From the moment we met, Elijah “Lucky” Miller made me feel welcome. I was afraid he would dismiss me as yet another white baseball fan poking the bones of the Negro Leagues, but he answered every question and volunteered details I hadn’t thought to ask. I stood and listened like a little kid, sometimes forgetting to take notes. His daughter Ruth later told me she was surprised to hear him tell a complete stranger stories she had never heard, or didn’t remember hearing.
Lucky said he was ready to go to West Field, so he got in my car and Ruth and her husband Joe followed. I quickly wished I had brought a recorder. He continued to tell stories, but I couldn’t take notes while driving. He told me a tale that day about a 4-way double-header in Baltimore that he never repeated again — nuts!
When we got to West Field, a 1940s ballfield behind the Munhall Borough Building, it was a sunny August day in the low 80s. Lucky wore a Grays T-shirt over a long-sleeved dress shirt and long wool pants. We were on the wrong end, near the left field corner, 400-some feet from home plate. Munhall’s mayor, who had met us there, didn’t want us to drive around to the dugouts because the borough’s maintenance dept. used them and the attached locker rooms for storage. I didn’t want to ask a 99-year-old to walk more than the length of a football field on a hot day, but I really wanted to know if this was the place where he had played ball as a young man and carried bats for the likes of Josh Gibson.
“I’ll try,” he said. He stopped only once to rest, near second base, then continued on to the visitors’ dugout on the third-base line. This was the place, he said, where the Grays played exhibition games against local teams from the Monongahela Valley. They had played many more games at another West Field nearby, he said. He offered to show me if I had time. I still regret not doing it, since we never returned.
Yet nothing could spoil that day. Lucky talked for more than an hour and posed for pictures by Post-Gazette photographer John Heller. It was the first and best interview I ever had with him and he was still talking when I left. I had to get back to the office to write an article about a proposal to renovate the ballfield for the sports section.
That didn’t happen then, but it is now. Earlier this week, Munhall and Steel Valley High School alumnus William Campbell started work on West/Knight Field.
They’re putting down artificial turf! I hope they keep the old light poles (like the ones at Forbes Field) and the 1940s grandstand with a built-in concession stand and locker rooms behind the dugouts. I’m glad Lucky isn’t around to see it.
Check out David Stinson’s great archive on West Field at deadballbaseball.com.: