A University of Southern California (USC) professor has launched an ambitious project to catalog the thoughts of every Black baseball player who played major league baseball from 1947 to 1971.
The 25-year period includes integration and the turbulent post-integration years.
Daniel Durbin, the USC professor who created the project, is being assisted by graduate student Neftalie Williams. Although Williams, a skateboarding aficionado, didn’t know much about baseball when he started the project, he has a way of drawing information out of the retired players.
“You come away thinking, why did I tell that guy all of that?” said Dusty Baker, who played for the Dodgers, Atlanta, Giants and A’s. He also managed the Giants for 10 years. “He prods without pushing.”
Williams said he sees his work documenting the players’ stories as living Black history.
“I want to go back and let those dudes say how they felt, what was happening; yalk about how much they loved baseball, talk about how much it meant to them,” said Williams in a Los Angeles Times interview.
Durbin said some of the stories revealed painful experiences from the past. Baker recounted a story about being visited by the FBI because of an anthrax scare. He also said Hank Aaron told him not to get too close him when he was about to break Babe Ruth’s homerun record, because he was getting death threats.
Don Buford, who played for USC and the Chicago White Sox, tells a story of going into retrieve a teammate, Deacon Jones, who had gone into a gas station in the Deep South. However, the man behind the counter had pulled a shotgun on Jones. Back on the bus, Buford chastised his teammate for forgetting where he was.
“Deacon just said, ‘Man, I forgot,” Buford told The Los Angeles Times.
Williams said he is able to connect with the players because he shares a similar experience with them. He grew up in Springfield, Mass. and was bused into an all-white school as part of a desegregation program. His mother made him wear a suit on his first day, because she wanted to show white people that Black people could be just as good as them. He was ostracized and spent much of the time fighting, until he discovered skateboarding and bonded with his classmates.
“These guys matter,” Williams said. “Black America, they had them on their backs. And the players knew it. They might not say it, because these guys are all really humble, but they know. And I will tell you that when the camera’s off and I’m breaking down and we are talking, that’s the thing, they say: ‘You knew you had it on your backs.’ Just like I had it when I was a kid and my mom said, ‘Hey, you have to wear a suit and you have to do well because you have the culture on your back.’”