Major-league tribute honors Hairston

The Commercial Dispatch
Tim Pratt
October 16, 2010

From the creation of the Negro National League in 1920, the country’s first black professional baseball players were forced to deal with adversity on a daily basis.

Hotels wouldn’t reserve rooms for Negro League teams, so athletes were forced to sleep on buses. Businesses wouldn’t serve black players and teams regularly were subjected to racial slurs. And despite being professional athletes, autograph requests were few and far between.

Saturday at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, however, six former Negro League players received a much different reception than they did while traveling the country in the 1940s and ’50s.

More than 100 people turned out for the Sam Hairston Celebration and gave the six former players a standing ovation. Throngs of fans lined up to get autographs, take pictures and share brief words with the group. Others bought books and merchandise.

“It makes me feel great to see all these people out here because it shows people are finally realizing what we did was very, very important,” said Ernest “Big Dog” Fann, a former catcher and pitcher for the Raleigh Tigers, who said he was exposed to racism on a regular basis during his days as a player. “What we went through was not really something we were doing for ourselves. We were doing it for future athletes. We kind of opened the doors for other black players. It makes me feel good to see people coming out here and realizing what we’ve done.”

The event gave those in attendance a brief glimpse into the history of baseball in the Columbus area and on Sam Hairston, a Lowndes County native who began his baseball career in the fields around Plum Grove and Crawford and wound up playing catcher for the Birmingham Black Barons, Indianapolis Clowns and Chicago White Sox. Two of Hairston’s sons, Jerry Hairston Sr. and Johnny Hairston, played Major League Baseball, along with two of his grandsons, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Scott Hairston.

Jerry Hairston Sr. was thrilled to see so many people attend events this week to honor his father, who died in 1997. Lectures were held at local schools Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and historic marker unveilings took place Friday in Plum Grove and Saturday at Fifteenth Street North and Seventh Avenue North in Columbus. The tribute ended with a concert Saturday night featuring Percy Sledge and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

“It’s great to see the people of Columbus come out to honor my father,” Jerry Hairston Sr. said. “Everybody has been very welcoming. We’re having a great time.”

Among those attending the event was Columbus High School baseball coach Jeffrey Cook, who brought his players and family to get autographs and listen to what the former Negro League players had to say.

“We brought our team out here, number one, so they can see what they can do and what they can accomplish,” Cook said. “These guys went through what they did and accomplished great things and that’s what we try to teach our kids every day. Hard work and perseverance pays off. We wanted our kids to come out and meet these guys and experience what it takes, and show that people from Columbus do make it and are successful.”

Former Columbus High baseball player Stefan Hairston, a member of the Hairston family, also was in attendance Saturday. He now plays baseball for Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale and said he is trying to keep the family tradition alive.

Listening to the experiences of the former Negro League players, Hairston admitted it made him a bit nostalgic for a time he never experienced.

“I’ve always heard stories about them playing in the Negro League because my granddad used to tell me about it, but I never got to see them, so it’s a great feeling for me to come here and see them all in person,” he said.

Fann was joined by former Negro League players Roger Brown, who played second base for the Kansas City Monarchs; Leroy Miller Jr., who pitched for the Birmingham Black Barons; Ernest Harris, a former center fielder for the Birmingham Black Barons; Cleophus Brown, who played first base for the Louisville Clippers; and Henry Elmore, who played third base for the Philadelphia Stars.

Cleophus Brown was pleased to see so many people show up to honor the group’s accomplishments in athletic and race relations.

“It really makes me feel like we did something,” he said.

Published in: on October 18, 2010 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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