By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
Dozens of Negro League baseball players gathered in Birmingham for their annual reunion recently. Among them was 99-year-old Roosevelt Jackson , who is among the oldest living Negro League baseball players.
Jackson was a second baseman and then centerfielder for teams so long ago that many have since been forgotten such as the Miami Globetrotters, Hollywood Redbirds and Miami Red Sox.
He was among a group at the reunion that included the Birmingham Black Barons. Lawson State Community College President Dr. Perry Ward lived across from Rickwood Field in his youth and had an opportunity to see the Barons play.
That made hosting the annual Negro League Baseball reunion for lunch at Lawson State’s Birmingham campus an honor.
“It didn’t have as much meaning then,” Ward said of meeting ballplayers as a child. “It was more about baseball and baseball players. Now, I can connect that memory with . . . the stories that these gentlemen have to tell about playing baseball and what it meant. This is very special to me.”
Dr. Layton Revel, the foremost leading authority on Negro League Baseball whose collection of Negro League artifacts helped establish Birmingham’s Negro Southern League Museum, and Birmingham chef Clayton Sherrod, have annually put out the call for former Negro Leaguers.
They have hosted 10 events, a pair of dinners and then a series of annual two-day reunions that have been timed to correspond with the annual Rickwood Classic, which was held Wednesday, May 31 at Regions Field.
This year’s reunion included a tour of the Negro Southern League Museum and a trip to Regions Field for the Birmingham Barons’ “Turn Back The Clock” game. That contest took the place of the Rickwood Classic, which was cancelled because of needed repairs to the ballpark that opened August 18, 1910.
About 30 players and family members came from out of town — including Jackson — and another 25 to 30 live locally. Jackson was born on Dec. 20, 1917 in Gay, GA. the third of ten children. He grew up watching his brother and uncle play baseball. By the age of 20, he began to play and manage for baseball teams throughout south Florida. He is a member of the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame and currently lives in Buena Vista, GA.
Some of the men at the reunion also played in the Industrial League, which was a form of semi-professional baseball that developed during the late 19th century and became commonplace in Alabama during much of the 20th century.
Cam Perron, 22, has become a big part of hosting the former ballplayers, reaching out to them and finding many with whom others had lost touch.
“The first year these guys come, they’re a little bit hesitant,” said Perron. “Some of them are really excited. Some of them haven’t really known about this stuff. They come and they have a great time.”
The 2017 reunion was the first for James “Cowboy” Atterbury. But the 75-year-old from Danville, Va., said it won’t be his last.
“I loved it. I loved it,” the former Philadelphia Stars player said. “I wish I hadn’t missed the other seven. If my daughter hadn’t been with me, I would have missed this one.
“When Cam called me, I said I was going to try to get some of my family to come,” Atterbury said. “There were a whole lot of big families down there so I’m going to try to bring eight or nine from my family next year, my grandkids and a couple of my kids.”
Russell “Crazy Legs” Patterson,78, of Sumpter, S.C., missed his first reunion in 2016 but was back this year. He came back, he said, because of “the camaraderie and that I can talk and tell a lot of lies,” he said with a laugh. “I talk a lot and joke a lot. I’m a little comedian.”
The former players spent a lot of time exchanging stories from their playing days, but not all of them were square with the facts.
“Most of them from riding the bus or driving in cars, most of that is true,” Patterson, a former Indianapolis Clown, said. “Now hitting six home runs in one game, sometimes we exaggerate some stuff. Most times they just be joking on that, how fast we are and stuff like that.”
The good times of prior reunions serve to promote the next one.
“They go back home, they tell their friends (and) they tell their relatives,” Perron said. “They tell teammates they’ve talked to on the phone but never met up with. After all this word of mouth kind of spreads, it just kind of grows from there. The following year they come back with their wife. The year after that, they come back with their wife, their granddaughter and their former teammate. It just keeps on growing.”
“It’s getting a little bigger,” Perron said. “We’ve lost a few players . . . we are having new guys show up or having local Industrial League come so the attendance is staying relatively stable.”
Correction made at 10:54 a.m. on 6/8/2017: An earlier version incorrectly referred to Roosevelt Jackson as the oldest living Negro League baseball player.