Take On Life

Brian Koonz on life in Greater Danbury

Danbury man was a ‘Clown’ playing segregated baseball

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Hi everyone,

Long before he moved to Danbury in 1985, Gilbert Hernandez Black watched a dust cloud follow a sheriff’s patrol car onto the baseball field in Biloxi, Miss.

“All of a sudden,” Black said, “the sheriff parked the car near home plate and stopped the game.

“He walked past the pitcher’s mound and started toward me in the outfield,” Black said. “I usually pitched, but in this game, I was playing center field.”

So Black, a 20-year-old kid from Stamford with long arms and longer odds of making it big, took a deep breath and pulled down the brim of his cap.

The year was 1956, a time when black ballplayers still ate at segregated tables and slept in segregated beds in Mississippi and the rest of the deep South.

“The sheriff walked right up to me, closer than I am to you right now,” said Black, 77, leaning across the table. “He looked at my face and my arms, and then he did it again.”

Finally, the sheriff muttered the only word Black wanted to hear: “OK.”

Even though Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball a decade earlier, Black explained, it was illegal for a white man to play on a Negro league team in Mississippi.

“I guess because I have lighter skin, somebody called the police,” Black said. “The sheriff left right after he checked me out, and the game started up again.”

Black is well aware this month marks the 65th anniversary of Robinson signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a civil rights milestone as well as a marketing one.

Branch Rickey, then-general manager of the Dodgers, saw Robinson as a man with the talent and the thick skin it would take to make history and rise above the racists and the drunks.

“There were plenty of guys in the Negro leagues who were just as good as Jackie or better,” Black said. “But they never got a chance to play in the big leagues.”

Eventually, however, some of them did.

Back in 1956, Black played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, the same franchise that embraced Henry Aaron four years earlier.

“Choo-Choo” Coleman also played for the Clowns before he signed with the New York Mets. And Paul Casanova suited up for the Clowns before he put on a Washington Senators uniform.

It was a different story for Gil Black, though. The big-league dream wasn’t meant to be.

In 1955, the year before he played for the Clowns, Black was signed by the Milwaukee Braves and sent to the organization’s minor league team in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Black said the West Palm Beach players slept in “tee-pees” as Braves management liked to call them. In reality, the quarters were more like military barracks cut from corrugated steel.

And yet, eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Brooklyn, segregation was alive and well in the Florida State League.

“The white players got to sleep inside the tee-pees,” Black said. “We had to sleep on the porch.”

During games in West Palm Beach, black fans weren’t allowed to sit in the grandstand, Black said. They were relegated to the right-field bleachers in the back of the stadium, a thinly veiled metaphor for the back of a bus.

Black’s career with the Braves lasted less than a season. The next year, he signed a contract with Ed Hamman, general manager of the Indianapolis Clowns and a real P.T. Barnum disciple.

There was nothing pejorative about the team’s name, Black explained. As much as the Clowns were baseball players, you see, they were performers.

There was “Prince Jo” Henry at third base and “Nature Boy” Williams at first base. There was the diminutive “Bee-Bop” and the super-sized “King Tut.”

In fact, “Goose” Tatum — better known for his antics with the Harlem Globetrotters — once played for the Clowns, Black said.

Although the Clowns had one of those streamlined coach buses from the 1950s, a silver one with the team’s name written in script on the side, it wasn’t unusual for the Clowns to drive across time zones for games.

“We didn’t so much go from city to city as we went from state to state,” Black said. “We’d play in Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, you name it.”

Forget about using GPS to navigate to the next outpost on the Negro American League schedule. The Clowns had “King Tut.”

“We could be driving all the night to the next game, in the pitch black of darkness, and all of a sudden the bus driver would yell, ‘Tut! Tut! Where are we?’ ” Black said.

“Tut would open his eyes, look around for a second and say, ‘OK, we’re close. Take a right up the way and the hotel will be two blocks down on the left.’ ”

And Tut was always right.

The military and married life cut Black’s pro baseball career short. He served for two years in the U.S. Army and helped bring 10 children into the world.

Along the way, Black worked in nightclubs, pool halls, the music business and other entertainment ventures in the Northeast.

But baseball will always be Gilbert Black’s first love, even though his fickle mistress once ushered a sheriff onto a dusty ballfield in Biloxi, Miss.

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To contact Gilbert Black for a speaking engagement, call 203-702-3733.

Categories: General
Brian Koonz

One Response

  1. I loved the article. The Negro Leagues are a valuable asset to American history. They surely have paved the way for African American ball players today. And also contain a wealth of history major leagues and even little leagues should embrace. Again, unprecedented article! Stellar! Thank you Brian, you’re an amazing writer.