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A Negro Leagues Star Is Still Sharing His Story

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A Negro Leagues Star Is Still Sharing His Story

The older pastor, sporting an extended purple gown, ascended the steps to the pulpit. “God has always had a plan and a purpose for each of our lives,” the Rev. William H. Greason mentioned in a gradual, mild voice. From the pews got here affirmations of “Amen!” and “All right!”

For greater than 50 years at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Greason has been a relentless presence in his congregants’ lives. He has officiated their weddings, baptized their youngsters and lifted their spirits via loss. His parishioners say his impression has been extraordinary.

Long earlier than he was a preacher, although, Greason had a wholly totally different life. In his darkish, silent examine down the corridor at Bethel Baptist, on a shelf filled with outdated theological books, is {a photograph} of the 1948 pennant celebration of the Birmingham Black Barons of baseball’s Negro leagues. A younger Greason beams on the middle.

Greason, 98, is one in all baseball’s “forgotten heroes,” based on the Center for Negro League Baseball Research. Seventy-five years in the past, he shut down the Kansas City Monarchs within the Negro American League’s championship sequence after which earned the Black Barons’ solely win within the ultimate Negro World Series, which the Black Barons misplaced to the Homestead Grays.

Back then, Greason was a lanky right-handed pitcher whose top-notch fastball and devastating curve dazzled crowds at Rickwood Field, a captivating ballpark in Birmingham the place the sport’s greats of the primary half of the twentieth century — together with Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Babe Ruth — as soon as performed.

These days he’s the oldest residing participant who can inform tales of the peak of the Negro leagues, which have been lastly acknowledged as main leagues in 2020, many a long time after their demise.

On a latest afternoon at his church, Greason — who was additionally the primary Black pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals — talked about his enjoying days, how he turned a minister and why he doesn’t watch baseball anymore.

But as Greason’s story reveals, one’s love of the sport just isn’t so simply extinguished.

Born poor in segregated Atlanta, Greason — imitating older ballplayers on sandlots — discovered to pitch within the early Thirties. In his teenagers, he performed semipro baseball for a pencil manufacturing unit group. He cherished utilizing his wits and expertise to idiot batters, he mentioned.

In 1943, with World War II raging, Greason was drafted into service. He reported to Montford Point, a segregated camp in North Carolina, changing into one of many first Black Marines. He served at Iwo Jima, the place he watched lots of his fellow Marines die and was a witness to the flag-raising made well-known in {a photograph} by Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press.

Convinced he, too, would perish on the island, Greason promised to do no matter God requested of him ought to he survive.

After the warfare, Greason returned to baseball. He rapidly labored his means via the Negro minor leagues and had his contract bought by the Black Barons within the spring of 1948.

The Black Barons have been beloved in Birmingham, a deeply segregated manufacturing metropolis within the southern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Joining a gifted, veteran-laden roster, the 23-year-old Greason received his first three begins. A newspaper referred to as him “The Whiz Kid.”

He pitched earlier than festive crowds at Rickwood Field, and through bus journeys throughout the Jim Crow South and past, the quiet, unassuming Greason turned “like brothers” along with his teammates, he mentioned.

One teammate was a 17-year-old middle fielder nonetheless discovering his means within the recreation: Willie Mays.

Greason “seemed to understand me pretty well,” Mays wrote years later. “He was always careful to help me out when he could without calling attention to what he was doing. He gave me respect and in turn helped me grow up.”

The Black Barons dominated the Negro American League in 1948 and topped the Monarchs within the league championship sequence. Greason had pitched brilliantly all through the sequence and when Manager Lorenzo Davis, who was referred to as Piper, wanted somebody to shut it out, he knew the place to show.

“Give me the damn ball,” Greason mentioned earlier than tossing an entire recreation three-hitter.

The Black Barons’ luck ran out within the Negro World Series — the final of its form — with the Grays successful in 5 video games.

As integration took many of the Negro leagues’ finest gamers to the American and National Leagues, Greason made it his aim to affix them. It took him till 1952 to catch on with Class AA Oklahoma City, however with batters “going dizzy trying to hit his assortment of pitches,” based on The Pittsburgh Courier, Greason turned a goal of the Yankees and the Red Sox, neither of which had fielded a Black participant to that time.

Oklahoma City refused to relinquish Greason, hanging on to him till late 1953, when St. Louis acquired him.

He lastly made his Cardinals debut at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Memorial Day 1954 when he was 29. With the wind howling towards the outfield, he gave up three house runs to left subject in three innings. He made two different temporary appearances earlier than getting demoted. It could be his final main league probability.

He stored enjoying within the excessive minors, and starred for the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rican Winter League. His Santurce teammates included Mays and the longer term Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.

By cellphone, Cepeda vividly recalled Greason, who had energy on the plate along with his pitching exploits, blasting “the longest home run I ever saw in Puerto Rico.”

After ending his skilled profession in 1959 with Class AAA Rochester, Greason returned to Birmingham and drove a supply truck for a division retailer.

He and his spouse, Willie, whom he had met throughout his enjoying days, attended the sixteenth Street Baptist Church. On the horrific Sunday in 1963 when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the church, killing 4 women, Greason was away enjoying semipro baseball.

One Sunday afterward, Greason recalled, “all of a sudden the Lord spoke to me from within. He said: ‘It’s time.’”

Greason, honoring the promise he had made in Iwo Jima, started finding out for the ministry and preaching on the sixteenth Street Baptist Church. His sermons taught “human rights — the rights of people and the word of God,” remembered Shelley Stewart, then a disc jockey who has been referred to as “the radio voice for the Birmingham civil rights movement.”

Greason turned pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in 1971. Overseeing a congregation of 1,000-plus members, Greason officiated ceremonies, led Bible courses, preached and recommended — “nurturing a whole generation up through childhood,” based on Mike Holt, a deacon at Bethel Baptist.

In the a long time which have handed, almost everybody who knew Greason as a ballplayer has died. Aside from a number of books in his examine — a Negro leagues encyclopedia; a worn paperback titled Baseball’s Forgotten Black Heroes — few seen clues join him to his former life.

In 2018, after 65 years of marriage, Willie died as properly.

Even as Greason’s personal well being started to say no, he stored on preaching.

“In his mind God anointed him as pastor,” Holt mentioned, “and only God can take him down.”

In the small home the place he lives alone, Greason watches TV packages that includes televangelists and “The Kelly Clarkson Show” — however not baseball. “It’s not what it used to be,” Greason mentioned.

Specifically, Greason mentioned with disapproval, trendy gamers put on lengthy pants and batting gloves. It was the identical tone he makes use of to explain modern music in church or younger and fiery visitor preachers.

Did he know concerning the pitch clock? “I worked fast,” he replied.

At that time, Greason’s eyes sparkled with a reminiscence.

“Before games,” he mentioned, “I’d go over the whole lineup and ask myself: ‘How are you gonna pitch ’em?’ So when I got out on the field, I knew what I had to do.”

Smiling, Greason mentioned he remembered a full Rickwood Field on pitching days — and having a great, assured feeling. “I believed I could get anybody out,” he mentioned.

Greason mentioned Mays, with whom he has stayed in contact, was the most effective ballplayer ever — higher than Ruth and Hank Aaron — as a result of Mays may do all of it.

Increasingly lately, based on Thom Craig, Bethel Baptist’s trustee administrator, Greason has been telling outdated baseball tales from the pulpit.

As Greason’s 99th birthday approaches within the fall, his life’s two callings — baseball and the Gospel — are intersecting greater than ever.

On a vivid Sunday morning, about 50 parishioners gathered in Bethel Baptist’s high-ceilinged sanctuary.

“God didn’t give you the ability to throw a baseball like he did to me,” Greason, who stood earlier than them sporting dark-framed glasses, introduced over organ music, “and he gave you a gift that I can’t do nothing with!” Congregants nodded passionately and referred to as out “Amen!”

Greason retired to his examine after the service. He put his gown away within the closet, a Black Barons jersey hanging a number of hooks away.

Other artifacts might be noticed close by. There was a mitt on the shelf of a cherry wooden hutch and framed footage of Greason from his enjoying days.

And encased in glass on his desk: a baseball with “John 3:16,” the Bible verse promising believers everlasting life, written on its floor.

Source web site: www.nytimes.com