Carl Long dealt with a lot of obstacles as one of the first two black players to play baseball in the Carolina League for the Kinston Eagles in 1956 – nine years after Jackie Robinson first played for the Dodgers. But he stuck it out, at least in part because he didn’t want to go back to picking cotton in South Carolina. And he said he is a better man for it.
This weekend, as part of town-sponsored Black History Month events, Garner residents will be able to ask Long and other former players anything about playing baseball in the Negro Leagues and minor leagues this weekend.
First – on Saturday at 2 p.m. – actor Mike Wiley’s one-man performance about Robinson will kick off a series of town-sponsored events at the Garner Performing Arts Center. Afterward, four players from the Negro League-era will chat with guests at a reception.
That evening there will also be a free showing of 42, the Hollywood movie about Robinson’s life staring Chadwick Bosman and Harrison Ford.
Broadway Voices will also honor Black History Month as Broadway Star Norm Lewis will perform a week later, on Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Lewis, with a two-decade career on Broadway, remains at the top of his game; in 2012 he was nominated for a Tony among other awards for work on “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” while also joining the cast of the ABC show Scandal. Tickets to his performance cost $35 and can be purchased through GPAC’s website or its ticket office.
On Feb. 22, acclaimed guitarist Cool John Ferguson will round out GPAC’s Black History Month theme with a 7:30 p.m. show. Tickets to see the Gospel, jazz and blues guitarist cost $15.
Not just a game
Wiley’s performance of “Jackie Robinson: A Game Apart” will be an interactive performance outlining the challenges faced by the mold-shattering Hall of Fame player who broke into the big leagues in 1947.
Admission to see Wiley will be $10, but after that a free reception at 3 p.m. for the former Negro League players will also include exhibits that will be set up in the GPAC lobby throughout the month of February.
Three of the visiting former players are North Carolina men who played pro baseball in the Negro Leagues and the minors: Long, Ken Free of Greensboro and Hubert “Big Daddy” Wooten of Goldsboro.
The fourth, female player Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, was one of three female players to play in the Negro Leagues and the first pitcher. Johnson played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953-55. The Ridgeway, S.C., native now lives in Maryland.
They will chat about their experiences, surrounded by a sort of museum exhibit already set up in the GPAC lobby.
For Long, professional baseball provided an escape, but not an easy or luxurious one.
“It was tough,” Long said of his baseball experiences. “I had to be two times better than a white player. If not, I’d have been back in the fields.”
Long, who now lives in Kinston, first played professional baseball for the Negro League’s Birmingham Black Barrons in 1952. He said he learned everything he needed to know about baseball in his two Negro League seasons.
He also learned how to deal with pervasive bigotry, as segregation left the bus-traveling team often with limited-to-no restaurant and hotel options, and unwelcoming local authorities.
“White folks were some kind of mean. But I got over it. If I hadn’t been through all that I wouldn’t have been the person I am today,” Long said of the racism he encountered over his playing career.
In his first year his team lost the Negro American League championship to the Clowns, a team helped that year by an 18-year-old star named Henry Aaron who would be in a major league organization that year. Aaron would famously go on to break Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs.
Long didn’t match Aaron’s meteoric rise to stardom but he did attract big league attention. The Pittsburgh Pirates organization signed him in 1954, and assigned him to St. Jean, Quebec, and later to Billings, Montana, before he, along with teammate Frank Washington, integrated the Carolina League.
Returning to play baseball in his native and still deeply-segregated South, he again ran into a familiar wall of intolerance and racial slurs. But that season he was the team’s best hitter. He hit .291 with 18 home runs, and set a team record with 111 RBIs – a record that still stands.
Long played in Phoenix and Mexico City before retiring after the 1957 season, in part because of a shoulder injury. He returned to Kinston and eventually became the first black deputy sheriff and first black detective ever in Lenoir County. Now he tours promoting the Negro Leagues and talking to children about the importance of education, his faith and, of course, a little baseball, which he credits for getting him where he is today.
“Baseball’s been my life,” Long said. “If it wasn’t for baseball, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”