Lucky after dark: Negro Leaguers off the field


Josiah Vaughn with fedoras bought on eBay. Negro League game at Greenlee Field (c. 1935).

Being a batboy gave Elijah “Lucky” Miller access to his Negro League heroes in the 1930s and ‘40s even though he was usually in the stands. He worked mostly before and after the games, lugging bats between the team bus and the dugout. He assisted Dave “Spade” Sloan, the Homestead Grays’ main batboy, which is obviously a misnomer. Both Lucky and Spade were in their twenties or thirties then. (I know, Josiah’s too young, but he looked great in the hat!)

Then as now, youngsters often handed bats to the players. Lucky remembers seeing Josh Gibson Jr., the slugger’s son, as a batboy. He’s shown sitting on the Grays bench in a photo shot by Charles “Teenie” Harris for the Pittsburgh Courier.

One of the biggest differences between professional sports then vs. now was the access fans had to athletes off the field. “Kings of the Hill” is the name of a 1993 documentary by University of Pittsburgh professor Rob Ruck and Molly Youngling, and royalty Is what Negro League players were in that golden age. But commoners could rub elbows with kings if they knew where to find them.

Pittsburgh’s Hill District was home to nearly a dozen jazz clubs, including the Crawford Grill, Blue Note and Hurricane Lounge. On any night in the ’30s and ’40s, fans might run into Grays players Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead and Ray Brown having a drink with teammates or opponents. In a 2007 interview, hall of famer Monte Irvin recalled his first visit to Pittsburgh in 1938, when his Newark Eagles played the Grays at Forbes Field. He was 19 years old.

“We tried to knock each others’ brains out on the field, but off the field we were friends. At the Crawford Grill, we could have some dinner, listen to some music, meet some of the girls. We were young, healthy and single,” he said, laughing.

One of the girls he might have met was Dolores Redwood, now 100 years old and living in Lincoln-Lemington. She said recently that she and her friends would sometimes dance at night in clubs with ballplayers they had watched that day from the stands.

In 1934, while he was pitching for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Satchel Paige married Janet Howard, a waitress at the Crawford Grill. My former Post-Gazette colleague, Chuck Finder, wrote a wonderful piece in 2006 in which a heavenly Paige reminisces about “how me and Josh used to line up the glasses and compete at consumption” at the Grill’s bar.

Lucky might have seen Josh and Satch there, but he wouldn’t have joined them for a drink. He nearly died as a child after innocently drinking a fifth of whiskey. He would occasionally drink elderberry wine, he told me, because his mother used to make it.

Gibson teased Lucky one time at the Crawford Grill, calling him the “stingiest man I ever seen. He won’t even buy a bottle o’ pop!” Lucky said Josh was right; he was stingy – he would bring a bottle of pop and a pork chop from home to eat between his own sandlot games.

When I interviewed Monte Irvin in 2007, I asked him if he remembered the Grays batboy. He didn’t, but he met Lucky not too long afterward. Irvin was the keynote speaker at a Negro League gala in Pittsburgh one weekend and held an autograph session after a Sunday service at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in East Liberty. Lucky showed up to see him.

“When they heard I was a batboy for the Grays, people started askin’ for my autograph. My autograph!” he told me later.

I’m sure it was the only time Monte Irvin ever shared the spotlight with a batboy. I hope he didn’t mind.

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