Monday, May 30, 2016

Talking About Buck O'Neil and the Kansas City Monarchs With Former Players Sam Taylor and Bill Bell

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to talk to former Kansas City Monarchs players Sam Taylor and Bill Bell.

Taylor, from East St. Louis, was a catcher who played with the Monarchs from 1952-54

Bell, who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, was a pitcher and center fielder for the Monarchs in 1949, then went into the service. When he came out he played with the Monarchs again in 1953.

"We were the best team in the league," said Taylor, and he's not just bragging. The Kansas City Monarchs were the flagship team of the Negro Leagues. Charter members of the Negro National League in 1920, they boasted alumni such as Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, won more championships and would send more players to the major leagues than any other team. The Monarchs had an aura, and a national following. Tweed Webb, who wrote for the African American weekly the St. Louis Argus summed up: “To play for the Monarchs, you had to be the best.”

It was tough to make the team, and veterans were not exactly happy to see new players. “Any time you come to a new team, it’s rough,” said Taylor. “You don’t have no friends. When you come in you’re taking someone’s spot, their job—it might have been one of their friends. They’re afraid it might be them next. Nobody is proud of you when you go up to a team. It takes a while for them to accept you. You have to prove yourself. Everybody is watching you.”

Once they proved their worth, however, new players became part of a close family. But times were changing. Once the Negro Leagues had been an integral part of Black society. By the early 1950s, they were on their way out. “The older guys were always talking that it wasn’t the way it used to be,” said Taylor. “We had some pretty small crowds sometimes."

Owner Tom Baird had to keep a close watch on the budget. "Baird, he was a slick talker anyways," said Taylor. "He was always playing poor. ‘We ain’t getting no money, we don’t have any money for that.' When the subject of money came up, he was tight.” 

"I always thought Tom Baird treated me all right," said Bell. "A lot of guys thought T.Y. was kind of stingy with his money and wanted to keep it all for himself. You know, when he sold off players to the majors, they didn’t get any of that. But everybody had to be careful with money back then. When I went in the service, I told Tom I needed some money and he sent me about 500 bucks."  

The legendary Buck O’Neil was the manager of the Monarchs. O’Neil, who would soar to prominence after appearing in Ken Burns’ 1994 series Baseball and lived out his life as the sweet-talking oracle of the Negro Leagues, was a slick fielding, better-than-average-hitting three-time All-Star first baseman who had been with the Monarchs since 1938. He became player manager in 1948 and would hold that title until 1955 when he resigned (after Baird sold the team) and became a scout for the Chicago Cubs. By 1950, at the age of 39 years, he confined himself to the dugout most of the time, but could still swing a bat well enough that when he looked around the dugout for a pinch hitter, he would often say, “Wait a minute. Hand me my wood."

 O'Neil was universally respected by the men who played for and against him. “The only thing I can say about Buck is that he was one of the finest men I ever knew,” said Taylor. “If you couldn’t get along with Buck there was something wrong with you. He never pulled punches, he would tell you exactly how it was. He could have managed in the majors if they'd given him a chance. He knew how to handle people, that was the key. He made everybody on the team want to play hard. Guys wanted to play for Buck. He could keep everybody happy. It’s one thing to know baseball, it’s another to know how to manage men. Buck knew both.”   

“Buck O’Neil was the kind of manager that left it up to you as far as what you needed to do and what kind of career you wanted to have,” said Bell. "Buck expected everyone to do what they needed to do to be ready to play."

O’Neil taught smart, fundamentally sound, aggressive baseball—heads up in the field, throwing to the right base, aggressive on the base paths, always ready to steal or take an extra base. Although players feared his disapproving looks, O’Neil seldom raised his baritone voice when a player committed an on-field sin. More than anything else, Buck O’Neil was a leader. The men on the team looked to him, whether it was for a sign with one out and a man on first, or to find out which restaurant to go to after the game. Eternally optimistic, it was difficult to spend much time with him without some of his philosophy and personality rubbing off.

The Monarchs didn’t spend a lot time in Kansas City but when they were there, they were celebrities in the African American community. They played in the stadium of the New York Yankee AAA farm team, the Kansas City Blues and would frequently outdraw their white counterparts—often twenty thousand to Opening day. The Monarchs drew fans from all over the Midwest, even whites. Black churches would end services early when the Monarchs were in town; preachers knew better than to keep the crowd of fidgeting kids--and adults—late. Fans would crowd into the park in their Sunday best. A Monarch game was a downright social event.

At the time, Kansas City was segregated at 27th Street—north was white, south was black. While Monarch players rarely went downtown due to the segregation in restaurants and theaters, they ruled south of 27th Street. There were those who said that Kansas City had the best blues, the best barbecue and the best baseball in those days, and it would be hard to argue against them. For Monarch players, Kansas City life centered around 18th and Vine Streets, on the east side of town. Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Pearl Bailey routinely torched joints like the Blue Room and the Reno Club. Basie came to Kansas City so often he named his band the KC Seven.

Most players took a room at the Streets Hotel and were treated like royalty. The Streets was a three-story, red-brick building with a barber shop and a big restaurant called the Rose Room on the first floor. Located in the heart of the black commercial district, not far from the building in which Rube Foster had founded the Negro Leagues in 1920, it was steeped in tradition.

 A big steak dinner at the Rose Room was a dollar and two cents tax. Players called it a “dollar-two.” A plate of eggs, bacon and grits for breakfast was thirty-five cents. Not far from the Streets was a legendary barbecue rib joint at the corner of 18th and Brooklyn. The owner, Arthur Bryant, was a huge baseball fan and players often ate all they wanted there for free. A renowned tailor at Myers Tailor Shop provided the impeccably dressed O’Neil with his suits and argyle socks

The one constant about playing baseball in the Negro Leagues was the travel. "There was a game every day and everyday you were in a different town," said Bell. The team played the vast majority of its games on the road. The Negro League season was April to September, about 125 games. But in between league games, they played a lot of small towns to make money. "Sometimes, if the town team had just been routed by another road team, attendance would be down, which affected everyone."

 "We would go from town to town, playing local teams," said Taylor. "They would let us know when we had a league game coming up. I have caught four games in one day. Some weeks I caught 12 or 13. That's a lot of bending over--that's why my knees are bad now [at the time of the interview, Taylor was 84 years old and spent much time in a wheelchair]."

“We would be in the Catskill Mountains and the next day we’d be in Columbus, Ohio,” said Bell. “We would sleep on the bus while it drove to the next town. We did a lot of sleeping on the bus. We’d go to Memphis, then head down to Florida, then back up to Birmingham, then work our way up to Indianapolis.”

Frequently they would hook up with a team such as the Indianapolis Clowns and tour with them for several weeks, playing games each day in a different town. 

 When in heavily populated African American areas, such as Chicago, Detroit and New York, they stayed at the best hotels, ate in good restaurants and heard the best music in the world. The Negro League teams could play in every major league ball park except Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field.    

In small towns, they sometimes had less than hospitable eating and sleeping arrangements. O’Neil usually had the inside track on friendly African Americans who would allow players to sleep at their houses, but often, there were no accommodations.  “A rookie had to be the one to go into the restaurants and get us seats sometimes," said Taylor. "I got some hard things said to me. It was hard to swallow. But sometimes you could talk them out of it. Alot of times Buck could talk us into a place and we'd get to eat."

 "Sometimes we'd all go out to eat together, sometime just a few of us depending on where we were. Once in a little town in Wisconsin, about four or five of us went into this little restaurant and sat down and they called the police. So here comes this policeman and when he talked to us and found out we were Monarchs, he said, 'Shoot, you usually go to better places than this.' Then he gave us directions to a better restaurant where we could eat."

Nobody griped about the conditions; it beat work. They soon developed a routine--play, pack, ride--that they performed with meticulous precision that would make an Army logistics officer smile. Often with no showers after the game, it was not unusual to play the next day in a damp uniform. 
Players would chip in their three or four dollar a day meal money and go to a supermarket for baloney, sardines, bread, peanut butter, and drinks. Occasionally black families would invite them over and feed them. Riding the bus, guys playing their blues harps and guitars, singing, joking and arguing, get into small towns, get out, change clothes, play the game, get back on the bus and ride to another town. “But we had a lot of fun," said Bell. "Everybody got along good on the team and had fun together. You spend that much time together, you get close. And we never had guys who caused any trouble. Buck wouldn’t have stood for that; he would have gotten rid of them.” 

As expected, playing in the south presented challenges. “Oh man, it was rough,” said Bell. "There was a lot of stuff I had never seen before. I’ll never forget the first time we were in San Antonio. I was about 18 or 19. I saw a sign that said, 'Nigger chicken served here.' I asked Willard Brown what that meant. He just shrugged, ‘Oh, that’s just what they call dark meat chicken down here.’ I grew up in Des Moines. I wasn't used to that. The guys from the south already knew the rules. Like Ernie Johnson and Sherwood Brewer, they were from Mississippi. It was a different mind set down there.”

Buck O’Neil and the older players would tell them at each stop what to do, what not to do, and which stores and restaurants they could go to. There was no joking--the older players were totally serious when they would look out for the younger players, often adding a legend of bad things that had happened to a black man who hadn’t obeyed the rules in that part of the country.  “Buck and the other guys would always tell us when we went to a new place, to keep us out of trouble, to make sure we didn’t step out of line.”

 And they would especially warn them of the dangers of the potentially deadly syndrome of reckless eyeballs. “Once in Memphis my first year [1948], I needed to get a pair of socks," said Bell. "Willard [Brown] told me, ‘You get down to the store, get what you need, and then get your ass straight back here.’ Memphis was really bad. You had to be careful. They said you might pass some white women waiting for a bus or something and sometimes, they liked to show everything they got, you know. They said, ‘Don’t even look. It might be the last thing you ever look at.’”

“I remember once in Little Rock, the older guys told me, ‘See that white man coming down the street? He’s not going to get out of your way. You’re going to have to get on the damn grass. And he doesn’t want you to look him in the eye. You have to look down.’ They wanted to belittle you; take your dignity. But Birmingham was the worst. Let me tell you, when we played there, we didn’t go nowhere. We just stayed together, played ball, then got the heck out of town. Memphis was rough. You didn't step out of line there. Indianapolis and Cincinnati weren't much better."

"Once we were down in Tampa for two days and we were in a park that had a lot of major league contacts. It had a nice clubhouse. Before one of the games, some of the guys took a shower. I said, 'I'll wait until after we play to take my shower. And when we came back in, they'd turned off the hot water. There was nothing left but cold water."

"Another time in Tampa we slept in the bus three nights in a row because there was no place to stay. We went to the bus station when we had to go to the bathroom [in the 'colored only' restroom]. You had to pay a nickel to use the restroom."               

How did they survive? How did they keep their drive, keep from giving up, succumbing to the hatred and lack of hope? “I guess it was just the times,” said Bell. He added that players realized that there was nothing they could do about the racism and that things were certainly better than they had been in their parents’ time. But it wasn't easy.
By the early 1950s, the Monarchs had a working agreement with Havana, which supplied several outstanding Cubans players. Pancho Herrara, a hulking 18 year old first baseman who would later play in the minor leagues, and Juan Armenteros, a hard-hitting catcher who would make the Negro League All-Stars for several years, were nice guys and liked by all. Diego Nunez, was a twenty year old, 5-6 pitcher with outstanding ability, but he had a bit of a reputation. “He had a high temper," said Taylor.

"He was a hood,” said Bell. “Herrara told us that Nunez had been into everything back in Cuba, maybe even jail. He had to leave the island was why he came here to play.”

“Some of the fellas didn’t like the Cubans,” said Taylor, “especially when they went to talking that Spanish. Nobody knew what they were talking about. But I got to know them and they became some of my better friends. I learned a lot of Spanish from them.”

The one thing on everyone's mind in the early 1950s was to get noticed by major league scouts. “By 1953, everybody was trying to get to the next level,” said Bell.

“We didn’t call it the major leagues,” said Taylor. “We called it ‘Going to Heaven.’ Guys would be talking and they’d say, ‘You hear about so-and-so? He’s going to Heaven.’ That meant he got signed. That’s all we thought about—getting seen and then signed.” 

Alot of guys made the jump to Heaven. But alot of good players didn't. They were too late. By the mid-1950s major league teams were scouting and signing their own African American players and neglecting the Negro Leagues. And the Negro Leagues were dying a slow, painful death. 

"My last year was 1953," said Bell. "I had a job with the post office. I worked up to a pretty good job and if I left it for the summer I might not get it back. I had gotten married and had a kid. I had to get out of baseball to make money to raise a family. The most I got with the Monarchs was $400. A kid had to really love the game to do all that for that little money. And he couldn’t have any obligations to worry about. It was pretty rough at times. After I got married, I didn't think I could afford to go back. I ended up making pretty good money with the post office for about thirty years, then I retired."         

Taylor made even less than Bell. "I did it for a big $250 a month," Taylor said. "I didn't even get meals. I didn't know anything about contracts. I had a wife and two kids; $250 a month doesn't get you very far, even back then. It was hard. My last year was 1954. I went back to my job at a chemical plant near St. Louis. I made a lot more money there." 

There are no regrets and neither ever lost his love for baseball. "Later I was hooked up in Little League and Babe Ruth League for years," Bell said. "A couple of times we almost won the state championship."

 "I loved the game," said Taylor. "I love it now. I'll never forget the time I had in baseball."

"I wonder if guys today realize how easy they have it compared to us," added Bell.

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