As part of my memorabilia column for ESPN the Magazine, I recently interviewed a woman by the name of Delores Knox. Her father, J. Leonard Mitchell, was an outfielder with several Negro League clubs of the 1920s, and later went on to help run a few clubs when his playing days were over.
I only used a few quotes from the longish interview I did with Mrs. Knox, so I wanted to share the entire Q&A with readers of Bus Leagues.
Prepared Statement: As I look at today’s sports greats: Tiger Woods, Venus & Serena Williams, Michael Jordan and Ryan Howard, I’m proud to know that my father is a pioneer – one of many – who, through playing baseball in a separate society in America, left a legacy and paved the way for other black athletes to be recognized and allowed into mainstream sports. And led the way for Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Roy Campanella to be integrated into America’s favorite sport, baseball.
How did you realize you had something valuable?
I didn’t really realize that they had a large monetary value. They were important to me for sentimental reasons because of my father. Most little girls are in love with their daddies. He was my hero. I loved those pictures as a child, but as an adult, they ended up in the basement. About 15 years ago, I heard on TV that someone in New Jersey had an interest in buying Negro Leagues memorabilia. I tried to contact him, but nothing happened. They went back in the basement.
A few years ago, a friend from Chicago said they were opening up a nightclub with a Negro Leagues theme. But I never followed up on that one.
This past November, I was in the kitchen one morning with the local news on TV, drinking my coffee, and this guy from Hunt Auctions was on TV talking about their auction at the Louisville Slugger museum, and that they would have appraisals there, too. I figured I’d get that stuff of daddy’s and go up to the museum and see if it had any value.
My husband, being an impatient male, was hurrying me along. He was sitting in the car, waiting on me. When they got around to me, I pulled out a few pieces, and immediately it started piqueing their interest. Then after a few more pieces, they called the president of Hunt Auctions over. They started throwing out numbers like $300, then $500.
They set up an appointment to see the whole collection. Then, as I was getting ready to leave, one of the men said ‘Can I get someone escort you to your car?’, and on that note, I knew, for sure, that I had something of value.
Did your husband have to eat his words?
Of course! Little girls always think daddy hung the moon. My husband over the years was getting sick of hearing about my daddy. So when I came out, and told him about the value of these old things, he was suddenly ‘I’d love to hear about your daddy’. The whole story changed then.
Did you keep anything back for sentimental reasons?
Yes, there are some items I did keep.
How did your father store these things?
I don’t know that he had a sense that they would have value, but he was a pretty neat, organized person. It had so much meaning to him, he valued it so much, that he tried to keep things pretty neat and orderly. My keeping up with it has been less neat and orderly than his. Had I been aware, I probably would have protected it more.
Did your father have some favorite stories from his time in the Negro Leagues?
Are you familiar with Goose Tatum of the Harlem Globetrotters? They originated maybe in the ‘40s. Of course, a white man owned them as a way to make money off of blacks clownin’. My father’s teams used to barnstorm. They went through all these little towns in the south. One time my daddy was in El Dorado, Arkansas, and he saw this long, lanky kid who turned out to be Goose Tatum, who was one of the original stars of the Globetrotters. He saw that he had athletic ability, so he brought him up here to live, and he played baseball on the team up here in Louisville until one day Abe Saperstein from the Globetrotters saw him barnstorming, and he recruited him for the basketball team. He went on to become one of the original stars of the Globetrotters.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Eastern part of Kentucky, over in Appalachia? Real poor, coal mining area. They had very few, if any, blacks at all in that area in the 1920s. He would tell a story about how they went up there to play ball. And a little girl said to him “Mister, is that coal on your face? Or is it dirt on your face?” She had never seen a black person. All she knew about was coal.
You mention clowning for entertainment. Some of the photographs from your collection show teams that went above and beyond baseball to entertain. Putting on makeup, juggling, playing under names like the Cannibal Zulu Giants. Did your father ever do any of that?
I think daddy played on a team called the Original Zulu Giants. In that era, blacks were basically considered still subservient, or lesser, or buffoons. So I guess they played to the climate at that time, to a certain extent. Like I said, this man Abe Saperstein recognized that blacks clowning on the basketball court would make him money.
There are some non-baseball items including photos of your father with famous black entertainers of the day, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Did he ever talk about meeting those people?
There’s a picture in there of daddy with Jesse Owens. Traveling around with these teams afforded him an opportunity to meet various stars or important people of the day. He had a very interesting life, doing this, because he got to meet all these people. Hitler proclaimed that the German people wouldn’t participate in the ’36 Olympics if this black man competed, because he was so-called “inferior”, you know? And then he went on to win all the gold.
He had a colorful life. He was an adventurer.
I also saw some memorabilia from the All-American Girls Baseball League, which was popularized by the recent film “A League of Their Own”. How did that end up in your father’s collection?
I was looking at those this morning. Again, by being in the world of sports, he got to get around, and meet people. I can only presume that he knew whoever the manager of the team was, or somebody connected with the team.
Would he have felt welcome at a game at the time, given the racial climate?
That would all be guesswork. He might have been able to be a guest sitting in the dugout behind the scenes. But I doubt if he would have been welcome in the stands. But knowing him… my father had a lot of suaveness. He had a gift for gab. He was able to meet and talk to anybody. I’m sure that somewhere along the way, he must have met an owner or manager and got up a dialogue or a friendship undercover with him.
Some former Negro Leagues players felt bitter that they never got their chance to prove what they could do in the major leagues. What was your father’s take on that?
I don’t think he was bitter. If he was, he didn’t express it. As a child, I don’t know if I would have comprehended that anyway. He just enjoyed what he did, and enjoyed his time, and the adventure of meeting all the people he did.
He used to talk about playing against Satchel Paige. I know Satchel Paige got inducted into the Hall of Fame years, years, years later. But he died in 1969, so he never saw that.
As a kid, I can remember him being glued to the TV in baseball season. It was like the TV was an extension of his right arm. He loved baseball. He ate, slept, walked, talked, read baseball. In his own quiet way, I think he knew he was part of opening doors that led to other people getting a chance to play.