Baseball set stage for country legend
Crooner aimed for Cooperstown, landed in Nashville
A certain amount of uncertainty and ambiguity is involved in Charley Pride's life, specifically the portions that involve his days in the Minor Leagues. But one thing has always been clear: He wouldn't be easily deterred from his dream of playing baseball.
The fuzziness traces all the way back to the name the country music legend was given -- Charl Frank Pride. The -ey was unwittingly tacked on by someone at the hospital the day he was born. Which was when exactly? Well, that's fuzzy, too.
"They've got me down for March 18, 1938," says Pride, as if coyly insinuating that something might be amiss.
Sure enough, anywhere you look you'll find his birthday listed as such. But then there's that clipping from the Idaho Daily Statesman on April 26, 1953, showing a young Charles Pride kneeling in the front row of the Class C Boise Yankees' team picture. Just how young? Well, he would have just turned 15, if math serves.
And the four weeks between his 15th birthday and the day the photo was taken must have been pretty hectic since, according to his autobiography, Pride: The Charley Pride Story,when he was 15, before he signed with the Yankees, he: dropped out of school; moved in with his uncle; got a job; quit a job; returned home; returned to school; quit school again; tried out with the Memphis Red Sox; played for an all-Negro team in the Iowa State League; got cut; and returned to Memphis to play with the Sox for a season. Oh, and he got mugged.
A more likely scenario, of course, is that Pride was born before 1938, and that all of those incidents occurred over the course of a year or two. Fudging on one's date of birth, after all, is hardly a foreign concept to either sports or show business. And another perfectly plausible explanation is that an honest mistake was made somewhere along the line, especially considering the fact that Pride is not one to focus on his past.
"I don't look back that often, don't dwell on too many things," says Pride when asked about his baseball-playing days. "I'm always trying to go forward.
"I haven't forgotten what I did," he said from Dallas. "There are highlights that stick out in my mind -- certain things are indelible. Some were sad times; some were good. But I try not to bother with the sad or the good, because they just slow me down, and my way of thinking is to move ahead."
And he certainly had plenty of obstacles that could have slowed him down.
Pride had seven brothers and three sisters. He was raised in poverty on a sharecropping cotton farm in what he calls "the black gumbo mud" of the Mississippi Delta town of Sledge. And although he always had a few baseballs and a glove, thanks to his Uncle Lee, he wasn't allowed to use them whenever he wanted. In fact, he recounts an instance in which his father -- a deacon in the Baptist church -- took a belt to him and his brother for playing baseball on a Sunday.
But that didn't stop him. He had seen Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in 1947 and knew then that baseball was his way out of poverty. He pestered his brothers to practice with him at every spare moment and eventually finagled his way onto his older brother's men's league team as a fill-in. Little did he know that things would get worse before they got any better.
Pride dropped out of school and headed to Memphis, hoping to play for the Red Sox of the Negro American League. Just a teen, and uninvited, he wasn't given much consideration by manager Homer "Goose" Curry. But he did meet a man named Jim Ford who was assembling an all-Negro team to play in Iowa.
"We were playing for a percentage [of the ticket sales] there," explained Pride. "And what happened was, the day would be beautiful, then at night ... rain, rain, rain. And if we didn't play, we didn't eat."
In fact, Pride claims he was so hungry during that time he pulled weeds out of the ground, washed them off and ate the bottoms.
"We got hungry up there. We were starving. And we weren't winning."
Facing stiff competition that included future Major Leaguers Roger Craig, John Blanchard and Albie Pearson, Pride's team was winning so little that their new owner -- a local businessman known as "The Popcorn King" -- went back to Memphis and raided the Red Sox roster of such pitching stars as Ollie Brantley and Marshall Bridges. The immediate impact for Pride was not good. He was cut to make room for the new players.
But as usual, Pride was not deterred. Ever the opportunist, he returned to Memphis, knowing that the Sox's pitching staff would be in need of arms. He was right, and it was there that he got his first regular paycheck -- $100 a month and two dollars a day for meal money -- to pitch and play the outfield.
After his first season in Memphis, Pride got a break when Curry recommended him to the New York Yankees' first black scout, William "Dizzy" Dismukes, who sent the young hurler an offer letter that included a $300 signing bonus. Still a minor, Pride -- and the bonus money -- persuaded his parents to sign the contract, and he was off to Rio Vista, Calif., for Spring Training with the Boise Yankees of the Pioneer League.
But just as the season was beginning, Pride encountered another obstacle that he would face many times in his career -- injury. The lanky right-hander pulled a muscle in his pitching shoulder during a game at Lodi, Calif., and was sent to Class D Fond du Lac of the Wisconsin State League to rehab.
One of his Boise teammates that made it to the big leagues was Johnny James, who went 5-1 as a rookie for the American League champion Yankees in 1960 before having his promising career ended prematurely by an injury in 1961. James, 72, said Pride's stay with the Class C Yankees was so short that, nearly 53 years later, he still wasn't sure that it was the Charley Pride he'd played with.
"I of course tell people that it was," laughed James, who went 14-9 with Boise that year. "He stood out because we simply didn't have black ballplayers. But I didn't recall him singing. I just remember him being a nice guy. But he was there one day, and then the next day he was gone.
"You have to remember," he explained, "they used to say you had three teams -- one playing, one coming and one going. There were 54 Minor Leagues back then, and they signed anyone who could throw a baseball."
Unfortunately for Pride, he couldn't throw a baseball. Not well anyway, with his injured shoulder. Over a two-week period, he got hammered for nine runs on 11 hits and nine walks in 12 1/3 innings with the Fond du Lac Panthers and was handed a ticket back to Memphis. And not long after he got off that bus, he was traded for one.
Prior to the 1954 season, Pride was set to rejoin the Red Sox, but instead went to Louisville with Goose Curry, who was leaving Memphis to coach the newly formed Clippers team. But the fledgling Negro League club didn't have enough money to buy a team bus, so Pride and teammate Jesse Mitchell were sold to the Birmingham Black Barons for the money to buy one.
Mitchell, who still remains friends with his former teammate, recalls Pride practicing his future profession during road trips, though not necessarily to everyone's liking.
"He used to sing on the bus all the time," says Mitchell, who still lives in Birmingham. "A guy named Rufus Gibson used to say, 'Man, you're making too much noise.' We'd be trying to rest, sleeping on the bus, hadn't even changed clothes or anything."
In 1955, Pride was back in the Minor Leagues, thanks once again to his own moxie. Having scoured the country for an opening, he found a spot in the Class C Arizona-Mexico League. His own account of his season with the Nogales Yanquis is vague at best: "I had fun playing down there ... but I was not unhappy for the season to be over," he summarized in Pride.
In 1956, he again returned to the Red Sox. And while formal Negro League statistics from the '50s are, in the words of National Baseball Hall of Fame library director Jim Gates, "practically non-existent," the '56 season was clearly Pride's breakthrough year.
According to his own recollection, Pride had won seven games and was hitting .367 with 10 home runs when he was told that a St. Louis Cardinals scout would be on hand to watch him pitch against the Birmingham Barons in Sikeston, Mo., the next day. He struck out the side in each of the first two innings that day, he says, before encountering yet another unlucky break -- he snapped his elbow while throwing a curveball.
With no team trainer or doctor on staff, Pride was sent home to rest and recuperate his arm. According to his autobiography, after only three months or so, he returned to Memphis with a healed arm and a knuckleball that he'd developed due to his injury. He went on to win 14 games that season, earning a spot on the Negro American League All-Star team and, most importantly, meeting his wife Rozene, with whom he'll celebrate his 50th anniversary in December.
Playing for the Negro League All-Stars, Pride toured the South playing exhibition games against the barnstorming Willie Mays All-Stars, facing such legends as Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Elston Howard and, of course, the team's namesake, Willie Mays.
"One thing I will never forget," says Pride, sounding as proud as he does regretful, "is getting picked off twice in one game by [Spahn]. To get picked off first base is one thing, but to get picked off second too ..." marveled Pride. "He had the best pickoff move I'd ever seen in my life. It was so smooth, like he was going home. I would have loved to have had a camera on that."
The Negro League All-Stars were to Mays' barnstormers what the Washington Generals were to the Harlem Globetrotters, losing nearly every game while taking a 30/70 split. According to Pride, the previous season had been a 33-game clean sweep for Mays' squad, and they'd won the first 16 to start the '56 tour as well.
But with Mays resting his shoulder on the night before Halloween in Victoria, Texas, Pride played a big role in snapping that streak. As the Associated Press reported, "Charley Pride of the Memphis Red Sox mixed up offerings well the last four innings of shutout ball," as the Negro Minor Leaguers beat the Major Leaguers, 4-2.
Pride recalls being pursued by a Dodgers' scout after the game and envisioning that he could be headed to Brooklyn, when, the next thing he knew, he found himself in Fort Chaffee, Ark., instead. He'd been drafted by the U.S. Army and, once again, rudely awakened from his dream.
Fourteen months, a wife and a new son later, Pride was ready to resume his quest, only to find that he was still under contract to the Memphis Red Sox, who weren't willing to let their All-Star go for anything less than $15,000. With no team willing to pay such a hefty price, Pride, as usual, took matters into his own hands.
Feeling settled in Colorado, where he'd finished out his military time, Pride arranged for a spot with the Denver Bears, if he could get out of his contract. After getting no response from the Red Sox when he requested his release, he went straight to the top, writing a letter to Major League commissioner Happy Chandler.
"Chandler said to send [Memphis] a registered letter, and if I didn't get a response about my contract by April 1, I would be a free agent," said Pride. "But here comes the breakdown: When I came along, they had what we call quotas -- only two black players per each team. And by April 1, Denver had their quota. Everyone had their quota. From top to bottom, they're settled by April."
With no other options, Pride returned to Memphis and signed a new contract that included a clause granting him 100 percent control over all bargaining rights. "I would be the only one to negotiate leaving Memphis," he said defiantly.
After another All-Star season with the Red Sox in 1958, Pride thought he deserved a pay raise and ended up sitting out the 1959 season when he didn't get one. Then in 1960, while working at a lumber company in Memphis, he saw an ad for "baseball players capable of playing A-ball" posted by the Missoula Timberjacks of the Pioneer League.
Already dead broke, Pride mortgaged all the furniture in the house for $400 to finance another shot at his dream.
The Timberjacks' general manager, Nick Mariana, told the Missoula Sentinal at the time, "I just couldn't turn this boy down or discourage him from coming all the way out here because he was so sincere in his correspondence. I felt the least we could do was give him a chance to make the club. We like players with gumption and I hope he makes good."
Well, Pride had nothing if not gumption, and he did make the team. But he didn't quite "make good."
In his autobiography, Pride says that after his first road trip, he was pulled aside by manager Rocky Tedesco, who told him, "We like the way you run ... the way you hit. You got two for three ... drove in two runs. That's .750 all day, Charley. But I'm going to have to let you go."
Box scores from the Missoulian show that Pride actually went 2-for-5 with a pair of RBIs. But on the mound, where he was used primarily, he didn't fare so well, allowing six runs on eight hits and four walks over six innings in a pair of blowout losses. In fact, after Pride's first outing against Boise, Missoulian columnist Ray Rocene wrote that Braves manager Billy Smith quipped that "he would make pitchers [Lopez] Clark and Pride, who opposed his club in the Sunday batting bee, pay admission to get into his park."
Fortunately for Pride, while he hadn't won Mariana over with his pitching, he had impressed him with his gumption, and the Timberjacks' GM hooked him up with a job in Helena, where Pride launched a Hall of Fame music career that has far overshadowed his baseball exploits.
Still, nearly 50 years after his last professional season, Pride continues to live his dream, joining the Texas Rangers at their Spring Training complex in Surprise, Ariz., each year. And even at the age of 67 -- or however old he is -- you get the feeling he's not entirely joking when he says, "This is my 34th year, and I haven't made the team yet."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.