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Nerves of Steel – Bill Blair

William Blair Jr. passed away on 4-20-14 (Resurrection Sunday).   He is now pitching in heaven.  He was ninety-two years old.  He had been a dear friend since I met him in the fall 2011.  At the time, I was in the process of writing my book.  This article – Nerves of Steel – Bill Blair – was written in the Spring of 2013.

During our coffee hour at church in September, 2011, my friend, Larry approached me, “Bob, did you see the news, last night?”  “No” was my reply.  Larry says “They renamed a baseball park in south Dallas for a former Negro League ballplayer.”  I asked, “Larry, what was his name?”  Larry replied, “I do not remember his name.”  This happens a lot when two men over seventy years old have a conversation!

A few days later, a D J for a jazz radio program in the Dallas area told me RochesterPark was renamed William Blair Jr. Park, in honor of Dr. William Blair, former pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns.  Dr. Blair is the publisher of the Elite News.  He founded this African – American weekly newspaper in 1960.  The renaming ceremony took place on September 17 about a month before Dr. Blair’s 90th birthday in October.

In early October, 2011, I made an appointment to meet Dr. Blair (honorary degree) at his Elite News office.  When I met Dr. Blair, I told him I was in the process of writing a book to honor twenty-one former Negro League players through baseball game simulation.  Hopefully the book would honor all former Negro League players like himself.

He was intrigued and interested.  However, he decided he needed to check my credentials.  What does this (white) man know about the Negro Leagues?  Dr. Blair looks me straight in the eyes and asks “Bob, who was one of the greatest baseball players of All-Time?”

The moment of truth, any hesitation or wrong answer is strike three and I am out of there!  I look Dr. Blair right in his eyes and without any hesitation, I say, “Oscar Charleston, according to the great baseball historian, Bill James, there were only three players better than Charleston – Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays!”  Dr. Blair smiles and nods his head affirmatively.  I have hit a game-winning home run!  Dr. Blair and I have been close friends, ever since that day.

Dr. Blair was born on October 17, 1921.  He grew up in Dallas.  He lived in an integrated neighborhood.  He does not recall ever having a problem with his white neighbors.  Dr. Blair played all sports well.  He believes he was in the fifth grade when he really began to think he would be a very good baseball player.  Dr. Blair said his mother was a very positive influence on his life.  She was a strong person and encouraged him to always give his best effort.

Dr. Blair graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas.  He attended PrairieViewUniversity (Houston area).  After six months he joined the U. S. Army.  Dr. Blair became the youngest black first sergeant in the United States Army during World War II.

Dr. Blair was in field artillery and served in the North African campaign (1943-1945).  He mostly played baseball with white and black ballplayers.  One of the players was Billy Cox (white), a future Brooklyn Dodger third baseman.  Cox in 1941 played for the Pittsburgh Pirates before serving the next four years in the army.  Dr. Blair remembers going from Oran to Casablanca (about 900 miles) in a box car!

Dr. Blair was seen in the army playing baseball which led to a tryout in September 1945.  Tom Sampson (a great second baseman for the Birmingham Barons) ran the tryout.  In February, 1946, Blair, a free agent, is at the Barons Spring Training.  Blair is told to go to New Orleans to meet with Winfield Welch the former pitcher (late 30s, early 40s).  Welch was Manager of the Black Barons when they won consecutive Negro American League Championships in 1943 and 1944.  Welch tells Bill Blair to go to Kentucky to wait for the $100 (signing bonus) before reporting to the Clowns.  He never did get the money!

However, in April, 1946 Blair finally reports to the Clowns.  He knows he can play and he is excited!  For the first three days, all he does is shag fly balls.  Some of Bill Blair’s teammates in 1946 were strong armed second baseman, Ray Neil, he had good power and often batted third.  Neil played for Clowns, 1946-54.  Goose Tatum, better known as a member of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.  He was also a flashy-fielding first baseman.  Tatum was a great showman.  Reynaldo Verdes Drake, outfielder with the Clowns, 1945-1954.  He was an excellent fielder with a good arm.  He had great speed.  Drake usually batted leadoff.  Sam Hairston, played most positions (catcher, infield and outfield).  He played for the Clowns from 1945-1950.  He made it to the Major Leagues in 1951 with the White Sox for five at bats with a .400 average.  He consistently hit over .300 with the Clowns.  Buster Haywood played for the Clowns (1943-1954).  Buster was the catcher (eventually the Manager).  He was small but one of the best catchers in the league.  He was at best an average hitter with average speed.  He managed the Clowns from 1948-1954.  Note: Most of the player information in this article came from The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Leagues written and compiled by James A. Riley, published Carroll & Graf (1994).

Three days after arriving with the Clowns, Blair starts his first game against the great Kansas City Monarchs with the likes of  Willard Brown (slugging outfielder), the dangerous and versatile Ted Strong (plays many positions well), Buck O’Neill (1B), a great ball player.  Two of the greatest pitchers of all-time, Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith are on the Monarchs.

Bill Blair’s philosophy on pitching – Initially it is a guessing game.  Is the batter expecting a fast ball or curve, in/out, up/down?  As a rookie Blair leaned on feedback from other pitchers on the Clowns, his primary catcher, Buster Haywood.  Blair was smart.  As he began to learn the opponent’s hitters, he played more to his strengths and their weaknesses.

When his first game against the Monarchs was over, Bill Blair and the Clowns were victorious 6-1!  Buster Haywood said after the game, “Blair you have more nerve than most pitchers.”

In the years 1946-1950 when Blair pitched for the Clowns, their home park was VictoryPark, near the Indianapolis Speedway.  He witnessed a home run hit by Jackie Robinson that cleared the fence and hit a screen at the Speedway.  Blair said the park was well balanced not favoring pitchers or hitters.

When they played games in Cincinnati they played in Crosley Field, the home of the Cincinnati Reds.

One of Bill Blair’s favorite stops was in Memphis, home of the Negro League Memphis Red Sox.  After the game, they would head down to Beale St. (great ribs and great jazz).  They would stay at the Traveler’s Hotel.

 

Bill met Buck O’Neill (first baseman of the Monarchs), one night at the Traveler’s Hotel.  They talked for hours about their experiences playing baseball.  Bill Blair remembers what a wonderful person, Buck was.  Buck O’Neill was one of the spokespersons on Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary on PBS.  In the year 2000 (I believe), I ran into Buck O’Neill as I was going into the NegroLeagueBaseballMuseum in Kansas City.  I shook his hand.  He was late for a meeting and could not visit with me.  He was about 90 years old when I met him.  Dr. Blair and I both agree, Buck O’Neill should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

One of the areas I discussed with Dr. Blair – What was life like for the black ball players away from the ball park?  In the period when he played, 1946-1950, he said they did not experience too much of the Jim Crow attitude.  He said they often ate in restaurants.  They often stayed in hotels.  They did stay with black families, sometimes.  Syd Pollock, the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns and Abe Saperstein (owner of Harlem Globetrotters) provided a first class bus for travel.

Dr. Blair said most people came to see you play ball.  He recalls an incident in Texas.  Dr. Blair and Jesse Owens (the great Olympic Track Star) were traveling with a baseball team in Texas going from Austin to Dallas with the final stop in Sherman, Texas.

In Sherman, there was a “heckler” in the stands that was unmerciful in his remarks toward the black ball players The other fans wanted to watch the game.  The “heckler” soon became very quiet.

Dr. Blair said the highlight of his first season with the Clowns was meeting the other ball players.  Two opponent ball players also praised Blair for his nerve as a young pitcher.  Hall of  Famer “Cool Papa” Bell and Luke Easter, slugging first baseman (played with the Cleveland Indians, 1950-52).

One of his pitching highlights in 1947, he had to catch a train in Dallas to go to Shreveport, Louisiana.  Woody Culter (All-American football player) was with him. The Clowns were facing the Monarchs, Bill Blair was pitching.

In the first inning, Hank Thompson led off with a single.  Thompson later played for the New York Giants.  The left-handed Blair had an excellent pick-off move.  He actually had three different pick-off moves.  He fired over to first and picked Thompson off the bag!  Blair gave up no more hits.  He pitches a complete game which the Clowns win in eleven innings!

Another pitching story from Dr. Blair – Earl Taborn was one of the catchers for the Kansas City Monarchs (1946-1950).  The first time Dr. Blair faces him, he gets two quick strikes.  Blair decides he will strike him out but Taborn jumps on the 0-2 pitch and smashes a double.  Blair makes a mental note.  Taborn never got another hit off Blair in his career!

Some of the toughest hitters he faced were Piper Davis, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Charlie Pride.  He did fool Josh Gibson a few times with his 12/6 curveball, Gibson would harmlessly chop it to third.

His toughest pitching opponent was the hard-throwing right-hander, Gentry Jessup (Chicago American Giants).  Jessup barnstormed with Satchel Paige in 1946 vs. the Bob Feller Major League All Stars.

On the bases, Cool Papa Bell and Sammy Jethroe gave him the most trouble.  In 1950, I saw Sammy Jethroe play with the Boston Braves at Braves Field in Boston.  Jethroe was National League Rookie of the Year in 1950.  He led the league with 35 stolen bases.

In Dr. Blair’s opinion, the following players were the best defensive players he ever saw, for their positions in the Negro Leagues.

What were the toughest teams you played against?  “The Kansas City Monarchs and the Cleveland Buckeyes were the toughest opponents in the late forties.” replied Dr. Blair.

What is your favorite memory playing for the Clowns?  “Every day we played ball was a good day.  We were treated like rock stars!” exclaimed Blair.

What was the lowest point of your career?  “It was near the end when my left elbow started to hurt.  I knew my time of playing ball was coming to an end,” shared Blair.

Dr. Blair said another highlight of his career was pitching a “no-hitter” in the 1947 International Denver Post Tournament in Colorado.

Any regrets?  Blair replies, “No, the game of baseball and all the wonderful people I met, sustained me.  It was a great life and helped to prepare me for the future.”

On May 2, 2006, Blair was interviewed by The HistoryMakers.  Below are some excerpts from that interview.

“Blair was instrumental in the development of the African American Museum’s Texas Sports Hall of Fame and serves on its advisory board.  He was inducted in 1996 as a member of its inaugural class.

Blair founded the Highlight News (1947-1957).  He also later founded the Southwest Sports News, a newspaper that specialized in publishing scores from black college games throughout the United States.  The paper was renamed The Elite News in 1960.  One of the most influential black newspapers in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolis.  Elite News created “The Elite News Awards Night” which was the first African American awards ceremony in Dallas when it began in 1975.

Blair has been a civil rights activist for more than six decades.  In 1986, Blair launched the first Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade, and this parade is now an institution in Dallas.  Blair is a major force in local and state politics and is also an advocate for the Interdenominational Minister Alliance.  In 2004, he founded the Religious Hall of Fame to honor African American ministers.  Blair is also the author of two books, 1990 and 1991 pictorial history, The Dallas I Know.”

 Blair lives in Dallas, Texas with Mozelle, his wife of seventy years.  All of his children are or have been involved in the family business.  In 2012, his son, Jordan passed away.

If you would like to contact me, please feel free to fill out the contact form below.  If you would just like to comment on this page, scroll down to where you see “Comment” and fill in your comments there.  Thank you for visiting this page and my website.  PLAY BALL!

Dr. William Blair and Bob May, April 2013.

 

 

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