Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Mahlon “Duck” Duckett and John “Mule” Miles returned to Hartford in 2007. Duck and Mule are surviving members of a proud but shrinking club: baseball players who were members of the national Negro Leagues. Duck, an infielder who played ten years for the Philadelphia Stars, remembered his earliest visits to Hartford. “We would play a game in New York, against the Black Yankees or New York Cubans. Then on our off-day, we’d travel to Hartford for an exhibition game,” he tells us. The minor league Hartford Senators and semipro Savitt Gems often hosted African American teams.
The two ball players were special guests at the Hartford Stage Company’s performance of Fences by August Wilson, a powerful play about a Negro League alumnus whose chance for a big league career had passed. Also in attendance was Estelle Taylor, widow of Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor, a great African American ball player from Hartford who refused a job with the all-white New York Yankees because he would not change his heritage to Cuban. Johnny was not going to sneak across the color barrier.
Mule (who could “hit like a mule kicks”) was playing for a Negro League team known as
“Upstate New York.” He arrived in New Haven to play an all-white local team one summer day in 1947. For eight innings neither team scored a run. In the ninth, Mule hit one out of the park. “After the game a lady came up to me and said ‘I knew you could beat them, I knew it!’ Then she gave me two $1 bills.” He chuckles at the memory.
Obviously, not all tales of segregated baseball are fond ones. When playing down South, “there was nothing but segregation and the Klan,” Duck remembers. “Our bus was our hotel, our kitchen, our dressing room.” There were insults, and worse, “but nothing you could do about it,” Duck says. Ironically, when teams like the Stars played in white major
league stadiums, they would outdraw the home team. “The Chicago White Sox would play Comiskey Park on a Sunday and draw 8-10,000 people. We would be there on Monday and 20,000 would show up.” Baseball wasn’t integrated then, but the crowds were. They knew good baseball when they saw it. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers , but Duck and Mule were pretty much at the end of their careers by then.
Both veterans reminisced about Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, two of the greatest men–black or white–who have ever played baseball. Duck told us that Josh took him under his wing, even though “a lot of players wouldn’t teach you anything, since the game was their livelihood.” Mule recalls trying to field a Josh Gibson hit in Chicago. “My back was up against the outfield wall, I looked up, and the ball just kept going.” He also tried to hit off pitcher Paige “but when I came up to bat the umpire called ‘Strike One.’ I looked back and there was the ball in the catcher’s mitt. Then it happened again: ‘Strike Two.’ Look down, catcher had it. Then I walked to the bench. My manager says ‘what are you doing? You only had two strikes!’ I figured he had thrown the ball again and I just couldn’t see it.”
To paraphrase Satchel Paige, segregated baseball turned these men from second class citizens to second class immortals. “I earned $300 a month,” John Miles tells us, “I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for the love of the game.” He thinks back to his childhood. ‘When I was young, my mother would call me to come in and do the dishes. I would ask her, can I do ’em later? There’s still some sunlight. Please let me play until the sun goes down.”