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New Jersey Baseball Feature Story

Take Us Out to the Ballgame

Anyone who follows old time, grass roots baseball knows that the Negro Leagues have produced countless stories of those glory years. No one tells those stories, though, like an inspired group of fourth graders in East Orange, New Jersey.

East Orange Mayor Robert L. Bowser
and Students

Every year since 2006, a small group of educators from the Edward T. Bowser Elementary School have encouraged their students to research the life and times of players in the old Negro Leagues as their school project. Each year they have not only done precisely that, but they have presented their project as a stage play before a live audience.

Fourth Grade Teacher Ms. Catherine A. Watson guides her students through a series of investigations into the lives and accomplishments of former Negro League players. She, with the help of Retired Fourth Grade Teacher and Playwright/Producer Annie V. Moore, forms her students into small research groups, each of which “adopts” a particular player to study during the school’s Spring Semester.

Annie V. Moore, Leonard Moore, Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, and Catherine A. Watson

The students present the results of their inquiries in collages that they display proudly on the day of their stage production. Each collage appears on a billboard-size poster that provides little known details about the players they studied and about the Negro Leagues generally.

Viewing the billboards that these young people produce, you might think that you are seeing public advertisements for a Broadway show, the kind that you always see on a subway ride or bus excursion into mid-town Manhattan.

This year’s student groups examined the baseball lives of Monte Irvin, Charlie Biot, and Satchel Paige. Monte Irvin now lives in Texas. Medical problems with his legs prevented him from traveling to New Jersey to view the 2008 performance at Bowser Elementary School, but friends and family ably pinched hit for him.

Participants included Monte’s brother, Milton Irvin, who told the audience that “Monte would have loved to be here” and that the Bowser children’s “black baseball promotion lights up the audience.” In his address he also exhorted the children to continue their research and productions, if only to keep alive the Garden State’s contributions to the Negro Leagues.

Anthony Buonomo and Milton Irvin Recounting the Old Days

Anthony Buonomo, who played on the 1935 Orange High School varsity squad when Monte Irvin played as a sophomore spoke of old times as one of Monte’s first teammates. Brother Milt described how a baseball kinship formed on the former Orange Triangles, managed by Jesse Miles, “back in the ‘30s and ‘40s.” Along with Monte and Milt, brother Cal Irvin and cousin Preston Grimsley made the Triangles a true family affair.

Deborah Irvin, Milton Irvin, Robert Irvin and Students

Bowser students representing Monte Irvin included Elmika Edouard, Tashun Harrison, Samantha Murrell, Taidora Nelson, Kevin Sosa, and Jelani Webster. In addition, Alhadaz Williams performed a solo recitation of Monte Irvin’s life as a ball player.

Telling the Story of Charlie Biot

Not nearly as well known as his Negro League contemporaries, Charlie Biot, nonetheless achieved a certain measure of fame when

The Daughters of Charlie Biot
and Students

his Bowser students represented him. The former Newark Eagles and

Baltimore Elite Giants outfielder would have been proud to hear Leonard Galli recount his baseball biography, done to the pantomime of Ricky Fernandez.

Not to be outdone, of course, Britania Banton, Zyeda Drayton, Jailene Ortiz, and Khalelah Walker, Bowser’s Biot Girls, honored their Negro League ball player in dance, while Aubrey Hylton gave the solo recitation and Terryl Wilson performed the pantomime.

Charlie Biot in Uniform

Pictured Left to Right: Negro Leaguer Robert Scott, George Steinbrenner, Negro Leaguer and Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil, Charlie Biot

Careful research could not reveal Charlie’s baseball record, but author Brent P. Kelley managed to interview him for his book “The Negro Leagues Revisited: Conversations With 66 More Baseball Heroes.”

As expected, the most entertaining and colorful portions of this year’s production featured memories of the inimitable Satchel Paige. Briana Byrd read her poem, Juque Hamilton presented a biographical sketch, and Brittany Byrd offered a modern-day rap, all of which would have made Old Satchel proud.

No presentation about the old Negro Leagues would be complete, though, without at least one story about Satchel the ageless wonder. Milton Irvin regaled the audience with one about a conversation between the Hall of Fame hurler and one of the best hitters of all time, Jersey-born Larry Doby, also a Hall of Fame player. Doby became the first black player in the American League, whereas Jackie Robinson was the first black player in the National League, and in the big leagues generally.

Paige’s exchange with Doby took place at Newark’s Rupert Stadium prior to a game in which the two legendary players were preparing to compete against one another. Paige, one of the starting pitchers that day, approached Doby, who at the time was enjoying one his patented hitting streaks.

Paige reportedly remarked to Doby, “You’re hittin’ the ball pretty good, but today you ain’t gettin’ nothin’!” True to his word, the great pitcher shut down the great hitter, as Doby went 0-4 that day.

Hall of Famer Larry Doby

Famous and not-so-famous stories about other Negro League legends abounded. Milton Irvin recounted Ray Dandridge’s description of Harold “Hooks” Tinker, an outfielder with the Pittsburgh Monarchs and the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1922 to 1931. According to Dandridge, the mercurial outfielder “never let a ball get past him.”

Harold “Hooks” Tinker

Satchel Paige’s description of base stealing James “Cool Papa” Bell steals its own headlines, as many baseball fans know. Paige reveled in telling audiences about the time that Bell “made an out at second by running into his own line drive” and about Bell’s ability to “flip the light switch at his bedroom door and be under the covers across the room before the light went out.” (New York Times, March 9, 1991)

Old Satchel’s penchant for pitching tall stories notwithstanding, his acclaim of Cool Papa Bell held a certain amount of authenticity. Bell, at age 45, once scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt and, in his younger days, could circle the bases in 13 seconds flat, with a time from home to first of 3.1 seconds (see That’s world-class speed even by modern day standards.

James “Cool Papa” Bell

As Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Gloria Scott, told the audience, when it came to the Negro Leagues, “there was more to the story than the ball playing.” Negro League Baseball’s contribution to American history cannot be overstated. Covering roughly a 40-year span from 1920 through 1960, the glory years of black baseball bracketed World War II, in which black soldiers, airmen, and seamen distinguished themselves beyond all expectations.

Dr. Gloria C. Scott, Assistant Superintendent of Schools

In that historic time period, decades-old color barriers began breaking down in education, the stage set itself for the Civil Rights Movement, and a new era of fairness for people of color gave fresh meaning to the Constitution’s hallowed premise that “all men are created equal.” And through it all baseball stood tall.

In fact, no one stood taller in 1947 than Jackie Robinson, whose entry into Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers lineup ranks as one of the great examples of doing right the American way. Baseball is nothing else if it is not a microcosm of American life. Anyone who witnessed Jackie Robinson’s first year in baseball knows the truth of that.

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson

Among other vignettes of truth and wisdom, Dr. Scott reminded the audience how baseball mimics life. “After you get on first base,” she said, “it takes a lot of cooperation from your teammates to get you home, in the game of baseball and in the game of life.”

Pee Wee Reese, “The Captain”

No one in baseball – arguably, even in American history – epitomized that theme better than Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese, a Brooklyn Dodgers teammate of Jackie Robinson. Team Captain Reese refused to sign a petition that threatened a boycott if Robinson joined the team.

When Jackie Robinson did in fact join the Dodgers in 1947 and traveled with them on their first road trip of the season, fans in Cincinnati, Ohio, heckled him unmercifully. Reese walked to Robinson’s side, engaged him in conversation, and, in what ranks as one of the most unselfish and courageous acts of the integration movement, put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder, in a calm, nonviolent gesture of support that silenced the hostile crowd. Sculptor William Behrends captured the historic moment in a bronze tribute to the two Hall of Famers, which still stands in KeySpan Park in Brooklyn, New York.

Breaking Baseball’s Color Barrier Reese-Robinson Sculpture in KeySpan Park

Immortalized in folklore as they are, the heroes of black baseball in America will, like the leagues in which they played, live forever in the hearts and minds of baseball fans everywhere. The passion that they had for the game sustained them through difficult periods in American history that we can only imagine today. New Jersey Baseball Magazine salutes the children and staff of the Edward T. Bowser Elementary School for their passion in bringing such great ball players back to life for us every spring. We cannot wait to see what they produce in 2009.

That, after all, is how it should be. For, as spring heralds new life from the dearth of winter, so does the achievement of inspiring ball players past usher in the anticipation of aspiring ball players present. Players like Monte Irvin, Charlie Biot, and Satchel Paige opened the doors of opportunity to players like Jackie Robinson and all players of color who came, and will come, after them.

For their efforts, the students of Edward T. Bowser Elementary School may earn a scholarship to the Newark School of the Arts. You cannot help but think that that’s how those old ball players would have wanted it.



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