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, Iwas 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.
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.