March 2009 Interview: Willie Bradshaw

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Transcript

Introduction:
Willie Bradshaw is a hall of fame Negro League baseball player from my home town, Durham, North Carolina. He was a pitcher and manager for the Durham Rams and also played for the Roxboro Colts, North Carolina Black Sox and several other teams. He currently sits as a chairmen of the black baseball club of Durham. This month’s interview is a glimpse into the life of a world-class athlete in the segregated south. Mr. Bradshaw, welcome to Blackademics.

Pierce Freelon:
One of the things that I wanted to know was about the Durham Rams. I was at Paino Cuts right up on 15-501 and Lorenzo (Thomas) and his brother came in and they were talking about…

Willie Bradshaw:
Oh you’re talking about Johnny?

PF:
Yeah, Johnny and LorenzoThomas - brothers, right?

WB:
Right, they lived right down the street from me when they were kids. Let me tell you a little joke about Johnny. Johnny played on the little league baseball team that they had. See, both of them were younger than myself. He played on the little league baseball team and he was a pretty good player. So I carried him with us one day off up to, not Lynchburg, on the other side of Rocksboro up there to play a game before we played against somebody else, so just carried them up there anyway. And of course you know, you try to train the kids the right way, you have signals for them to do certain things. So the bases were
loaded, no one was out, so we go try to score we figure we can hold em. Jonny was the forth hitter for me. Good kid, could hit the ball pretty hard and those things too. And I gave Johnny the bunt signal. Johnny hit a home run. And when he rounded third base, I kicked him right in his ass. Cause he didn’t do what I told him.

PF:
I told you to bunt!

WB:
Yes sir, so that’s the thing about Johnny. And I remember when Lorenzo was born, my mama carried me over to look at him. Because I think he was born at home so my mama carried me and lifted me in the window so I could see him because his mama and my mama were real good friends. Alright, now we can go. I just wanted to tell you that about Johnny so if you see him again, you can say: “Mr. Bradshaw told me what he did to you in South Boston, Virginia.”

PF:
That was in Virginia?

WB:
Yeah, we did that in South Boston. I had carried him up there to play an exhibition little league game against somebody. Okay, we can go now.

PF:
That was an all Black league as well?

WB:
Yeah, it was Black kids, man. That was before integration.

PF:
Well, as I was saying, I was getting my haircut and they were in there joking with each other and Mr. Brandon. And they were talking about the Durham Rams and I was like, “well, what are the Durham Rams?” And they were talking about, “you know, that’s our Negro League baseball team from right here in Durham”. I’ve been living here my whole life and this is a little piece of Durham history that I don’t know. So anything about how it got started, how you were introduced to it, where you heard about it, where you’re from, just about you - anything at all.

WB:
Okay, basically, I’m a Durham boy. See I was born and raised in Durham, and I lived most of my life in Durham, except for stints and in the summertime, in and out of New York, working. And then when I really started to work, I worked away from Durham for 10 years before I was able to come back home and work in the public schools system. The Black Sox were a team that was organized, heck when I was a kid. It might have been earlier than that. And I heard a lot about em too, and people talking about them and what have you. And if you really wanted to see an old picture of the Black Sox, you know where the Red Rooster is?

PF:
The Red Rooster? No what’s that?

WB:
It’s on… okay, do you know where Pettigrew St. is?

PF:
Yeah, Pettigrew.

WB:
It’s on Pettigrew and what you do is when you go across Fayetville and Pettigrew, you keep going and there’s a cafe that sits over to the right, back up in there. They have a real old picture in there that we borrow sometimes when we’re doing certain things and put it on display. Because it tells a true story of when they first started playing. And it was basically composed of, uh. Going back on the knowledge that I’ve picked down through the years. Of boys who were Durham boys, period. From all over town, who played on this particular team. And they played back then at what was known as the “el torro park” which later became the DAP the Durham athletic park. And after it burned down and they restructured the thing, because it burned down to the ground, see? And they restructured the thing. Then as a kid you hear about these things, and a few of these fellas who had played on the old Black Sox, lived in my community. I was born and raised over there where Northgate is, in a community that’s know over there the black community then was Walltown, W-A-L-L-T-O-W-N And we called it over there, we called that the dirt street lodge. A bunch of us was born and raised over there. So some of us became interested in baseball that way, through some of the older people. They (the Black Sox) were older than we were, and they would talk about it, so then we become interested in it and sometimes they would show us some pointers, and what have you. Then most influencial person in probably, my start to play baseball and some of the rest of us. was a man named William Roberts. He had a pretty big backyard, and uh he was crazy about baseball, so he formed a team of a bunch of youngsters it was called uh.. the Robert’s Giants. And um, we took a liking to that, so some picked up some skills in doing that. Then later on we started playing other teams that they had in the community. So after that, then you know you’re getting older now, and you’re growing up and what have you. And uh, I think when we were teenagers we converted to playing softball. Softball was a popular sport all over town, so we converted to playing softball. And then occasionally we would play some baseball against other people.

We drove buses or cars, that was the main thing we had to travel by. A lot of kids out of the old neighborhood who later played with us, and I think sometimes that was what made the kids in our neighbor hood be pretty good, by my being coaching these particular kids if I needed somebody to so show em some finer points, I could call on all of these people, who would come in and they would help out. And It was amazing about those kids, cause Johnny and them used to come to my house and wake me up at 6 oclock in the morning, to go to baseball practice and I’d get pissed with them and I would run them form 6 oclock to 7, then we’d do other things, before it got hot. And I guess that was my privdilage, cause I worked at the playground right behind my house in Walltown.

And the Blacksox busted up and some other teams were formed. And some of them had watched some of us play, so they later pooled us together and formed another team. and that particular team was known then, it started off as the Durham Eagles, and it was composed of teenagers, some a little older, some in their 20s, few in their 30s, and what have you. so we got started that way. From there, I went to college, I went to Central. And at Central they resurrected baseball and put it back in as a sport down there, which they don’t have it now. And there a older fella down there who had played baseball and who had umpired baseball practically all over there world. And he took an intrest in all of us and we had a team at North Carolina Central and we were called… the Eagles was the name of that particular club.

So after the fellas who owned the Eagles split up, then that meant that a lot of us went this way and a lot of us went that way, and a lot of us went the other way. Back then you could play baseball in the summer and get paid for it. So it meant then that you could do that in the summer and I think for about two summers, I played baseball and got paid for it playing for the Durham Eagles. And after they split up then of course they kinda.. you know, left us hanging. So another fella who had been instrumental with the Eagles, he pulled together a team, and changed the name of it from the Eagles to the Durham Rams. And it meant then that it was one of those things to where you played for a commition, you went off and played somebody 60:40 with the winning team getting 60% of the money and the losing team getting 40% of the money. That’s the way it was. And then, of course, as I used to say and my mama used to say, if anybody came by and wanted somebody to play baseball and they stopped at my house, one of the questions I would ask was: “what color are the uniforms they’re playing in?” Becuase I had 6 or 7 baseball uniforms that belonged to other people. So we got started that way, then later on after I became an adult and was working and those things, I became the manager of the Durham Rams. I managed the Rams for maybe 8 or 9 years. And I got older and it started cutting into the work that I was doing, and I couldn’t do some of the things that I was doing so I just basically stopped. And then after that we formed this particular club that we have now, The Black Baseball Club of Durham. If you look up there you’ll see a lot of these people. A lot of the names on there, the ones who played with us. And believe it or not, our of my neighborhood there were, how many of us, let me see. Red Camel was a catcher, Pete Payton was a pitcher, I did some pitching and managing.

PF:
Out of the the Walltown community?

WB:
Uh huh and Alvis Whittman played second base. Let me see, who else?

PF:
Did you guys play other teams in Durham, or did you move around?

WB:
Yeah, we moved around in North Caorlina and played.

PF:
Do you have any stories about going out? How did you guys move around, did you have a bus?

WB:
We drove buses or cars. That was the main thing you had to travel by. A lot of kids out of the old neighborhood who later played with us. And I think, sometimes, that was what made the kids in our neighborhood pretty good. By my being the coach of these particular kids, if I needed somebody to show them some finer points, I could call on all of these people who would come in and they would help out. It was amazing about those kids because Johnny and them would come to my house at 6 o’clock in the morning to go out to baseball practice and I’d get pissed with them, so I’d run them from 6 o’clock to 7 and then we’d do other things before it got hot. I guess that was my privilege because I worked on the playground right behind my house at Walltown, over there by Northgate now. So we got started that way and of course you had other people from around trying to get the best that you can get and then go from there.

I got tricked once. I’ll tell you about three stories. I got tricked once, and school was still in session. And we playing baseball and of course you don’t want to hurt your financial aid that you were getting and the scholarships you were getting when you’re playing at school. So they going down to Fayetteville to play one day, and they tell me, “say man, come on and play with us on next Sunday.” The Sunday before that I wouldn’t bother but they going to Fayetteville they said the next Sunday. “Man, come on” I said, “I’m not in shape to play with you all” - now even though I was in probably better shape than they were, I said - “I’m not in shape.” “Aww, man come on and go with us man, they beat us last Sunday and they beat us 5 to 3.” See, which was a lie - don’t put that down, I’ll tell you about it, which was a lie. So they said okay, and I go down there like a fool, I go with them anyway.“Aww man you can help us out today.” I’m pitching now. The first batter hit a home run off of me. The fence in right field was at least 15 feet high and it was a time clock sitting out there up on the fence, and he hit that son of a gun up over the damn clock. And I looked in the dugout, and Bobby was managing then - he and the rest of them were over bout to lay down in the dugout laughing. So now this P’d me and I get to, “what the hell are you jokers laughing about?” They said, “oh man, we brought you down here, and we know you probably wouldn’t have pitched if we’d told you the truth. They beat us last Sunday, by 11 to 4.” So I got P’d with em then, I made sure they didn’t do much more hitting no more damn home runs home runs that Sunday. Cause I kept em off balance by throwing a lot of curve balls. Then, all of these stories come out of Fayetteville.

PF:
What was the name of the Fayetteville team?

WB:
I can’t even think. A lot of those players were on the post down there. That meant they had played a whole lot of baseball. In fact one of the boys ended up playing with the Kansas City Athletics. Can’t even think of his name. He was a pitcher too, big joker. Throw hard as hell. I used to beat up on him too. So we go down there, I’m managing then, we go down there and it so happened that they walked the first three batters to put him on base. And I was taught playing for this old man in college that you wait until somebody throws a strike before you even think about hitting. Let him get the ball over the base. Now this person had walked three strait men. So the cleanup hitter was up there, and he was a cousin of mine. So you know you give him the signals and things to take and the the first damn pitch he hit, damn triple play. And you know we hot now. Couldn’t whoop him. Ain’t nobody wanted to jump him. Cause half the time they travel around with ain’t no telling what, to protect themselves. But that’s one story you know people like Johnny - if he had been Johnny’s size or something like that I’d have put my foot in his butt. Wasn’t man enough to fight him.

Then another day, we was down there playing 60/40 and you look in the stands and say, well, today from the number of people up there if we win this game we gon have a cut of about 60 to 70 dollars a piece, which wasn’t bad for a Sunday playing baseball. And I’m pitching this Sunday and just as fast as we strike them out, the catcher missed the ball. And they had players on base, so we lost the game about 5 to 4. So he went and hid and one of my buddies said, yeah, I want to find him so damn bad, I don’t know what to do. Said, I’m gon cut him, cut him, cut him.

You have all of those kind of stories when you’re around baseball, especially when you’re traveling with those folks. So it was interesting and it was another one of those particular situations where you think about what life is all about sometimes when you do those things. Now some of the kids that we had made it to the majors in black baseball. One kid that I played with in college got all the way to the St. Louis Browns before he was put in his place. He was a damn good baseball player, though. His name was William Springfield. We called him Wig Springfield. Better known as “Wig” he got all the way to the Browns and he was a good baseball player. And you’ll see the names of some others who made it to various teams. Had some of em got as high as AA, A, AAA. A lot of the kids I played with signed with the Giants back when they were real strong. You’ll see something about them too on that particular sheet when you read about them. It was just interesting and it came about at a time where playing baseball and things kept you out of some dangerous situations when you were growing up. You got a chance to travel, and the years that I played with the Eagles, we traveled from New York to Flordia, we played against a whole lot of people.

PF:
Were there any particular struggles that you remember?

WB:
The struggles that you had as a kid coming up, you just went on and accepted them because, what could you do about it? If a man didn’t want to to feed you at his café, he didn’t have to feed you. He’d send you around the back if you was hungry enough, you would have to get it. You know, you’d get it the best way you could. Sometimes they wouldn’t let you use the restrooms, so you prepared for that. Sometimes you may had to stop on the side of the road and do what you had to do. But it was interesting, it got to the point to where basically, the best sleep that you would get basically would be riding on a raggedy old bus half the time. You played and you go get on the bus and as soon as you get on the bus because you had to go to another place, you sit up there and go to sleep.

This is kinda funny. Everybody sleeping on the bus and you hit these towns early in the morning because there were no expressways then you had to go through town and all those things. There weren’t too many places air conditioned. No air conditioner was in the window. So early in the morning people would cut their lights on, no blinds, no nothing they just cut their lights on and get dressed. And if somebody said “light on the right” you’d find everybody’s head come up like this and turn and look to the right because there was a woman somewhere dressing. As soon as they passed by they would drop their heads and go back to sleep. “light on the left” - wake up, turn your head and look to the left.

So we had Joe Black (who) played some exebition games with us. And I can’t even think of the boy, he was a left-handed pitcher, who played some exibition games with us. We had somebody come and play with us he pitch for the Dodgers too, can’t even think of his name. He was fool though, a sure nuff fool, the white boy was. He was in the Navy stationed up in Norfolk. He’d come down on the weekend and they would gaurentee him so much money and he would pitch maybe two or three innings a night for three days.

PF:
So, this is a white pitcher now?

WB:
Yeah, playing with us.

PF:
So they allowed white guys to…

WB:
Yeah we played against the white boys in town. We played against the white boys that were from up in Danville Virginia.

PF:
How did we fare against them?

WB:
We could hold our own, now. Some of them were real good. Roger Craig, who later managed the Giants. Hell, we played against him. But uh, the best one that came out of Durham, white boy that came out from Durham hurt his arm. Julius Moore, he hurt his arm and he later joined the police force in Durham, he was a hell of a pitcher, too. So you just have varied experiences when you’re playing. Here’s another story too. We played in the North Carolina semi-pro tournament. Which means that it was held in Roxboro at the old Roxboro high-school. And what they would bring in was all the semi-pro teams in North Carolina, who wans’t playing, you would come over there and you gon make a little money you gon get a trophy, you gon do this that and the other. So a white fella there named Bates, Melvin Bates was his name. He tried to pick the best ball players that he could get to come over there and play. So one of them you’ll see on there his name is William Wallace: Bear Wallace. Well Bear had played with the Raleigh Tigers. And the Raleigh Tigers was maybe a little - cause they had kids from all over the country playing like, uh Johnny Neal who played second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. You might not remember a black boy, he played with the Raleigh Tigers and, some others - Bear played with the Raleigh Tigers, and later played with the Indianopalis Crowns. William Wallace is his name, you’ll see him William “Bear” Wallace on that thing. Bear was a good pitcher, a damn good knuckle ball. So all of us there, you know we going down the hill, all of us working and we got families and the rest of those things, but we still playing, messing with baseball. Melvin Bates came over, got a bunch of us and put us together and started by Bear. Bear pitching with his usual knuckle ball which was damn good and we playing against some white boys from down in Camp Lajune. Damn good ball club. Bear threw a knuckleball that got away from him, hit one of them white boys upside the damn head. First thing the cracker holla, “hey you black son-of a bitch! you better not hit another one of my damn boys or else imma come out there and get you!” So now, you know, you’re in a situration where of course there were more whites, than blacks in the stands. So now what you feel about this. We went on and lost the game, then another one of my friends, his name was Pete Payton. Pete went to the Giants organization too. He was over there pitching one night, could have been the same tournament or the next year. And a damn rat came from out of the stands.

PF:
A rat?

WB:
A rat! He went right to the mound, and round and round and round the mound he went and Pete throwing his glove at him and trying to stomp him. And the cracker holla’d “alright nigger out there, you better not step on your brother!” Them’s the kind of things you have to face. So what can you say, what can you do ain’t nothing you can do, you just accept the fact and go the hell on with it. And I know that there a whole lot of people that say - youngsters now would say, “I wouldn’t have done that” but you know, what difference does it make? We were interested in playing baseball. Didn’t that make that much difference. So, just live up to the hype and keep moving. But it was interesting because you get a chance to travel and you get a chance to play against some hell-of-a ball players.

PF:
Okay, a few more questions. You mentioned the Raleigh Tigers, do you remember any other team names? I know you said Fayetteville team you forgot about…

WB:
The Winston Salem Pond Giants? They had a real tough club. A good club.

PF:
Pawn?

WB:
Pond. P-O-N-D Giants. Two names Pond Giants.

PF:
What’s a Pond Giant?

WB:
I don’t know what the hell that is, that’s a good question. Then they had a good team in Greensboro, the Goshen Redwings.

PF:
Gosehn?

WB:
G-O-S-H-E-N, R-E-D-W-I-NG-S. Redwings.

PF:
And these were all Black teams?

WB:
All Black teams. I can’t think of the one that was down there in Wilmington, but they had one down there too. They had them around at a whole lot of places if you stop to think about it.

PF:
About how much… you said you split up 60/40…

WB:
Sometimes you may walk with a dollar or two, you may not get a damn penny. It’s just the thoughts of playing, having a good time.

PF:
And what were the time frames for some of these things, the Durham Rams and the Eagles?

WB:
Okay, let’s go back and start in the 50s. The Black Sox were before then, I guess the Black Sox got started hell in the 30s. That ought to give you a time frame for the rest of it. From the 50s up to about the 70s it was a good thing. As far as Blacks were concerned. Black teams were together and we’d play against others.

PF:
You don’t have a specific time, like the Durham Rams were between…

WB:
No, I ain’t never thought about that.

PF:
And when was it all over? I know we don’t have it now, obviously.

WB:
Well, when they started bringing in the black ball players like Jackie, and some of the rest of em, and you could see the decline in it then. It began to go down, it began to go down, it began to go down. I never will forget I was working down in Laurenburg, North Carolina and this was back in the damn 50’s too. They came through and said we got the Sachuel Paige All-Stars coming down to Fayetteville, and you work in Laurenburg which was only about 40 miles from Fayetteville. On your way back to work, why don’t you come down there and play with us Sunday then you can go from there to work. So we go down there and Sachuel got a bunch of them put together because the season was over and they going stated trying ta make some money, so you figure you make a dollar or two off the game too. And uh, didn’t know nothing about this Black kid who had played in the Texas league which was AA then, it was a AA league. And his name was Eddie Locke, and hell, he had won 30 games in the Texas league. He’s black playing with the white boys and he had won 30 games down there that year, and man, it was kinda nifty that Sunday, because it was over in October. Didn’t too many people want to bat hard as he was throwing the ball. He would throw it real hard.

PF:
He was on Sachuel Paige’s team?

WB:
Yeah, damn right. Nobody wanted to bat that day.

PF:
What was the name of that team?

WB:
They just had the Sachuel Paige All-Stars. That was another thing, too, you’d find Sachuel Paige. You’d find that those were the people putting together teams when the season was over to make some extra money. Because it could get real tough with some of them who had been away from home, some of those Black ball players. Because believe it or not when you’re out there making that kind of money, you gon spend that kind of money during the summer when you’re traveling from place to place to place. It was quite interesting. We played one night up in Lynchburg Virginia, and when the game was over we came outside the gate where it was light. Where the light where we could see by the light that was on, and stood out there and gambled all night long, shot dice till day broke.

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