the Jim Crow days of the Negro Leagues while telling remarkable stories about the skill, athleticism and contributions of black baseball players who just wanted to play ball. A primary source for historical study is the oral history interview with individuals who experienced specific historical events or lived during a particular time. Oral history expert Judith Moyer defines oral history as the "systematic collection of living people's testimony about their

own experiences ... everyday memories of everyday people, not just the rich and famous have historical importance" (1). By listening to the stories of average people, the reader can grasp how an individual can view historical events differently, hold opinions that dispute certain widely held beliefs in more traditional sources, and understand values that shape lives. Learning history through a personal interview is thought provoking and exciting. However, historian Linda Shopes cautions, "As with any source, historians must exercise critical judgment when using interviews--just because someone says something is true, however colorfully or convincingly ... doesn't mean it is true" (5-6). Oral historians, like those who write textbooks, can also bring bias to the facts as they choose the questions the interviewee answers. Historical texts preserve the past by listing facts or recounting events based on research and the historian's viewpoint. Historian Edward Hallet Carr points out several problems with historical texts when he comments, "The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context" (921). These textbooks may leave questions unanswered because the historian fails to address all sides of the issue. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discusses other textbook problems. He believes these historical accounts can be either exculpatory, showing those in authority are "virtuous," or the accounts can be compensatory, portraying the victim as an "underdog" and "inventing or exaggerating past glories and purposes" (54-55). Whatever form history takes, the reader needs to balance the "facts" presented with an understanding that the writer could have a bias because of his/her own "unconscious preconceptions." Mr. Burke's oral history described many aspects of the Negro Leagues. He presented vivid accounts of racial slurs and insults that he experienced while playing Negro League

baseball. When asked about specific examples or events that Mr. Burke remembered as the worst he said: Well, as far as discrimination, it was bad all the time … Me and my buddy went to a restaurant and sat there almost a half an hour, and they finally came and waited on us and we ate the food. I don’t know what they put in it, but we ate it anyway. While we were paying the bill, we saw them literally break the dishes and cups and glasses that we ate out of, broke 'em up. (28-29) Mr. Burke countered this example with his humor when he explained how his team would send the lightest skinned black to a store or restaurant to buy food for all the players. The white waiters would serve this player not realizing that he was black. Mr. Burke laughed when he said, "He's black, but he has features of white, and they don't know no damn difference" (26-27). Although Mr. Burke spoke of injustices and cruelties he faced because of the color, he also gave insight into positive aspects of playing in the Negro Leagues. He said, “We were just like one big happy family, all ball teams were, because what I went through the rest of them went through because we all played in the same circle” (26). During the interview, he described the remarkable talent of the players. He highlighted how Jackie Robinson, although not the best black ballplayer, brought Negro League style baseball to the Major Leagues. Finally, he described the influence that the Negro Leagues had on Major League baseball and black history. Mr. Burke is a reliable, knowledgeable narrator who wants the story of the Negro Leagues to receive attention and not become lost history. Although he fits the description of Linda Shopes' narrator discussed below, he presents both sides of many issues. Other sources support his major points. Linda Shopes cautions the oral historian:

Many narrators recall with great pride how they coped with life's circumstances through individual effort and sustained hard work, not by directly challenging those circumstances ... narrators are a self-selected group; the most articulate and self-assured members of any group--the literal and psychic survivors--are precisely those who consent to an interview, creating an implicit bias. (3) Ms. Shopes' discussion of a narrator describes Mr. Burke. He survived physical and mental challenges by rising above the segregated constraints placed on him. His passion for the game of baseball, the pride he felt as a player, and his respect for the athleticism and commitment of other players was apparent, but these beliefs did not distort the facts presented in the interview except, perhaps, on one issue. He did express the opinion that the black teams and individual players were stronger that their white counterparts in the Major Leagues (Burke 33). The question of which league was better, the white Major League teams or the black Negro League teams, is an important question that current historical documentation cannot answer. Available statistics show that the black teams won sixty-five to seventy percent of the games they played against white teams (Gibson 1). As a result, the commissioner of the Major Leagues stopped these exhibition games because it was embarrassing (Burke 33). However, because of the differences in the number of games played annually, field conditions, and the inconsistent caliber of competition, history does not give a clear answer (Frequently Asked Questions 17). This question is important to Mr. Burke and baseball fans because baseball is a game of statistics, of individual and team records. Because documented black statistics are incomplete, the current records may be inaccurate, thereby denying the black players their rightful place in baseball history.

What is clear, according to Mr. Burke, is that the white retired players today continue to have an unequal and unfair advantage over the black players as far as retirement and pension benefits are concerned. When asked about the role the Major Leagues has played in trying to recognize these Negro League players, Mr. Burke said, “The Major Leagues has done nothing … I’m for the older guys who played in the twenties and thirties and things like that. They should get more money than I or other players who don’t have much time, but everyone should get a piece of the pie, everybody should get something" (35-36). Mr. Burke also stated Major League baseball did set up a small fund for certain Negro League players (35). Although this is an ongoing debate, Mr. Burke believes that the Major Leagues owe the Negro Leagues something for what they brought to the game of baseball. Mr. Burke was quick to explain exactly what the Negro League players brought to the white Major Leagues, and in this way, he enhanced the "collective memory." Certain texts recognize the financial help through stadium rental income that Negro League teams gave struggling white teams during the 1930's and 1940's (Goldman 1-3). Mr. Burke concentrated on the impact that the fast, strong, athletic black players had on changing the pace and excitement of the game once they were allowed to compete. Plays such as “when an infield fly ball was hit, and [the player] catch the ball and drop it, and then get a double play…stretching a single into a double, hit a double, stretch it into a triple…stealing home. See that’s Negro League baseball. It's what you call head up baseball. Head up” (30). These Negro League routine plays influenced how baseball would be played in the white Major Leagues once they were integrated. The interview highlighted the fact that the Negro Leagues, the showcase for this talent, led the way for integration of the Major Leagues. Mr. Burke emphatically stated, “Jackie Robinson brought Negro League baseball to the Major Leagues" (30). Though Mr. Burke did

not believe that Jackie Robinson was the most talented black player, he was the player with the will, mind, courage, and family support who could successfully integrate baseball (Burke 30, 33, 35). Without the Negro Leagues, and the talented players that played in it, Branch Rickey would not have discovered Jackie Robinson, and baseball would not have integrated when it did (Goldman 1-3). One of the most enlightening aspects of this interview was when Mr. Burke explained that historical texts should document the strong economic impact that the Negro Leagues had on black history and progress. Although this student oral historian examined many sources on the Negro Leagues, this important area was under reported. Mr. Burked commented about the legacy of the Negro Leagues by saying, “Well, I think that it's one of the most powerful leagues in the country, because besides black insurance, the Negro Leagues was the second biggest black business moneymaker in the world” (37). In fact, the Negro Leagues were the third biggest black enterprise behind insurance and cosmetics (Falkoff 1). Negro Leagues historian Bob Kendrick stated, "This was a big business structure. It's important to understand that Negro Leagues baseball was nothing like Hollywood portrayed it ... as some type of vagabond league" (qtd. in Falkoff 1). During the forty-year period, six separate leagues fielded over eighty teams of 4,000 players (Falkoff 1 and Riley 1). This interview with Mr. Burke is extremely memorable and rewarding. While I have significant historical baseball knowledge, know generally about segregation in America, and learned the history of the Negro Leagues from recent research, I was totally unprepared for the experience of sitting in the home of someone I had just met and listening to his life story of incredible struggle and accomplishment. Staying unemotional and focused on my questions was difficult as Mr. Burke discussed the most intimate details of his childhood, and the pain,

suffering, and humiliation of discrimination in segregated America. However, once we started discussing the Negro Leagues and baseball, I became more comfortable and realized that our mutual passion for the game transcended our age and other differences. After speaking with Mr. Burke, stories that I read or heard about segregation took on new meaning. I never thought deeply about the total irrationality of the "color barrier." Mr. Burke was a gentle giant of a man who was denied the opportunity to play a game because his skin was dark. As an historian, I realized that I had to be careful. Perhaps I would select facts that showed the Negro Leagues to be better than they were. Perhaps I would paint a picture of these men in an unrealistic or idealist light to compensate for past injustices. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s words came to my mind, "This is underdog history, designed to demonstrate what Bertrand Russell called the 'superior virtue of the oppressed' by inventing or exaggerating past glories and purposes" (55). I realized how critical I am of historians, such as Howard Zinn, who, in many instances, only use facts that support their political positions, and now I had to be careful not to do the same thing. This interview was a very positive historical experience. Mr. Burke confirmed much of the research, brought the Negro League baseball experience to life, and gave new information to research. Discussing Negro League history with a man who actually played baseball during segregated America was invaluable. If I were to continue researching this topic, I would interview a white player such as Bob Feller who competed against the Negro League players. The interview was also a positive social experience. Throughout history, it seems as if sometimes certain individuals or groups of individuals suffer more than the others. Ernest Burke is one of these individuals. Mr. Burke was strong enough to handle all that came his way. Despite being poor and orphaned at the age of ten, experiencing humiliating discrimination in the

Marines in World War II and then being denied the respect for his athletic ability by white America during his years playing baseball in the Negro Leagues, he looks back on his life and his accomplishments with pride and satisfaction. He rises above racism, intolerance, and ignorance. As I was leaving his home after the interview, Mr. Burke gave me his statement of philosophy dated January 1999. The statement explained, "I learned this very valuable lesson early in life. I would often be asked, Are you a Negro or Black or African-American? Who are you?" He replied, "I am a human being ... just like you, just like all of us. And then I am an American or an African-American ... but first, I am a human being" (Burke statement 1). The human face that Mr. Burke gave to segregation in America is real, and one that I will never forget.


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Thorn, John. Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame. New York: Villard, 1998. TABLE OF CONTENTS

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