Baseball's Forgotten Men Played The Game For Love

WASHINGTON - He's 90 now, but oh, does the Rev. Harold Tinker remember.

He remembers enough to declare that gifted Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella "couldn't carry (Negro League legend) Josh Gibson's glove," and to state that some black players swatted and slung the ball as well as white legends Babe, Ty and Lou.

But for decades, few remembered the amazing stars of Negro League Baseball. Tinker, a former center fielder for the Pittsburgh Crawfords whose color prevented his pursuing the game that was "my entire life," is one of a dozen surviving ex-players and observers reminiscing in the documentary "Kings on the Hill - Baseball's Forgotten Men," which airs at 4 p.m. Saturday on NBC. The special explores the Negro League and the society that supported and later abandoned it.

Tinker recalls when players' "paychecks" came from a hat that was passed among fans after each game. "We'd have 3,000 people, and only get $60 to $80 - and our uniform, hats, bus came out of that. . . .

"There was nothing to look forward to, as a Negro boy, in baseball," says Tinker, who left the Crawfords when he realized his salary would never support his wife and seven children.

"Even the best ballplayers didn't make any money," he says. "But even knowing that we couldn't play with (major leaguers) didn't hinder us from loving the game."

The fruits of their love aren't entirely forgotten. Recently my son, 13, was watching a screening of "Kings" when he asked, "That's Satchel Paige, isn't it?" after an angular face flashed on-screen. It was the Negro League superstar, who didn't join the majors until age 42, and who at 59 pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965.

I never heard of Paige before adulthood. My son's recognition indicates the increased public awareness of Negro Leaguers, thanks in part to segments on the players and management in Ken Burns' 1994 PBS documentary, "Baseball."

Still, there's much to learn, and enjoy, in "Kings." I was captivated by film clips and live recollections of the joys, frustrations and derring-do of those banned from major league play until Jackie Robinson's 1947 breakthrough - much as "Kings" creator Rob Ruck was 20 years ago.

Ruck, who's white, and Norris Coleman, an African-American classmate at the University of Pittsburgh, were jogging past the old Homestead Mill, home of the long-defunct Homestead Grays, when they decided to research the team.

Eventually, the men received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to track down ex-players. Ruck wrote a book, "Sandlot Seasons," and in 1988 persuaded the Pittsburgh Pirates to honor Negro Leaguers in a ballpark celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1948 Negro League World Series. National coverage of the celebration sparked new interest in black baseball.

When Ruck was taping Pittsburgh-area veterans for Japanese TV, black youngsters kept coming up, asking, "Why are you talking to these old guys?"

"When I said, `This is (Pittsburgh Crawfords center fielder) Cool Papa Bell,' they'd ask, `Who's that?' " recalls Ruck. "When I said, `He was a legend before Jackie Robinson,' they'd say, `Who was he?' . . . I knew if I was going to reach them, it would have to be through TV."

His documentary features Tinker talking about playing "with reckless abandon," in fields next to pigpens ("I can smell it now,") and how Homestead Grays hurler Smokey Joe Williams notched 21 wins and just seven losses against white major-league teams - defeating Hall of Famers Walter Johnson, Grover Alexander and Waite Hoyt. Several observers recall that Satchel Paige had no curveball to speak of. Yet his fastball was so deadly that he once told team outfielders to join him on the mound - with the bases loaded - because "I'm striking the next three out." And he did.

There's the heartbreaking story of the ever-smiling Josh Gibson, a superb athlete who baseball experts - including Springfield, Va., historian John Holway, who appears in "Kings" - say would have been a superstar in the Babe Ruth mold had he been allowed in the majors. Gibson died at age 35, a year after Robinson's breakthrough, never having played in the majors. "Some say he drank himself to death out of bitterness," Holway says.

"Kings" was filmed before baseball's recent strike, but viewers will compare old-time players' dedication with new stars' concentration on getting paid. Says Tinker from his 90-year vantage point:

"I don't care how good a ballplayer is, you're not worth $3 million. . . . Perhaps some (Negro League) legends would think it makes sense, but they played because they loved the game. They couldn't have had any other motive.

"They must have just loved the game."

(Copyright, 1995, Washington Post Writers Group)

Donna Britt's column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times.