While the number of living veterans of the Negro Leagues available to share their stories of segregated baseball runs increasingly scarce, this past weekend two remaining players spent three days regaling the attendees of the 16th annual SABR Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference with their narratives of playing in the league.
Jim Robinson an infielder for the Kansas City Monarchs and the Philadelphia Stars, and Pedro Sierra, a pitcher for the Detroit Stars and the Indianapolis Clowns, both stressed the importance of illuminating this period in baseball’s history.
“Negro baseball is the most important chapter in baseball in the United States,” Sierra said. “I came in the late 50’s on the shoulders of the guys before me. I take a lot of pride in being a part of that legacy.”
Both players shared the distinction of receiving the tutelage of Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston. Experts consider Charleston one of the best, if not the best center fielder ever in baseball. So highly regarded was Charleston that Buck O’Neil described him as, “Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.”
Robinson first encountered Charleston while playing at North Carolina A&T in 1952.
“He was in Greensboro, N.C. with the Philadelphia Stars when I was playing my senior year in college,” Robinson said. “After the game he said, ‘I’m Oscar Charleston.’ I had seen him play so many times because my father used to take me to see the Negro League doubleheaders. He said, ‘I’d like you to consider joining my club.’ I said, ‘I would really be glad to.’ I was really in awe of Oscar Charleston.”
Just as Robinson was finishing his college season, he broke his arm, jeopardizing his chance to play for Philadelphia. The Stars were visiting New York late in the season in August, when Robinson built up the gumption to approach Charleston at their hotel in Manhattan.
“I knew where the Philadelphia Stars were staying,” Robinson said. “I went to the hotel and said to Oscar, ‘I’m ready.’ He gave me the uniform and I worked out before the game.”
Robinson’s workout impressed Charleston enough to keep him on the roster and Charleston rewarded him by inserting him in the lineup later that evening at Yankee Stadium. He played a few more games with the team before finishing what would be the last season in the history of the Stars. He would not get another chance to play for the legendary manager.
Charleston moved on to the Indianapolis Clowns, where he encountered a young prodigy in the 16-year-old Sierra. While Charleston was known for his fiery on-field temper as a player, Sierra remembered a much more kindred spirit in his later years.
“It was that nurturing aspect with Oscar … he was just a gentleman and a gentle guy approaching the players.”