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Joe Elliott and the Birmingham Black Barons

Tom Sullivan

May 17, 2016
Tom Sullivan

Normally this blog is for sharing marketing insights, but I met someone remarkable this past weekend, and I wanted to share his story.

My wife Jan and I were standing in line at TKTS (Tickets Times Square) trying to get to tickets to “American in Paris” when I noticed that one of the ushers had a very cool vintage-looking baseball hat. I asked him what the three B’s in the logo stood for. He told me it was a hat commemorating the Birmingham Black Barons, a team that flourished in the Negro Leagues when baseball was segregated. He then proudly reported that Joe Elliott, one of the pitchers of the famed team, was a security guard inside the ticket building. I asked the gentlemen if he would introduce us to Joe, and he said he was very happy to do so.

A few minutes later, we were warmly introduced to Joe Elliot, now 79, who was very pleased to meet us. Telling him about my love for the game, and how an uncle of mine was a minor league pitcher, I asked him to tell us about his experiences playing ball. Joe pitched for the Black Barons in the 1956 – 1959 seasons, joining the team when he was 19 years old. “We truly played for the love of the game because there was very little money in it,” Joe explained. The fans at home were great but not always on the road. He told us one particular story of how the team took the bus 700 miles to Kalamazoo to play an all-white team for an evening game under the lights in a pretty big stadium. When he and his teammates got to the dugout they looked out on the field and talked about how the opposing players all looked like giants. Joe explained how he was only 168 pounds soaking wet. Even though he was not scheduled to pitch that day, his manager said, “New plan today. Joe you have the ball.” Joe could feel the hostility of the opposing fans but was confident in his heater, which got as high as 98 miles per hour.

Nine innings later, Joe had struck out 19 of the opposing players, and his team won the contest in a shut-out. His team celebrated with Joe on the field and hung out in the dugout reminiscing on the big win when all the lights in the stadium went out. It was pitch black and nobody knew the way back through the stadium to get out of the park. They weaved their way through the halls in the dark, got to an exit door and ran to the bus sensing there might be an incident. There was none. Even though Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier ten years earlier in 1948, the wounds of segregation lingered.

Joe then pointed out that in the 1970’s, MLB owners voted to pay modest pensions to players from the Negro Leagues. Joe has one of those pensions, but he said it was a shame that so many great players passed on before they ever received their recognition. The lesson to me was clear. It was not about the money. It was about the acknowledgement that these men were dedicated professionals like their white counterparts. There was no bitterness in Joe, just compassion for his fellow players.

These stories are all around us. They’re worth hearing. They remind us of people’s struggles, their resilience, and their sense of hope.

We did get to see an American in Paris, and it was really an amazing performance. But I think I will remember the story from Joe Elliott long after I forget the play.

Learn more about the fascinating history of the Birmingham Black Barons.