The man with the guitar has OK pipes, but maybe you aren't going to quit your job tomorrow to manage his career. It's not how he's singing but what he's singing that turns your head.
I'd heard of this song. It is called "The Ballad of Eddie Klepp," and it is why I am here at a two-bit concert, feeding a strong thirst with weak wine and listening to a bearded guy with fingernails like teaspoons sing about baseball and bigotry. In my racket, I've listened to sap stories and sob stories and most of it is bullhockey, but from what I've been told, these lyrics are 100 percent true fact:
The war had finally ended and America had been changed
It had beaten back the Nazis but the Jim Crow laws remained
There was talk of staging marches and talk of civil rights
There was talk about a Negro playing baseball with the whites.
He walked into the clubhouse and the card players quit playing
Everybody stopped in the middle of whatever they were saying
It was just like when the sheriff walks into the saloon
He said, "My name is Eddie," as he looked around the room.
. . . They ran him off the field before a game in Birmingham one night
Made him sit up in the grandstands in the section marked "For Whites"
In his Cleveland Buckeyes uniform, it was a new twist on the law
The marshals kept their eyes on him and the hecklers ate him raw.
So while Jackie played for Brooklyn and wore the Dodger blue
Eddie crossed the color line, the one without a queue
A white man in the Negro Leagues might as well have been a Jew
Now you mention the name of Eddie Klepp and most everyone says, "Who?"
If you're in the newspaper game, stories like this one rattle by maybe once a lifetime. So after the singer's set is done, I mosey over and say hello.
Brodsky is his name, like the Russian poet, only this guy is as American as a Chevy pickup with a cranky muffler and you probably know by now he's no Yeats. I tell him who I am and what I want, and what I want is to know what he knows about Eddie Klepp, which turns out to be not much.
White guy. Played in the Negro Leagues. Came up a half century ago, the same time Jackie Robinson did. Broke the color barrier about the same time Jackie did. I have to find out everything I can about someone named Eddie Klepp, a white guy who once played ball in the Negro Leagues, who someone wrote a song about, who no one remembers, who just maybe is a legend waiting for a biographer, who just maybe is me.
It won't be as easy as it sounds.
The reluctant professor
There is one guy in America who knows a lot. An Eddie Klepp scholar. The name is Larry Gerlach, no, pardon me, Dr. Larry Gerlach, an academic out of Utah. Gerlach turns out to be as friendly as typhoid.
The professor gives up a little, but is saving most of it for an article he wants to write someday. Gerlach says he has pieced together all he can, but it isn't everything. "There are holes, chasms even," he says, as cheaply mysterious as a Magic 8 Ball. "He was not an admirable character."
That's as far as he will go. He won't cough up the rest. But see, he has already said too much. He has told me something he didn't know he told me. The song got it wrong. The name is Klep, with one "p." Bingo.
Suddenly, the Internet becomes my best pal. The boss is looking at me funny, like I'm feeding some sick habit.
Soon I get a list of a dozen or so Kleps. I punch up the first. Gold mine. It's a distant relative. I get names, addresses, dates, including the big one. Eddie is dead. Long dead and buried. But there's a widow who is alive and kicking. Sometimes you can tell a lot from a name. Her name's Ethel. Not good.
I get her on the horn, though, and she sounds OK. I tell her, real casual, that I'm gonna be breezing through town and would she like a smoke and a beer and a little chat? Yeah, like some Washington guy goes for a drive to Erie, Pa., every second Tuesday to take in some nice industrial air.
Ethel's no dope. I am not fooling her for a minute. But she says OK.
I already knew Eddie was no Jackie. He didn't have much of a resume, and it read like a deli man's nightmare: Spaghetti Shop in the Lake Shore League. Whitman Grocers of the Glenwood League. Eddie Klep was an industrial leaguer, the same as found on every sandlot field in America. When the Buckeyes showed up in Alabama to play the Black Barons, the white boy was spotted like a leopard with measles.
The Birmingham cops were the first on his tail. "Bullies in blue," team press secretary Jimmie N. Jones called them in the newspaper. They ordered Klep off the field during warm-ups. Said a city ordinance prevented "the participation of or the contesting of white and colored athletes." Fancy talk for bigots.
Then they kicked Klep out of the dugout and sent him back to the hotel to remove his uniform. Then they made him sit in the stands, in the seats reserved for whites.
No question, Klep was news. The Cleveland Call and Post put it this way: "With Eddie Klep, Erie, Pa., southpaw and only white player in Negro organized baseball on their roster, the Buckeyes have served notice that they will be the team to beat for the 1946 championship."
Maybe you believe that. Maybe you are a patsy. To my personal self, it just didn't add up. The Buckeyes already were lousy with great pitchers, guys who could whiff DiMaggio. Why spend so much effort on a white sandlotter?
I'd worked the phones to find out. And that's where I found Willie Grace. Grace had roomed with Klep as a Buckeye.
Grace played a nifty right field for the Buckeyes after he stopped pitching. Before he went blind, he knew good talent when he saw it. Eddie didn't have it. His assessment is as blunt as a bulldog's schnoz. "He couldn't have pitched in the league nowhere - he really wasn't fast enough," he says. "We had guys who could throw like a rifle shot."
So what was the story? It turns out the Buckeyes were owned by a flamboyant black man named Ernie Wright, and Wright knew publicity as well as he knew the feel of a good fedora. He loved the idea of a white player.
"Ernie had the foresight to take a white ballplayer," Sammy Haynes told me, "knowing that sometimes he would be denied a chance to play and that it would draw a bigger crowd if they had some excitement."
Ethel, his wife
I'm halfway to Erie, and my gut is telling me there is more to this story than box-office hooey a half-century old. My gut is still speaking its mind when I pull up to Ethel Klep's place.
It's a small apartment in a rented row house near the middle of town. I'm five minutes late and she's already at the curb, finishing a smoke. The pile of butts at her feet tells me it isn't her first.
She's an old lady now, 74, but once she must have been a looker. That's the first thing I am noticing. The second thing I am noticing is her left hand. The tips of three fingers are missing.
Ethel Klep might have been around the block a few times, but she moves like a jackrabbit that sat in Tabasco. I had hoped to get in her house, see some snapshots, maybe find Eddie's uniform moldering in the back of a closet. But Ethel is having none of that. She's in the car even before I can kill the engine.
She gives me directions to some greasy spoon. We find a small table in a dark corner. I politely inform the hired help that they should scram. Then I turn to Ethel and get right to the point. So does she.
It isn't the story I was hoping for. It's better.
Ethel Fhelman was a petite 17-year-old strawberry blonde, fresh off the farm, when she met Eddie Klep. She would never be the same. It was Feb. 22, 1940, at a wedding reception in a working-class neighborhood on Erie's upper east side.
He had the solid, square jaw of the former Golden Gloves boxer that he was. His dark hair was slickly parted on the left. He charmed her with his jokes and his engaging gray eyes. Then he gave her his best pitch. Maybe the best pitch this little lefty would ever deliver.
That night, their only child was conceived. "He was the kind of guy who could talk the birds right out of the tree," Ethel says. She has a dreamy look in her eyes, like she's still in love.
Ethel's mom didn't want her to bear a child out of wedlock. So a wedding date was set, St. Patrick's Day 1941. A couple weeks before the wedding, Eddie disappears into his future in-laws' bathroom and hits the medicine chest. Next thing anyone knows, he's a few blocks away, face-down in front of the fire hall, his mug as red as Santa's suit. He had taken an overdose.
There are many ways to check out of this fleabag hotel called life. Some people use a gun. Some people take the gas pipe. Eddie, I guess, had heard that some people will drink iodine, which will work if you don't mind meeting Saint Peter smelling like hell. But Eddie, he didn't drink iodine. He drank Mercurochrome. He recovered just fine.
Ethel's mother pushed again for marriage. And Ethel's mother usually got what she wanted. What she got was a justice of the peace in Fairview, west of Erie. It was Aug. 18, 1941.
The happy couple separated by the time the next month's rent was due.
Ethel is squirming like a frog at a French restaurant. She isn't embarrassed, she's just wanting a smoke. Tough. It's a no-smoking joint.
What happened next, I prompt.
You will not be surprised to learn that Eddie got himself in trouble.
After the two split, Ethel washed dishes in a restaurant, then took a job as a press punch operator. She gave the company 35 years. And those three fingers.
It was an accident about four or five years ago. But she's lucky in one regard. What's left of the knuckle on the ring finger serves a purpose. It keeps her wedding band in place.
Larceny and more
At the Erie County Prison, the story is spelled out in neatly scripted black ink in a stack of green prison registers. The layer of dust on top told me no one had looked at them since approximately the Peloponnesian War.
Edward Klep is all over these books. There's a larceny charge in '37. Larceny again in 1939 and '40. He was jailed five weeks in 1941 awaiting trial for arson. Then, disorderly conduct.
Now it is getting interesting. In February 1946, a month before he joined the Buckeyes, Eddie Klep worked off 10 days at Erie County for larceny. Six weeks after the Buckeyes released him, he returned to await trial for burglary, larceny and receiving stolen goods. The man who integrated the Negro baseball leagues was proud of what he had done. When asked his occupation, Eddie informed the desk sergeant he was a professional ballplayer.
Eddie Klep was on his way to the major leagues. Not the Cleveland Indians or New York Yankees - the big house.
Richard M. Leathers, records supervisor for the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, the state pen, fingers the record of one Edward Joseph "Lefty" Klep.
"Who is this guy, a ballplayer?" Leathers wants to know.
"Something like that," I say.
I catch up with Eddie Klep Jr. by phone. He's in North Carolina, an engineer for Litton Systems. I ask him what he remembers about his father.
Which father, he wants to know.
Eddie Klep, I remind Junior. The name should sound familiar, I reckon.
Not much to tell, he answers. "I only remember seeing him a half-dozen times." The last time was a visit at an old-age home in Los Angeles about 25 years ago. Eddie Sr. didn't even recognize him.
So I ask Eddie Jr. about his mom.
Which mom, he wants to know.
I feel like I'm riding a runaway merry-go-round.
Eddie Jr. explains. Ethel is his mom, but Ethel didn't raise him. When Ethel ran into trouble with her good-for-nothing bum of a husband, Ethel's ma stepped in and raised Eddie Jr. as her son.
Ethel was sworn to secrecy. If anyone asked, she was to say the boy was her brother.
For 21 years, no one was the wiser. Until the boy - named Sonny Dyer - tried to enlist in the Army. At that point, Sonny discovered that his life had been a lie. His parents were his grandparents. His sister was his mother.
And his father and namesake was some drunk named Eddie Klep.
Any baseball talent Eddie Klep Jr. inherited he kept to himself. He stopped playing the game as a young boy after taking a fly ball to the head. He doesn't much care for the game now. But he seems proud of his father's accomplishments.
"They say he was a pretty good player," Junior says, "as long as he could stay sober through the seventh inning."
The son has spent some time thinking about his old man. Trying to figure out what made him tick.
"It's not surprising," Eddie says, "considering what happened to him as a kid."
Organ music, maestro.
So I pop the question. But I get only a shrug and a stammer. Eddie doesn't know for sure. He wasn't there when his dad was a kid. Ethel wasn't there. For this, I will have to go way back. Like a dummy, I do.
Theresa DiPlacido remembers an Eddie different from the Eddie I have been getting to know. She is Eddie's kid sister. Her Eddie was a choirboy. Trouble with the law? Not that she can remember.
Eddie was the fourth of six children, she says. The father, Konstanz, was a Polish immigrant from Russia. Friends called him Gust. Gust was a meat cutter. He had a grocery on 23rd and Reed. Then the Depression hit, and no one had money to buy luxuries like food.
Gust found work as a welder and moved the family to the Polish section of town.
Gust loved baseball. And he passed the love to his kids. On weekends, he drove them to watch the Glenwood League games. "If there was money, he'd splurge for popcorn," Theresa recalls.
Of course, Eddie also loved baseball. He climbed the fence across the street and played on the gas company field. He also walked the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad behind the house. He threw rocks to build up his arm. He picked up coal to help keep the family warm.
Gust also spent time on the tracks. He followed them about a half mile to his job, near the base of Parade Street. It is a historic spot, the place Erie was founded. A big stone stands there now. Buffalo is 85 miles to the east. Cleveland 100 miles west. At this spot also, Gust Klep's life ended, and Eddie Klep's life changed for good.
It was March 15, 1937. Gust was working as a welder on the steamer S.T. Way, anchored at the foot of Holland Street. He didn't notice the automated freight car as he walked along the Erie Coal Dump ramp. It dragged him 150 feet.
Eddie was home when they brought his father's body to the house. The way the family tells it, what was left of him fit in a wicker basket.
Eddie was 18. He "took it pretty hard," Theresa says.
But I am not listening. I am doing the math. Eddie's first visit to the Erie County Jail came less than three months later.
Some say Eddie Klep died Nov. 21, 1981, in Los Angeles. Social Security records say it was January 1982. Whatever. He's dead and buried.
Barely buried, as it turns out.
By the time the family learned he was dead, he had been cremated in a pauper's ceremony. His ashes were returned to Erie but there was no burial.
A tip leads me to Wintergreen Gorge Cemetery, just southeast of Erie. A burly gravedigger leads me to the spot: 1A, 145, GR1.
There's no mention at all of Eddie Klep, the first white man to break baseball's color barrier. That's pretty much the story. A real laugher, right? A guy is born, gets punched in the kisser, falls down and never gets back up.
I kick a weed off Eddie's unmarked grave. I feel like a rag-armed pitcher manicuring the mound in some sandlot in the middle of Nowhere, USA. Out there in the boneyard, it's pushing 90 in the shade, but for some reason, I'm cold. I think of something Eddie Jr. told me. He was talking about the railroad accident, and what it did to his father:
"I don't think anybody knew how much it affected him. He never really grew beyond an adolescent. But that doesn't mean he couldn't play baseball. They say you've got to stay a kid to do that anyway."