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Reporter's Notebook

July 28, 2012

Reporter's Notebook: A living memory of the Negro leagues

There was a bit of a commotion as Tim McCarver, the former catcher and current baseball broadcaster, came into the restaurant. A couple of people at my table in TJ's in Cooperstown got up to greet him. I stayed in my seat, not because I was so devoted to my egg on a muffin, but because seated next to me was 81-year-old Robert Scott.

This was last week as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame prepared for its annual weekend of induction festivities.

Scott is a retired professional baseball player who broke into the Negro leagues in 1946, the same year Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier and become the first black man to play for a Major League Baseball team.

But even though Robinson had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, the era of racial discrimination was far from over.

His chin dotted with white whiskers, Scott, who had been a pitcher and first baseman for the New York Black Yankees and Memphis Red Sox, among other teams, had some stories to tell. And tell them he did.

He said when he was first signed to play professional baseball, he got paid $175 a month to play in some of the same major league parks as white players. "That was pretty good money in those days," said Scott, who went on to become a union bricklayer for 35 years.

"Our league was set up the same as the major leagues, with a National League and an American League and 18 teams," he recalled. "We had the same kind of uniforms as the white players. The only difference was they traveled by plane and we traveled by bus. They also had a reporter with them. We didn't have reporters go around with us."

He recalled pitching one-hit games. The only people informed about the feat were those at the games or those who heard about it by word-of-mouth.

In 1955, in the twilight of his career, Scott would be signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Hall of Famer George Sisler, then a Pirates scout, personally signed him to a contract, he said.

"For George Sisler to come all the way to Macon, Ga., to sign me, I must have been pretty good," Scott recalled with a wide grin.

Scott said the Pirates wanted to send him to a farm team in Grand Forks, N.D. "It's cold up in Grand Forks in June," he said. "I didn't want to go there."

So he said he went back to his home state, Georgia, and played for the Sandersville Giants in the Georgia State League. He said he was one of three black players on the mostly white team. His roommate in Sandersville, Willie McCovey, would go on to become an All Star for the San Francisco Giants.

Georgia had Jim Crow laws that sanctioned blatant racial discrimination in restaurants and other places of public accommodation.

I asked Scott how he dealt with it when his white teammates could enter a restaurant but he and the other black players could not.

"We waited on the bus when the white players went into eat," he said. "We'd ask them to bring us a sandwich when they came out. We'd say, 'You want to win tomorrow, don't you?"

Scott said he has always appreciated the fact that Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, upon being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, urged that the stars of the Negro leagues be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

In his speech in Cooperstown that day, Williams stated: "I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given the chance."

Scott said he hopes young baseball fans learn about the history of the Negro leagues. He pointed out that every year, there are fewer and fewer veterans of that bygone baseball era. He still sells his autograph, but the price is a fraction of that commanded by former major leaguers who achieved a level of celebrity denied to Negro league players.

"We always wanted to know that if we played against the white players, who would win," he said. "We'll never know. We do know we were an important part of baseball history. Hopefully, the kids will learn about the Negro leagues. The history is so important."

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