Braves celebrate Atlanta’s black baseball heritage

In his prime, James “Red” Moore was among the finest and most agile first basemen in professional baseball. There was no ball he couldn’t dig out of the dirt, whether it was hit to him or bounced at him by a scattered-arm shortstop.

Sometimes he would catch the ball, roll it off the heel of his glove and into his other hand so fast that it looked like he was catching bare-handed. Others he would catch between his legs.

“I could pick ‘em,” Moore said, waving his large hands. “And people used to come to the games early to watch me. I could put on a show.”

Now 96, he will be part of one again, as the Atlanta Braves celebrate their Heritage Weekend. Moore may not as agile as he looks in the dozens of photographs that adorn the northwest Atlanta home that he has shared with his wife Mary for the past 21 years.

It takes him a while to get going when asked about the years he spent in the 1930s and ’40s in the Negro Leagues for the Newark Eagles, Baltimore Elite Giants and Atlanta Black Crackers, which he helped lead to the city’s first professional baseball championship in 1938.

Mary occasionally prompts him, as does his friend, Greg White. Then it all comes back.

“We had some good players in the Negro Leagues,” Moore said. “But in my mind, I was always set on playing in the majors.”

Saturday, Moore, one of the oldest surviving Negro Leaguers, is scheduled to be on a baseball field one more time as one of several former Negro Leaguers being honored at Turner Field by the Atlanta Braves as part of their Heritage celebration.

“I feel pretty high about that,” said Moore. “Because I didn’t know all of that was happening.”

Derek Schiller, the Braves executive vice president for sales and marketing, said the weekend was a natural extension of the organization’s participation in the Civil Rights Game in 2011 and 2012, which has since moved to Chicago.

“It would have been wrong not to continue celebrating the role of civil and human rights,” Schiller said. “In many respects, Atlanta is a central part for the Civil Rights movement. So it is a natural fit for baseball to be a part of that, especially when you layer on Hank Aaron and his role.”

With this year’s theater release of “42,” depicting Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line, the topic of black baseball and the Negro Leagues has become pertinent again. Yet, the future of blacks in the game remains as complex as it has ever been, as the best athletes have long been gravitating away from baseball toward football and basketball.

With Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton, the Braves are one of only two teams in the major leagues with an all African-American starting outfield.

“Our first charge is to put the best team on the field. So in that regard, we are colorblind,” Schiller said. “But we can play a role in encouraging African-Americans to play.”

Schiller added that the Braves are involved in several programs designed to get more minorities interested in baseball, including the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program.

Through the Braves’ RBI program, more than 3,200 kids — mostly black — participate in the Junior Braves/RBI Youth Baseball League, which is designed to increase minority youth participation and interest in the game, encourage academic achievement, develop self-esteem, teach the value of teamwork and encourage youth to engage in community service.

The percentage of African-Americans that followed Robinson into the big leagues — the players who Moore watched dominate the game in the 1950s and 1960s — was down to 7.7 percent on Opening Day, the lowest rate in over 50 years.

In 1974, when Aaron, the last former Negro Leaguer to play in the Major Leagues, broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, baseball was 27 percent black.

Aaron said earlier this week that economics has played a key role diverting young blacks away from baseball.

“Anytime you have an economic struggle in this country, minorities and blacks are going to suffer more,” Aaron said. “We just don’t have baseball diamonds or playing fields for minorities to practice and play on. … People use their money for different things and the kids just aren’t out playing baseball anymore.”

“Our (black) ballplayers are not taking to baseball the way we used to,” Moore said. “Other sports are catering to the newfound interest in them. Baseball doesn’t anymore.”

When Moore was growing in Oakland City in an area known as Bush Mountain, baseball was still considered the national pastime, although not everyone was invited. His first bat was a mop handle and his first balls were rocks.

He never played baseball at Booker T. Washington High School, turning instead to neighborhood teams like the Oakland City Cubs and East Point Bears.

In 1934 at just 17, he signed with a pro team in Chattanooga before returning home to play for the Atlanta Black Crackers, which was in the Negro Southern League, considered the minors.

He jumped to the big time in 1936, joining the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League. He was signed by Effa Manley, the first woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

By 1938, he’d rejoined the Black Crackers, the first and only year they were considered a member of the Negro American League, helping them win the second-half championship, the first in the city’s history.

Moore rounded out his career with the Baltimore Elite Giants, where he roomed with the team’s 17-year-old catcher, the future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, before joining the U.S. Army in 1942.

He has a wealth of stories: playing in three all-star games; sometimes playing four games a day for about $350 a week; and hitting a home run in the old Yankee Stadium.

Stories about Satchel Paige striking him out the first time he faced him, while catcher Josh Gibson kept distracting him by warning it would be a mistake to dig in. Moore acknowledges that he never really saw Paige’s fastball, which sounded like a shotgun blast hitting Gibson’s mitt.

By the time Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Moore, then 31, was out of the army, but effectively out of the game.

“When I met him, he was an active young man,” Moore said of Robinson. “He went to school with white players. He had been brought up around them. And while some players were short-tempered, he was more intelligent. He was the perfect player to open the gates.”

Larry Doby followed. Don Newcombe. Monte Irvin. Campanella.

Then came the next generation that produced Aaron, Willie Mays andErnie Banks, which in turn has led to Heyward and the Upton brothers, who will all be wearing the uniforms of the Black Crackers Saturday night.

“It just shows that people had to see us to believe us,” said Moore, who said he is not bitter about never getting to the majors. “We proved we were ready by our performance on the field.”

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