Joel Akrie in 1916 Model T touring car owned by Ken Hummel. Members of Indianapolis ABC’s in Washington, D.C. (1918).
Elijah “Lucky” Miller often said he played baseball all his life. It’s not literally true, of course, since his playing days ended at age 28, when he was struck by a line drive. But he lived baseball — watching it, listening to it and talking about it — til they day he died at age 104.
Mostly he talked about the Homestead Grays, the famous Negro League team he saw first as a teenager in Richmond, Va. In the early 1920s, he drove his cousin in a Model T from their home in tiny Bermuda Hundred, Va. Today, it’s about a half-hour drive on State Rt. 10 and I-95, but then it would have been an adventure, especially for two black teenagers in Papa’s car.
Lucky had never seen such talented ballplayers as the Grays, he said, and years later, when he decided to head farther north to look for work, he chose the U.S. Steel mill in Homestead, Pa. He worked night shift so he could play sandlot ball during the day, but he managed to see lots of Grays games, too. Some were exhibition games against locals in mill towns hard by the Monongahela River, but a few were at Forbes Field, which Grays manager Cum Posey rented when the Pirates were away.
The Grays main batboy, Dave “Spade” Sloan, must have recognized Lucky as a regular when he asked him to help carry bats to and from the team bus. Spade got free help and Lucky got into games free. Even better, he got to ask Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell the kinds of questions a sportswriter would be ashamed to ask.
“How’d you get so fast?” Lucky asked Cool Papa. “You hang out in the places I hang out, you run fast!” he answered.
Satchel Paige, a Cleveland Indian, in Life magazine in May 1948. 1940s cleats from eBay
He wasn’t shy around opposing teams, either. He questioned Satchel Paige, who pitched for the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs and any other team that would pay. When Lucky asked Satch how he developed his famous control, the rangy right-hander gave an answer I’ve found nowhere else, though Paige published several autobiographies — throwing rocks at chickens.
Lucky’s favorite Grays player wasn’t one of the stars. Backup Robert “Rab Roy” Gaston was a better catcher than Gibson, Lucky insisted, but not much of a hitter. Rab Roy, who was a few years younger than Lucky, died in 2000 at age 90. Visiting him in the hospital near the end, Lucky reminded him of his glory days on the diamond.
During my last interview with Lucky, when he was 103, I videotaped him talking about his glory days with the Grays. If you listen closely, you might hear what he was watching on TV – the Little League World Series.