Ex-Negro League Star Missed Majors, Succeeded In Life

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - In 1940, future Negro League star Jimmy Dean was riding trains up and down the East Coast, a baseball prodigy for hire.

For any barnstorming team that would pay travel expenses and a little extra cash, the 15-year-old pitcher was available, as long as school wasn't in session.

"With my zoot suit and wide hat, I was traveling," Dean recalled during this month's Black College Union in South Florida. "I was only 15, so I'd go up in the club car and get a sparkling water, and put a piece of lemon in there with a straw."

Dean manned a booth from 9 to 5 for four days, hawking hats, T-shirts and autographed balls.

Mostly, though, he just shared experiences, not only about baseball but life in general. And his has been a fascinating life, as anybody who stops and talks with this warm and charismatic man can tell you.

Dean seems to have lost none of the energy that drove him in his youth. The eyes still sparkle as they do in the 1946 picture taken when he was with the Philadelphia Stars, a picture that adorns those T-shirts and hats.

This was more than a decade before that other James Dean would redefine cool with a brooding screen persona. But as naturally as acting and being cool came to that Dean, baseball and being cool came to this one.

Jimmy learned the game on the streets of Ambler, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb where he still lives. He played for his high school and for local summer-league teams, but mostly for out-of-town teams with older players.

These were the teams that traveled hundreds of miles throughout the Northeast and the segregated South, in search of competition and a few dollars.

This is where Dean first caught the eye of Negro Leagues scouts. After returning from a three-year stint in the Army, he got his break with the Stars and shined.

At the pinnacle of his career, he earned $400 a month and played before crowds of 25,000 or more. He played against many future Hall of Fame inductees, including Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson.

But after Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier in 1947, the Negro Leagues lost stars and fans to major-league baseball.

While players such as Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella would often go straight to major-league rosters, lesser-known Negro Leagues standouts went instead to the minor leagues. The St. Louis Browns wanted Dean, but asked him to start in Class D at a salary of $100 a month.

Instead, he quit baseball and returned to Morris Brown College in Atlanta, where he was two years shy of a chemistry degree.

When he imagines what his baseball career might have been were he born a generation later, Dean shakes his head and smiles.

"The guys that play today, they aren't worth the money they're getting," said Dean, 69.

If it sounds like he's bitter, he's not. After earning his degree, Dean worked 33 years as a chemist for a pharmaceutical company. It afforded him the opportunity to travel extensively and put three sons through college.

Now retired, he spends much of his time speaking to students, civic groups and anybody else who asks. He especially enjoys is talking to the youngsters and trying to impart some of the wisdom he's gained.