Monday, February 13, 2017

Mound of Memories: Introducing John Roche

Annamaria on Monday
In honor of Black History Month, I am departing from the usual theme of MIE and introducing a crime novelist who writes about a place in the USA: my friend John Roche.
I met John years ago at an event at the Chapaqua Public Library.  (You meet the greatest people in libraries!)  A few years later, John published his first novel--Bronx Bound, set in a place he knows well.   He spent more than two decades as an award-winning journalist, mostly covering the Bronx, where he was born and raised.
He holds an M.F.A. degree from Western Connecticut State University, where he teaches in the graduate writing program, and a bachelor’s degree from Marist College, where he teaches  journalism.  Today he is bringing us a marvellous story from his reporting days.
A little background: During Jim Crow, blacks were not welcome to play major league baseball in the US.  However, there were black baseball teams from before the Civil War and leagues were formed as early as 1885.  The 1920's marked the golden age of the Negro Leagues, when many fans and sports writers believed that the best athletes in the game were playing on teams like the Newark Eagles and the New York Black Yankees.  In April 1947, Jackie Robinson took the field for Major League Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, finally breaking the sport's color barrier. But by then, many of the Negro League's most outstanding players had passed their primes. 

 Take it away, John.

February is Black History Month, which reminded of one of my favorite stories I ever wrote as a reporter, as well as a special story, and friendship, that unfolded afterward.

At the time, I
 was writing for the Co-op City Times, sometime in the late Nineties, and as I passed a senior center near the newspaper office as I did a few times every day, a volunteer I was friendly with said "You should do an article about another volunteer here. He's got an incredible story." 

She told me a few bits and pieces, most that ended up being wrong, but what she got right was that her friend, a tall, lanky man I sometimes exchanged nods with, did in fact have a terrific story. He lived it. 


I sat down the next day with Purnell Mincy, who in his younger days was a 6 foot 4 inch left-handed pitcher who played alongside and against some of the greatest black baseball stars of the era in the Negro National League, including Satchel Paige, Monte Irving and Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Dodgers. 

Mr. Mincy bounced around the Negro Leagues, pitching for the Newark Eagles, the Philadelphia Stars, the Kansas City Monarchs and the New York Black Yankees, taking the mound at the big ballpark in the Bronx when the white Yankees were on the road.

 

I loved listening to his stories---the incredible talent in that league, the barnstorming games when the white stars of the day were outplayed by their black counterparts, the ridiculously low pay, the hot old buses, and the rampant racism nearly everywhere. "The only thing white in our games was the ball," he said in this gentle drawl.

And I loved retelling his story for the paper. I wanted it to be perfect, and it nearly was. One of my best. It ran on the front page.

Photo, Getty Images

Mr. Mincy loved it, as did a lot of our readers. 


That summer, I heard on the radio that the New York Mets were paying tribute to the Negro Leagues, giving out retro Newark Eagles caps and honoring a few former players. 


I rushed back to my office, called the Mets, and suggested they invite Mr. Mincy. I faxed over my article on him, and within an hour, the Mets invited him to be among their guests of honor for the tribute. On the day of the game, I drove him out to Shea, and for another story, shadowed him, first as he met the other three former Negro League players at a luncheon, then as they signed autographs at a table for fans, and then, THEN, as Purnell Mincy and his league mates threw out the ceremonial first pitch to a huge ovation.

 

I'll never forget the look in those players' eyes as the crowd at Shea showered them with applause and cheers, followed by both Major League teams tipping their caps to these aging former ball players. The Mets also gave them an honorarium, $1,000, which Mr. Mincy said might've been more than he was ever paid even if you added up his entire career.

"I woulda paid them that much for the day they gave us," he told me. "And for what you gave me, John."

His story. History.

9 comments:

  1. Great story, John, thanks for bringing it to us. And thanks, AmA, for bringing John to us.

    So much history gets lost in the dustbin, its nice to see every piece that can be saved.

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    1. Thanks, Everett. I love the idea of saving a bit of history from the dustbin.

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  2. Thank you for that story, a great one. Those baseball players were such groundbreakers.

    And, thanks, Anna Maria, for posting this in honor of Black History Month.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Kathy. I enjoyed remembering it too.

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  3. What a wonderful story, John, and thank to Annamaria for bringing you to us. Being a Brit, I knew very little about the Negro Leagues until I read a Robert B Parker book called DOUBLE PLAY, set in 1947 and featuring Jackie Robinson in a starring role. It's a remarkable subject, although the segregation viewed as normal at the time is dismaying to me.

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    1. Zoe, that mentality endured almost universally into the sixties and pockets of it still exist. I am dismayed to say that white supremacist cells now feel empowered by the recent election and the fact that at least one of the Tweeter-in-Chief's close circle of flatterers shares their hideous views.

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  4. I enjoyed Parker's book too, Zoe. There is a growing number of people and resources telling the stories of the talented men who played in those leagues, unfortunately in obscurity for the most part.

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  5. In the early 1960s, when I was in my teens, I injured my knee and shared a hospital room with a man in his seventies who'd grown up with Satchel Paige. As I'm sure you recall he moved on from the Negro leagues at age 42 (in 1948) to pitch in the Majors until age 47 (1953). He's rightly held by many to be perhaps the best pitcher in baseball EVER, but what my roommate told me blew my mind. According to my roommate, Satchel Page was older than my roommate by several years, even though he publicly claimed to be much younger. That meant he'd actually pitched in the Majors at least into his mid-fifties!

    Fantastic athletes, with stories I never get tired of hearing. Thanks for giving us another great one, John.

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  6. Yes, Jeffrey, Satchel Paige's actual age was supposedly as elusive as his pitches. An amazing athlete, and another terrific story.

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