The old man can tell some tales. Flaming baseballs and Fidel Castro at third base. Don’t get him started on Ty Cobb.
“Oh boy,” he says. “I know what I’m talking about.”
Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe -- more commonly known as “Double Duty” -- turned pro in the Roaring ‘20s. Played his way through four decades in the Negro leagues, on barnstorming trips and in exhibition games in Yankee Stadium.
Now that baseball is settling in for the summer, what better way to spend a few hours than listening to one of the game’s oldest survivors reminisce about Satchel Paige and Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell?
“I remember it because I love baseball,” he says. “Anything you love, you can keep in your mind.”
The stories get rolling, turning faster, in no particular order. What year was that? Which stadium?
Those who know Radcliffe say he loves to spin a yarn. His memory is keen and much of what he tells is gospel truth, but he doesn’t mind embellishing.
A few weeks shy of his 101st birthday, he rears back and cackles.
“You think I’m lying,” he says.
A little later, off to the side, his nephew, Keith Hill, whispers not to focus too hard on the facts. Just listen. Listen for a hidden truth beneath the words.
Start in Mobile, Ala., where Radcliffe was born in 1902. He played, he says, because there “wasn’t nothing else to do.” The neighborhood kids made baseballs out of rags and tape.
“We used to soak the ball in kerosene and light it on fire,” he says. “Play night ball.”
Seventeen years old, Radcliffe traveled to Chicago and joined a semipro team called the Illinois Giants. In an era when baseball was segregated, he stayed put until breaking into the Negro leagues with the Detroit Stars in 1928.
Thus began the whirlwind career of a player who could pitch and catch with equal aplomb, who thought nothing of switching teams every season, going wherever he could make a few more bucks.
The journey took him through some of the Negro leagues’ best teams, from the St. Louis Stars to Pittsburgh’s Homestead Grays and, in 1932, to the legendary Pittsburgh Crawfords.
That club featured Gibson and Oscar Charleston, both future Hall of Famers. Radcliffe caught for Paige.
“When Satchel pitched, oh my God,” he says. “That sucker could throw it outta sight.”
Before games, Radcliffe sometimes stopped and bought a slice of beefsteak to slip inside his glove for padding. His right hand is gnarled, the result of too many broken fingers resulting from foul tips off Paige’s fastballs.
Playing for the Crawfords marked him for life in another way. With the team in New York for a doubleheader, he caught a shutout by Paige in the first game, then pitched one of his own.
That day, sportswriter Damon Runyon dubbed him “Double Duty,” noting that he was “worth the price of two admissions.”
To this day, everyone calls him by a variation of that nickname. Double Duty. Duty. Mr. Duty.
“It made me a drawing card,” he says. “Any time you’re a success, you can’t say nothin’ about it.”
Ballplayers, especially black players, needed something extra to survive back then.
“They were playing wherever they could, against whomever they could, to make money,” says James A. Riley, research director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “What they called ‘scuffling.’ ”
For Radcliffe, that meant leaving the Negro leagues in 1935 to play for wealthy auto dealer Neil Churchill, who owned the semipro Bismarck Churchills in North Dakota. The team -- Paige came along too -- had an integrated lineup a dozen years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors.
During stints with 40-some clubs, Radcliffe played in exhibition games that gave him and other black players opportunities to show they could compete with the likes of Ruth and Cobb.
“Cobb didn’t like colored people,” he says. “I threw him out at second.”
There was also winter ball in Cuba, where he claims to have shared the field with a young Castro: “He couldn’t play.”
The end came as a player-manager in Winnipeg, Canada.
“I got in my 50s and they didn’t want me to quit,” he says. “Sometimes, I’d wake up and laugh at myself.”
Gauging the man’s career is not easy. His biographer, Kyle P. McNary, estimates that Radcliffe had a .303 batting average, 4,000 hits and 400 homers in 36 years in the game.
But with Negro league players, reliable statistics are hard to come by. Teams kept shoddy records and local newspapers rarely printed box scores for every game.
“I was able to get full seasons in between partial seasons,” McNary says. “It still wasn’t close to complete.”
Further clouding the issue are Radcliffe’s talents as a raconteur, his penchant for exaggeration. Riley, who has known him for years, puts it this way: “Had he not been a good ballplayer, he could have been a stand-up comedian.”
Even now, he can work a room, those watery eyes lighting up, a younger man’s smile spreading across his weathered face. Soon, everyone else is smiling.
The routine isn’t all baseball. Radcliffe splits time with his other favorite subject: women.
“The girls would follow us everywhere we’d go,” he says. “I’d be in the hotel half asleep. After a while, the phone would ring.”
A fine gal in Detroit and another in San Diego. Too many to count in San Francisco. Though married to his late wife, Alberta, for more than 50 years, Radcliffe says “the ladies would come to me.”
Riley tells a well-traveled story about a manager standing on the mound, signaling for Radcliffe to come in from the bullpen, only Radcliffe was nowhere to be seen.
“He was on the team bus with a young lady,” the historian says. “He comes off the bus ... goes into the game without warming up and gets the side out.”
Another former Negro leaguer, Buck O’Neil, recalls, “He would always sit in the lobby and, every woman who passed, he would make a pass at them.”
But, O’Neil quickly adds, “He was harmless.”
Age has not dimmed Radcliffe’s interest. Every recollection of Dizzy Dean or Bob Feller comes with a raunchy tale of some past liaison.
Hill, the nephew who often accompanies Radcliffe, stands nearby, swinging an imaginary bat.
“Baseball,” Hill says. “Talk about baseball.”
Radcliffe waves him off with that claw of a hand. “Women are my life.”
“Baseball is your life.”
How good a player was he?
Behind the plate, he was known for calling an astute game and distracting batters with babble.
“Now watch out, Buck,” he would say when O’Neil stepped into the box. “This kid is kinda wild and we don’t know where the ball is going.”
On the mound, Radcliffe distinguished himself in more dubious fashion. Hiding a piece of sandpaper inside his belt, he mastered the cut ball. Over the years, the spitter and other illegal pitches found their way into his repertoire.
Still, his combination of talents -- plus winning seasons as a manager -- have earned Radcliffe mention as a candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“He was going out, about ready to retire, when I was coming in and I heard about him,” says Monte Irvin, a former Negro leagues -- and major league -- player elected in 1973.
“He could pitch and catch, so he was kind of special.”
At the very least, Riley believes Radcliffe could have started for almost any team in the major leagues and would have ranked among the best catchers.
“No question about it,” the historian says. “He would have been a star.”
But by the time Robinson broke the barrier, Radcliffe was on the downside of his career.
“Too old,” he says.
Not that he has regrets.
“The people were so nice to me and I made a good living,” he says. “I can’t kick.”
These days, Radcliffe watches games at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, where White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf keeps a spot reserved for him.
PBS has made a documentary of his life, part of its “The Living Century” series, and flew him to Los Angeles to promote the telecast on KCET tonight.
Reporters stopped by. Radcliffe put on his good red hat for the occasion.
“I don’t mind talking,” he says.
All morning long he worked the room, getting laughs.
“When he gets to talking and going ‘ooo-eee,’ you can feel it,” his nephew says. “You can feel him going back to that time.”
Hard to know which parts are fact, which parts fiction. The truth is, does it really matter?
“Double Duty,” part of “The Living Century” series, will be shown on KCET at 6:30 tonight.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
ALL-TIME NEGRO LEAGUE TEAM
In 1971, the Baseball Hall of Fame committee on Negro Baseball Leagues selected the nine-player team below to illustrate the accomplishments of the many great but widely unrecognized black players.
* Considered the most dominant pitcher and flamboyant personality in the Negro leagues, Paige finally got the opportunity to pitch in the major leagues in 1948 for the St. Louis Browns at age 42. He went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA to help the Browns win a pennant, and he won a World Series game. In addition to his “pea-sized” fastball, which he threw with immaculate control, and famous “hesitation” pitch, Paige’s repertoire included what he called a “bee-ball,” “jump-ball” and “trouble-ball.”
* Comparable players: Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean.
* Negro league career: 1926-50.
* The powerful 6-foot-1, 205-pound Gibson was noted for his long home runs and incredible throwing arm. He is credited with 962 home runs against all levels of competition and batted .391 in the Negro leagues.
* Comparable players: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Johnny Bench.
* Negro league career: 1930-46
* Leonard was known for his smooth left-handed swing that produced vicious
line drives. He batted .341 in the Negro leagues.
* Comparable players: Leonard and right-handed-hitting counterpart Josh Gibson formed a one-two punch for the Homestead Grays that was the Negro leagues’ version of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
* Negro league career: 1933-50
* Considered to be baseball’s most versatile player, the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Dihigo excelled at all positions and was the ultimate “five-tool” player in today’s terminology. He is the only player in baseball halls of fame in the United States, Cuba and Mexico.
* Comparable player: Nobody. Pete Rose, who didn’t pitch, perhaps came closest.
* Negro league career: 1923-45.
JOHN HENRY LLOYD
* A superlative all-around player, “Pop” Lloyd’s exceptional bunting and proficiency at the hit-and-run set him apart from other players in the deadball era, when teams played for one run. Defensively, he had exceptional range and sure hands.
* Comparable player: Honus Wagner, who said it was a privilege to be compared to Lloyd.
* Negro league career: 1905-32.
JUDY JOHNSON, Third Base
* Though known more as a smooth fielder with a strong arm, the 5-foot-11, 145-pound Johnson was also a clutch line-drive hitter who was extremely difficult to strike out. He batted .349 in the Negro leagues.
* Comparable players: Pie Traynor, George Kell and fellow Negro league player and Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge.
* Negro league career: 1921-38.
“COOL PAPA” BELL, Left Field
* Considered to be the fastest of the Negro league players, legend has it that Bell once circled the bases in 12 seconds. He stole 175 bases in a 200-game span.
* Comparable player: Lou Brock.
* Negro league career: 1922-46.
OSCAR CHARLESTON, Center
* Considered the greatest all-around player in black baseball, Charleston was also known for his crowd-pleasing “showboating” antics. His batting average in Negro leagues was .376.
* Comparable players: Willie Mays and Ty Cobb (for his slashing baserunning style).
* Negro league career: 1914-41.
* Irvin was one of the few players able to bridge the divide between the Negro leagues and major leagues in his prime. He hit .373 in the Negro leagues and .293 in eight major league seasons.
* Comparable players: Ken Griffey Jr. and David Justice.
* Negro league career: 1937-48.
Primary Sources of Information
NegroLeagueBaseball.com; Blackbaseball.com; MLB.com
A PROUD TRADITION
In Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe’s professional playing days from 1928-50, there were two viable pro baseball leagues for African-Americans -- the Negro National League, founded in 1920, and Negro American League, which began play in 1937. In the 1930s, Radcliffe and his lifelong friend, legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, would form teams of Negro league stars to play exhibitions against white major league stars. By the time the color barrier was broken with the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, Radcliffe was in the twilight of his career and never got the opportunity to play in the major leagues. In a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll of black baseball experts, Radcliffe was voted the fifth-greatest catcher and 17th-greatest pitcher in the Negro leagues. The following are the Negro league teams for which Radcliffe played, a look at some of the prominent teams of the era, and at the bottom of this page, some of Radcliffe’s comtemporaries who made the National Baseball Hall of Fame
NEGRO LEAGUE TEAMS FOR WHICH RADCLIFFE PLAYED
Detroit Stars, Cleveland Giants, Cincinnati Tigers, St. Louis Stars, New York Black Yankees, Memphis Red Sox,
Homestead Grays, Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Brooklyn Eagles, Kansas City Monarchs, Columbus Blue Birds, Claybrook Tigers, Louisville Buckeyes.
SOME PROMINENT TEAMS IN RADCLIFFE’S PLAYING DAYS
BIRMINGHAM (ALA.) BLACK BARONS
* Years in the Negro leagues: 21 (1923-25, 1927-30, 1932, 1937-38, 1940-50).
* The Black Barons played their games at Rickwood Field, which was primarily modeled after Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and is the oldest existing ballpark. The last of the Black Barons’ three championship teams, in 1948, featured 17-year-old center fielder Willie Mays.
* Years in the Negro leagues: 15 (1920-33, 1937).
* The Stars were one of eight original members of the Negro National League in 1920. Among their top players were power hitting Turkey Stearnes and catcher Bruce Petway, who twice threw out Ty Cobb attempting to steal in an exhibition game in Cuba.
* Years in the Negro leagues: 17 (1929, 1932-33, 1935-48).
* The Grays won nine consecutive league pennants from 1937-45 with rosters that included six future baseball Hall of Famers: Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, Martin Dihigo and Smokey Joe Williams. The Grays played home games at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Griffith Stadium in Washington when the major league teams were on the road. The Grays usually outdrew the cellar-dwelling Washington Senators.
* Years in the Negro leagues: 17 (1946-62).
* The Clowns, as indicated by their nickname, were better known for their comedic antics but also played sound baseball. In 1952, they won the Negro American League championship with a young cross-handed slugger from Mobile, Ala., Hank Aaron.
KANSAS CITY MONARCHS
* Years in the Negro leagues: 37 (1920-30, 1937-62).
* The Monarchs, the longest running franchise in black baseball, were the Negro leagues’ answer to the New York Yankees, winning more than a dozen league championships from 1924-42. The Monarchs sent the most players to the major leagues after the color barrier was broken, among them Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Ernie Banks. Other prominent Monarchs were Cool Papa Bell, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes and Buck O’Neil -- perhaps the most renowned spokesman for black baseball.
NEWARK (N.J.) EAGLES
* Years in the Negro leagues: 13 (1936-48).
* The Eagles had many standout players, but two made a particular mark on baseball history: Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League with the Cleveland Indians in 1947, and Don Newcombe, a rookie of the year, most valuable player and Cy Young award winner for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Eagles were the first professional team owned and operated by a woman, Effa Manley.
* Years in the Negro leagues: Seven (1932-38).
* The Crawfords were one of the most formidable teams in the Negro leagues in the 1930s. They won the 1935 Negro National League championship with five future Hall of Famers: Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson and Satchel Paige. In 1937, Dominican Republic dictator Gen. Rafael Trujillo, annoyed that a successful team run by one of his political opponents was increasing in popularity, signed Bell, Gibson and Paige and the Crawfords soon folded.
BASEBALL HALL OF FAMERS WHO PLAYED MOST OR ALL OF THEIR CAREERS IN THE NEGRO EAGUES, and year in which player was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
SATCHEL PAIGE, Pitcher, 1971
OSCAR CHARLESTON, Outfielder, 1976
WILLIE FOSTER, Pitcher, 1996
JOSH GIBSON, Catcher, 1972
JOHN HENRY “POP” LLOYD, Shortstop, 1977
WILLIE WELLS, Shortstop, 1997
BUCK LEONARD, First Base, 1972
MARTIN DIHIGO, Infielder, Outfielder , Pitcher, 1977
“BULLET” JOE ROGAN, Pitcher, Outfielder, 1998
MONTE IRVIN, Outfielder, 1973
ANDREW “RUBE” FOSTER, Pitcher, Manager, Executive, 1981
“SMOKEY” JOE WILLIAMS, Pitcher, 1999
JAMES “COOL PAPA” BELL, Outfielder, 1974
RAY DANDRIDGE, Third Base, 1987
NORMAN “TURKEY” STEARNES, Outfielder, 2000
JUDY JOHNSON, Third Base, 1975
LEON DAY, Pitcher, 1995
HILTON SMITH, Pitcher, 2001