I must admit, I had no idea what to expect from my first SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) affiliated conference. On my way to the conference I was faced with the usual questions a high school freshman ponders before their first day of school: would I fit in, will I have anyone to talk to, do I know enough to be in a room with some of baseball’s premier researchers and writers? It did not take long before I could answer each of my questions with a resounding YES! There were no strangers at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference and everyone there had one common goal: To share what they knew about Black Baseball. What follows is a running diary of my experience at the Conference.
I decided to arrive at the conference early for the research workshop taking place at the Cleveland Public Library. Our research session was led by Stephanie Liscio, author of Integrating Baseball in Cleveland, and frequent contributor to ESPN’s baseball blog the Sweet Spot. Having been familiar with her writing yet unaware of her participation with the conference, the baseball nerd in me knew rather early that this conference was going to be a hit. The highlight of the research session and the envy of our group was the library’s Sports Research Center which is the only one of its kind in the country. As you can probably guess, the Research Center contains rough draft’s of speeches written by Jackie Robinson, newspaper clippings from baseball games of the 1800’s, and baseball books galore. The Sports Research Center is a truly novel concept I wouldn’t mind my local library mimicking.
Thursday night’s Meet and Greet was my first opportunity to associate with the other Negro League Conference participants. Now, I’m not a huge fan of meet and greets or conversation that feels forced. This weekend it became clear to me that when baseball is the common denominator the oddest of couples can be brought together. It did not take long before I was enthralled in a conversation with 86-year-old Ted “Lefty” Toles, who had no shortage of stories from his playing days. Mr. Toles played in the Negro Leagues for the Cleveland Buckeyes, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He also played a part in the integration of baseball playing for the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees minor league affiliates. Lefty told me about the time he was carried off of the field by Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby after he made three great catches in the outfield, how he called the Topps office and convinced them to include him on a baseball card in their 2007 Allen and Ginter set, and he made sure I was aware of his slugging prowess ending each of his stories with “one thing I could do was hit that ball.” Ignored for so long by Major League baseball Mr. Toles was eager to share his story and I was happy to listen. Thursday night also provided me the opportunity to pick the brain of the premier scholar on Satchel Paige, Dr. Donald Spivey. He has spent the last 12 years of his life researching the life of Satchel Paige, and writing the book, If You Were Only White. Talking with the Doctor about the lack of scholarly work on other Negro League baseball players led to his friendly challenge to research and write the things that I wanted to read about. Being at the Jerry Malloy Conference among so many published authors gave me the confidence to take Dr. Spivey up on his challenge.
Friday morning was spent listening and learning. listening to the various presenters, I couldn’t help but wonder how productive I would have been in school had the subject matter been baseball. Topics for the morning session included Cleveland Baseball Diamonds of the Past, Black Baseball in Cleveland from 1867-1900 (much more interesting than it sounds), Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. I realize that baseball is damn near a niche sport in my circle which is why it was so important for me to attend the Malloy Conference. I wanted to expand my network of baseball friends. I was pleasantly surprised that despite the racial, gender and age diversity of the presenters everyone was easily approachable and happy to share their research. In fact, shout out to Lisa Alexander who emailed me her entire presentation on Larry Doby “The Forgotten Pioneer.”
The afternoon session centered around a panel discussion with the four former Negro League baseball players in attendance. The panel included Ted Toles and Ernie Nimmons, who happened to be a teammate of Hank Aaron’s when they both played for the Indianapolis Clowns. The other two members of the panel, Mel Duncan (Kansas City Monarchs & Detroit Stars) and Gene Johnson provided the comedic relief portion of the panel as they took playful jabs at each other while recalling their days in uniform with the Detroit Stars. The funniest moment of the afternoon came about when the subject of players salaries was brought up. Each of the guys admitted that they played for the love of the game as they did not make much money playing baseball. Gene Johnson, in his raspy voice, was alert enough to apologize before discussing his salary as the former owner of the Detroit Stars and the woman responsible for his paychecks, Minnie Forbes just so happened to be in the room. What struck me about each of these men was how happy they were that someone cared enough to listen to their stories. While they obviously didn’t play for recognition it is always nice to be recognized. Remarkably, the fact that it took 50 plus years to garner some much deserved recognition for these ball players didn’t dampen their spirit one bit!
The days final event was a baseball game at Progressive Field between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians. Not much to get excited about here as the Orioles won this one in a route 10-2. Although I must say, it was rather refreshing going to the game and not being the only one in a 5 section radius keeping score.
I was determined not to be late for Saturday mornings presentations as Dr. Spivey got the morning started with his lecture on Satchel Paige and the women that played a major role in his life. I had my voice recorder set up and ready to record the jewels Dr. Spivey was about to drop on the room. Spivey did not disappoint, debunking the false claims of who taught Paige how to pitch as well as providing an understanding of his earlier years in a rural Alabama reform school. My only disappointment arose fifteen minutes into his presentation when I realized I had forgotten to press record. Damn. Other research topics that morning included a well researched presentation on George “Chappie” Johnson, a catcher from the early 1900’s, as well as a thorough presentation by author Chris Lamb who shed some light on the age-old mystery surrounding Branch Rickey’s motivation for signing Jackie Robinson. I was glued to my seat. Oh, and did I mention the US Postal Service stopped by to unveil the new Larry Doby stamp which was being released that day.
In the afternoon session the hits kept on coming. As I found out this weekend, when at a SABR conference the question immediately following so what’s your name is what are you researching? Being new to SABR and contemplating my contribution to the research I found the authors panel right on time. The authors, Lee Lowenfish, Thomas Aiello, Byron Motley and Terry Pluto, shared their thoughts on how they select the subject matter for their books, using a publisher versus self publishing, and how they sell their book once it is on the shelves. The authors stuck around to answer every question and encourage the next group of writers to join them on the dais at next years conference. The close out session was a candid Q&A with Minnie Forbes, former owner of the Detroit Stars. She was as sweet as your grandmother and as classy as The First Lady. She provided a behind the scenes look at what it was like to run a Negro League team in the 50’s, at time when the League was changing and MLB was raiding black baseball teams for the top talent. Ms. Forbes was not bitter nor was she sad, she was simply classy.
From the outset of the conference Larry Lester (Co-Chair of the SABR Negro League Committee) stressed that all of the conference participants were part of a family. Ordinarily I would brush such comments aside as hot air. Now that I have my first Jerry Malloy Conference under my belt I can honestly say it is one big family that has yet to meet a stranger. I look forward to talking baseball with you at next year’s family reunion!