Hard Thrower, Soft Heart


We were riding a slow train, somewhere between Mobile and Montgomery, in the old racist South, “the Hookworm Belt,” as the great sports editor Stanley Woodward described it.

Joe Black was a 28-year-old Dodger rookie, who would have been a big leaguer years before, except for his color. Now he was telling me stories about life in the Negro Leagues, using a kind of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” drawl. After a while he said, “You’re with a big paper. Does the manager tell you if he’s gonna keep me?”

I was young enough and brash enough to be blunt: “You really want to make this ballclub, don’t you?”


Black looked at me clear and straight. The drawl vanished. “If I could express as well as Shakespeare, I still couldn’t tell you how much I want to make the Dodgers,” he said.

So began a friendship that ran for 50 years and ended in the only way it could end, with a departure. Joe Black, who died Friday of prostate cancer, was more than the first black pitcher to win a World Series game. He was a psychologist, a humanist, a businessman and, across his 78 years, a magnificent advertisement for America.

He did make the Dodgers, and in that first season, 1952, he won 15 games and saved 15 more for a club with somewhat shaky pitching. That brought the team a pennant.

On the last day of the season, a friendly case arrived in the press box at the top of Ebbets Field. It contained one bottle of Scotch whiskey for each sportswriter who had regularly covered the team.

“I know I threw the pitches,” Black wrote in a cover note, “but the stuff you fellows wrote sure helped.” You may have anticipated the brand of Scotch Joe sent. It was Black and White.

The great reliever started three games against the Yankees in the World Series, posted a 2.53 earned-run average, but was beaten on short rest in the seventh game.

That winter we worked out together and he told me more than once that his pitching success was really simple. “They’ve got people here in Brooklyn who can think,” he said. “They say throw high, I throw high. They say throw low, I throw low.” He left out this: He threw 97 mph and in his great 1952 season he could throw a ball that hard over a match stick.

He kept his arm loose by throwing a rubber ball. I became his off-season catcher in a small YMCA. The experience, catching that midwinter smoke, remains vivid as an electric shock.

He never again matched ’52 and after his career wound down in 1957, he became a schoolteacher back home in Plainfield, N.J., in an area mixing blacks and Jews. After the youngsters studied under Joe, they got along. One day, he brought a bedraggled school baseball team to Yankee Stadium and Casey Stengel came out of the dugout to shake his hand.

“Case,” Joe said, “these are good kids but they’ve lost their last 11 games. What do you think I ought to teach them?” Stengel did not hesitate. “Teach ‘em to lose in the right spirit,” he said.

The Greyhound corporation offered Black 10 times his teaching salary to become a vice president for marketing. Part of the job, to be sure, was the high-level selling of bus tickets to African Americans. But also--Joe made sure of this--it was articulating ideas about blacks and whites in our society.

Here are some of the things he said:

To exalt a special language for black Americans is a kind of bigotry. “What is our language? Fo’teen for fourteen? Pohleeze for police? Any man, white or black, who says white people have to learn ‘our’ language is insulting. What he’s saying is every other ethnic group can migrate to America and master English. But we, who were born here, and whose families have lived here for so many, many years, don’t have the ability to speak proper English. Wear a dashiki or an African hairdo but, in the name of common sense, learn the English language. It is your own.”

When Martin Luther King was shot, Black flew to Atlanta to help with the services. So did Sammy Davis Jr. Afterward, Joe found himself clearing a path for Davis through a gathering of poor Atlanta blacks.

“My people, my people,” Davis cried, throwing out both hands in deep emotion.

“Some,” Black said, “are your people. Our people. Some will steal the rings off your fingers. Stay close and keep your hands in your pockets, Sam.”

Like his life, Joe Black’s words spoke banners.


Roger Kahn, the author of “The Boys of Summer” and other baseball books, writes periodically for The Times.