Heroes Game Part 2

 

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Most of the players in the Heroes Game on June 9, 2012, at West Field in Munhall. Photo by Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette

After the Heroes Game was snowed out in October 2011, Jim Krenn, Jim Kuzak and I resolved to do it right in 2012.
Jim Kuzak, a former Clairton police officer who was shot and left paralyzed responding to a home invasion, had plenty of hot dogs in the freezer and I had candy and doughnuts that S&S Candy and Franco Harris had donated for the 2011 game. I also had about 50 hats and uniforms with the names Lucky and Jimmy on them.

Rather than try to recoup what I spent on them — the game was a benefit for Jim Kuzak after all — I sought sponsors who would be dear to Lucky’s heart: United Steelworkers and US Steel. It wasn’t easy but with the support of Scott Buckiso of US Steel and Wayne Ranick of the USW, we added their logos to the sleeves and the US Steel logo on the caps.

I also got Tim Deily, whose family produces Isaly products, to donated chipped ham and barbecue sauce and Ray Laughlin, community leader for Walgreen’s, to donate Klondike bars, an Isaly’s favorite for most of Lucky’s life. The Pirates donated player-signed photos and balls to raffle, Penn Brewery gave us a half-keg of beer and Tony Knipling of Vecenie Distributing a quarter-keg of root beer. There were so many others who helped. Even the porta-johns were provided at no charge by Munhall Borough. Meanwhile, Jim Kuzak’s family and friends were collecting more food and raffle items. It seems like an awful lot of work in hindsight, but we wanted to honor Elijah and help Jim Kuzak.

The hardest part was finding ballplayers for the youth game. Steel Valley High School provided baseball and softball players but Clairton High School was a much harder sell. Most of its baseball players were also members of their state champion football team and weren’t eager to risk injury in a charity ballgame. In the end, the other team was a patchwork of players from Swissvale, Allerdice, Kiski and other high schools.

The celebrity softball teams included Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher Steve Blass, Post-Gazette colleagues Scott Mervis and Dan Gigler and Steel Valley and Clairton coaches. FBI agents and police and firefighters came from Pittsburgh, Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead and Clairton. Two city cops were the umpires.

It all came together on a sunny Saturday in May. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch. We had to find a DJ at the last minute and Jim Krenn broke his wrist trying to turn a double play with Steve Blass. But we had fun, raised some money for a great guy and honored Elijah as best we could.

There was one moment when I felt him close. I had asked his friend Leroy Gilliard to sing “Hallelujah ‘Tis Done,” Lucky’s favorite gospel song, the one Leroy sang at Elijah’s funeral service in October 2010. I had heard him sing before at Second Baptist Church so I wasn’t as surprised as most of the other spectators when he testified for a few minutes before he sang. It was probably as close as a ballgame ever came to a Baptist revival.

I could almost hear that wonderful little man in a ballcap clapping and shouting “Amen!” I believe, Brother Elijah. I believe.

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Heroes Game Part 1

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How do you honor a guy who loved baseball for almost 100 years? With a ballgame, of course.
Not long after Elijah “Lucky” Miller passed away at age 104, I started thinking about having a game in his honor. I knew it should be at West Field in Munhall, a 1930s field where I had met him and where he had played ball and carried bats for the Homestead Grays. It was pretty rundown in 2010, but still had its original grandstand, locker rooms, pro-style dugouts and 1940s-vintage lights on standards similar to those at Forbes Field.
My original plan was for the players to be 12- or 13-year-olds wearing throwback Grays and Crawfords uniforms in a game similar to the one I did at Mazeroski Field in July 2006 before Pittsburgh hosted the MLB All-Star Game. But West Field was a full-sized field too big for Little Leaguers. So I started thinking high schoolers, maybe from Pittsburgh and Steel Valley School District, which has kids from Homestead, Munhall and West Homestead. Then reality struck: Why would kids play to honor a 104-year-old guy they never met and who would come to watch?
I decided then that it should be a charity game. But for who?
Jim Krenn, who was then on WDVE-FM’s top-rated morning show, had introduced me to Jim Kuzak, a Clairton police officer who was left paralyzed from the waist down when he was shot responding to a home invasion in April 2011. I was immediately impressed with his upbeat attitude, the love of his girlfriend, Cris Okulanis, and the support of not only his fellow Clairton officers but of every cop who ever met him.
Together we came up with the idea of a charity doubleheader, a short high school baseball game and a softball game pitting local police against a celebrity team led by Jim Krenn. We would call it the Heroes Game.
While we tried to find a Saturday that fit everyone’s schedules, I began designing jerseys that said “Jimmy” in script similar to the Crawfords and “Lucky” in Grays-like lettering. The black and red caps had an H for heroes and the date stitched on the side. Dan Marsula, an artist at the Post-Gazette, designed a wonderful poster and Jim Kuzak’s friends gathered donations of food, drink and raffle prizes.
We finally settled on a date, Oct. 29, 2011, awfully late for a ballgame but hey, we’ve had 70-degree Halloweens in Pittsburgh, right? What a mistake!
The first snowfall of the year came the night of Oct. 28. Several inches of wet snow forced many cancellations, but the only one I cared about was the Heroes Game.
My wife Abby and I met Jim and Hedy Krenn for breakfast that morning to drown our sorrows in orange juice and pancakes. I showed Jim blow-ups of the pages of “Lucky Bats,” which was almost finished (I thought). We vowed to reschedule the Heroes Game for a summer day in 2012.
I felt like I had let Lucky down, but he had something better in mind.

Lucky ghosts

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After Elijah “Lucky” Miller passed away Oct. 12, 2010, at age 104, I went to the Tunie Funeral Home in Homestead to pay my respects. On the way, I stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken in West Homestead to pick up a few drumsticks (original recipe), just as I had the last time I visited him in the nursing home. I’m not sure why. It just felt right.

His daughter, Ruth Hines, and her husband Joe laughed when they saw the KFC bag in my hand. As I met some of Lucky’s relatives and friends, I watched a video interview of him when he was 99, talking about the Negro Leagues and his life. Documentary makers Peter and Per Argentine had used only a 10-second clip from the interview in their short film, “Something To Cheer About,” that runs continuously at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. But their 40-minute interview was what inspired me to do my own interview with him.

Not having seen it in a couple years, I had forgotten how sharp he was, recalling details of conversations and incidents from 60 years earlier. No wonder I had wanted so much to meet him!

I wasn’t able to get to his homecoming service, but I heard it was beautiful, with his friend Leroy Gilliard singing the gospel song “Hallelujah ‘Tis Done,” Lucky’s favorite.

A few days later, after my Next Page article, “Lucky & Me,” appeared in the paper, I got a phone call from Bill McCallister of Whitaker, who had worked with Lucky at the U.S. Steel Homestead Works. He had been supervisor in the mill’s metallurgy department and saw Lucky at least once a day, when he stopped to pick up metallurgical samples or deliver them to the lab. Bill is in his early nineties now but he had a very clear memory of overhearing Lucky talking to someone one day when the mill was down and the lights were low:

“He said: ‘You ghosts, I’m not gonna bother you so don’t you bother me.’

“We had ghosts everywhere in the mill. Every division had a ghost. A woman, Mary, was the ghost of the 45-inch mill. Usually, they were people who had died in that part of the mill. I’m not sure what her story was,” Mr. McCallister said.

When I spoke to Ruth and told her the story, she laughed and said she remembered her father talking about ghosts in the mill. I decided to add the story to the book. I had been struggling with an ending. Now I had one.

Lucky heads home

I thought Elijah “Lucky” Miller would live forever. I met him when he was 99, though he looked to be more like 70. He was the perfect example of the maxim I learned from my friends: Black don’t crack. More importantly, he didn’t act like someone nearing the end of his life.

At 104, that had changed. His memory was finally failing and his stories of his time as a backup batboy for the Homestead Grays were getting a little jumbled. In every other telling, Satchel Paige had his fielders sit down, then turned and struck out Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson. This time, it was Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson and Willie Stargell. I tried not to laugh but couldn’t help it, picturing the 1930s Negro League sluggers consoling the leader of the 1970s Pirates at his inability to get an easy hit.

Past and present were colliding and no matter how many times Elijah recited his alphabet backwards — a trick I think kept his mind sharp — he couldn’t stop it. In October 2010, Lucky’s son-in-law, Joe Hines, warned me that his health was failing.  I planned to visit him in the hospital the morning of Oct. 13, then head to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Pirates’ victory over the the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. For 20-some years, fans have gathered at what’s left of the Forbes Field Wall to listen to the radio broadcast of the game. This time, the game’s hero, Bill Mazeroski ,and other Pirates from that era would be there. I envisioned stopping back afterward and telling him all about it.

But life doesn’t happen like a movie. Joe called me the afternoon of Oct.12 to say that my friend had passed away. I felt stupid for hoping that a life of 104 years could last just one more day. Instead of an obituary, I wrote this:

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Lucky after dark: Negro Leaguers off the field

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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.

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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.

http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/chuck-finder/2006/08/13/finder-a-page-from-satchel-s-tall-tales/200608130237

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.

Lucky’s days with the Grays

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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.

Pitcher Satchel Paige in his wind up

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.