Remembering a baseball player so we don’t forget mistakes of our past
UPDATED (video): A good friend of mine lost a good friend yesterday.
My friend is Claire Smith, and her friend was Alfred “Slick” Surratt. Slick was a player for the Kansas City Monarchs, a teammate of Satchell Paige and Jackie Robinson in the Negro Baseball League. He died at 87. Claire was one of the first women baseball writers back in the early ’80s when she covered the New York Yankees for the Hartford Courant, and all but certain the first black woman to staff a MLB beat.
Claire spoke often about Slick when we were together two weekends ago in Kansas City, where she was being honored by theNegro Baseball Leagues Museum. She got to know Surratt when they traveled with Larry Doby, Joe Black and a few other former baseball stars as part of the Fay Vincent Fellows, a group put together by the former commissioner to talk to college students about the contributions black Americans made to the Greatest Generation. Claire was attracted by Slick’s wit, his wisdom, and the all the stories he told about playing in leagues with Paige and Gibson, and barnstorming games against Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
Early in the day we toured the Museum with a group of honorees, their families, and friends. The NBLM is compelling. The indignity and inhumanity the men of these leagues endured was difficult to comprehend. Eating in the wrong establishment after a game could get a man beaten—or worse. There were signs pointing in one direction for white fans, another for colored. Chicken wire was set up to keep the races separate. As another honoree, Seattle General Manager Jack Zduriencik said, it’s hard to walk through the museum without choking up.
But there was much to celebrate, too. There was the skinny 18-year-old, cross handed hitting shortstop named Hank Aaron, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns. And the young Willie Mays with the Birmingham Black Barons. There’s Josh Gibson—admiringly remembered as the black Babe Ruth—who had seasons of 69, 75, and 84 home runs. And Jackie Robinson, who did as much as anyone to integrate America when he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
During the tour, one of the young black men in our group kept asking questions. It was interesting how little he knew of the depths of racism in both the baseball and our country. He turned out to be the young Houston Astros outfielder Michael Bourn. Claire was encouraged that Michael had so little first hand knowledge of racism. And heartened that the Museum was there to remind him—and everyone else—about the past so it’s not repeated.
Surratt was an important part of that history, and Claire’s favorite. Here’s part of how Claire said good-bye to her friend.
Slick, like most African Americans of his era, bore the pride of having survived in the Jim Crow south, but never hid the scars caused by that spirit-rending segregation. He lost a brother because no hospital in rural Arkansas would treat a black child with a burst appendix. Slick apologized to no one for his limited education. You see, unless you could attend the one high school dedicated to African Americans in the Arkansas of the 30s and 40s, your schooling came to an end after sixth grade.
It was the law.
Slick became a member of an all-black unit within the Army’s Corps of Engineers, drove a bulldozer that helped build an airfield while under bombardment on The Canal. He survived the war and the indignities of a segregated military. Then he came back to a country that once again tried to pigeonhole him as a second-class citizen.
He carved out a career at Ford that lasted over 60 years. And he played ball with a passion and joy in the leagues that would have him.
He could bunt, run, and hit. If a he hit a grounder that bounced more than once, he joked, you might has well put it in your hip pocket. It was a hit, pure and simple.
Slick often spoke about working in the Ford plant when the news of Jackie signing with the Dodgers broke. Slick cheered as loudly as his fellow workers. It was like a holiday. Slick would never get that call. But he never let go of that day, because in his heart, Jackie’s victory was always his victory as well.
Claire’s complete story is here.
Vincent interviewed Slick a few years back for a series we’ve worked on for the baseball Hall of Fame. Watch this and understand why Slick was such a joy to be around.
Fay also wrote about his friend for the Wall Street Journal.
The thing I never will forget about him was his total lack of bitterness. The travails of growing up in the severe segregation of his native Arkansas were dismissed. He pointed out the license plate of Arkansas has the slogan on it—Land of Opportunity. “Well,” explained Slick, “at the first opportunity, I left.” Similarly, he never complained at the denial of any chance just to try out for a big league team.
He was thrilled for Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby but he accepted the restrictions Fate had imposed. When I reminded him of those tough days at Guadalcanal when he had to lift the front of his bulldozer to ward off Japanese bullets, his only comment was a regret his all black engineering unit had never received any recognition for their work. But that was it. The sense of anguish he had to have felt when he came home as a member of the victorious citizen Army but was not able to play baseball in the major leagues was never expressed.
“I see no point in being bitter, Commissioner. It won’t do no good for no one.” I will not forget the lessons I learned from this good and noble man. I will miss him, but I will never forget the joy of being in his company. If there are reserved seats where he is, I hope he keeps me in mind.
There is something special about a man who always sees the good without forgetting the bad.
Surratt will be missed.