Jeff Klein is flipping through a three-inch-thick binder bursting with page after page after page of baseball cards and autographs encased in protective plastic sheets. He finally finds what he’s looking for — a lined note card signed by Bill McCrary, a former teammate of legendary Negro Leagues’ pitcher Satchel Paige.
“In hind-sight,” Klein said, gazing at McCrary’s autograph, “his response to me was life-changing.”
Though Klein didn’t know it at the time, he’d soon be collecting something far more valuable than autographs. Something priceless. Friendships. And, in the process, a white man from suburban Rochester would help a bunch of forgotten Black ballplayers be remembered. And celebrated.
Klein, an avid sports autograph collector, had written to McCrary on the advice of his then seven-year-old daughter Makayla in 2014. As part of a Black History Month school project, young Makayla had been inspired to write a letter to Ruby Bridges — an African American who helped integrate elementary schools in the Jim Crow South, just a few years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown versus Board of Education desegregation ruling in 1954.
When Klein told Makayla how Negro Leaguers beyond Jackie Robinson had played an important though underappreciated role in the Civil Rights Movement, she suggested he take pen to paper, too. He soon began gathering addresses of old Negro League players he found on the internet and sent out letters containing a stamped, self-addressed envelope and three blank file cards.
“I asked each player to sign a card for me and Makayla, and on the third card I asked them to include a favorite baseball memory,” said Klein, a retired Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy who now works at the Veterans Outreach Center. “Well, one day, I receive an envelope back from Bill with two autographs. And on the third card, he listed his phone number and asked me to give him a call sometime and he’d tell me some stories.”
Klein was floored. And a tad nervous. It took him a week to muster the gumption to make the call. He figured McCrary would spend just a brief time with him, but five minutes turned into 45 minutes. A friendship was born. And an idea was hatched.
“The stories Bill told me about all the racist stuff and indignities he had to overcome were incredible,” Klein recalled. “Guys like Bill had to endure everything that Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Satchel endured, but without much, if any recognition. I wanted to do something about that.”
Klein began collecting stories for a book he hopes to publish down the road. And he decided to stage events in Rochester so men like McCrary could tell their stories, and be recognized for what they had achieved in the forced shadow of others. Klein set up a GoFundMe page and used the money he raised to bring McCrary and other Negro Leaguers to town for several “They Stepped Up to the Plate” celebrations.
Those events included Ike Walker, a long-time Xerox employee and Irondequoit resident who was the starting catcher on Paige’s traveling all-star team in the summer of 1963.
“Satchel prepared us as best he could for what we would face on the road,” Walker told me a few years ago. “He told us we would hear things from the stands, and we did. And there was still segregation we had to deal with back in ’63. There were still plenty of restaurants that didn’t serve Blacks, and there still were plenty of hotels where we couldn’t stay. But we dealt with it. Satchel taught us how to be professional, how to turn the other cheek and ignore things like Jackie did. And I’d like to think that the way we carried ourselves helped pave the way for other Blacks.”
Paige was the ultimate showman — a Harlem Globetrotter in baseball flannels. And, as his catcher, Walker had the best seat in the house.
“There was this one time, when we were playing a game in Omaha, Neb., and in the fourth inning Satch motioned for our outfielders to come into the infield,” Walker recalled. “He wound up striking out all three batters he faced, so there was no need for the outfielders or infielders, for that matter. Heck, they could have taken the inning off and watched from the stands. It was just me and Ol’ Satch playing catch.”
The anecdote’s even more amazing when you consider Paige was 57 years old at the time.
Walker and Klein will be at Frontier Field Saturday night sharing those stories and more when the Red Wings celebrate “Negro League Night” during their game against the Buffalo Bisons. The two men will participate in a question-and-answer session, and Walker, who recently turned 80, will throw out the first pitch. The Wings will wear uniforms commemorating the Rochester American Giants, an all-Black professional team that once called the Flower City home.
Klein is thrilled the Wings are doing this because it’s another opportunity to raise awareness about these pioneering men who, for too long, have been relegated to the dustbins of history. He only wishes McCrary could have taken part. The Monarchs shortstop passed away two years ago at age 89, and it felt like a death in the family to Klein.
A simple request for some autographs had blossomed into a special bond. During McCrary’s last visit to upstate New York, Klein arranged for him to tour the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown so he could see the statue of his Monarchs’ manager, Buck O’Neil. While in the museum, Klein approached the parents of several kids and asked them if they wanted to meet a guy who had played in the Negro Leagues. They jumped at the chance, and soon 20 people were listening with rapt attention as McCrary regaled them with tales from his glory days. Thanks to kind-hearted people like Klein and moments like these, McCrary realized he and others who had been denied opportunities to play in the white leagues had made an impact, too.
Klein invited Bill and his son, Tracy McCrary, to stay at their house in Honeoye Falls that week. And what a memorable week it was. One evening, the octogenarian began conducting an impromptu baseball clinic for Klein’s kids.
“Here’s this guy sitting in my living room showing my kids how Satchel Paige gripped a baseball,” Klein recalled. “Imagine that?”
It was an indelible moment. A moment more valuable than any autograph.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.