His star never got to shine in the majors, but gifted player amassed two decades of excellence in Negro Leagues
Scott gets mail every week from fans who want his autograph. He is one of about 20 players still living who played exclusively for the Negro Leagues before 1947.
By Michael Lollar
Joe Scott's heroes were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He once played in an all-star game against Joe DiMaggio, but he never lived the dream of playing in the major leagues as a teammate to baseball's idols.
Scott had at least two strikes against him. He was black, and he was short. At 5-7 and 162 pounds, he was playing in an all-star game in Canada once when a recruiter for the New York Yankees scouted him.
"I think they were looking ahead, thinking they might one day let blacks in the majors," says Scott. He was a contender. He has an engraved baseball bat given to him by teammates on the Memphis Red Sox in 1942 congratulating him for an astonishing .714 batting average during a season cut short when he entered the Army.
His story is part of a documentary, "Joe Scott: Memories of the Negro Leagues," that will air at 8 p.m. Thursday on WKNO-TV, Channel 10.
It is a story of highs and lows. Scott was considered one of the game's most dependable players for much of his career. At 87, he still gets as many as 10 letters a week from fans across the world asking him to autograph baseball cards that briefly outline his 20 years as a Negro Leagues player.
The card pictures him in his Memphis Red Sox uniform and wielding a bat. It says: "Joe Scott played nearly 20 seasons in the Negro Leagues with the Chicago American Giants, New York Black Yankees, Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Memphis Red Sox. During his tenure, he played alongside baseball great Satchel Paige. Joe was the first African-American player ever to play at Wrigley Field in Chicago."
The career also came with disappointments. "It just wasn't time," he says of any thoughts he harbored about being in the major leagues.
The Yankees scout delivered the first bad news. "He told me I was too short and too small to play for the Yankees," he says.
Then, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier as a black major leaguer in 1947, Scott says his age kept him from consideration. He retired in 1956 to become a truck driver.
Age now is adding esteem to Scott's baseball career. Like World War II veterans, the Negro Leagues players are disappearing. Among those who played exclusively for the Negro Leagues prior to 1947, Scott says only about 20 remain.
Reggie Williams, vice president of community relations for the Memphis Redbirds, met Scott at a Redbirds game 11 years ago and approached WKNO about the documentary on him. Williams, a former pro baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians, said he and his wife were impressed by Scott and realized he was one of the few surviving members of the Negro Leagues.
"You're talking about a legend," Williams said. "After a while, they're going to be all gone. I thought it would be nice to recognize him while he's alive."
Williams served as moderator for the documentary, interviewing Scott about his career and the Negro Leagues. He worked with WKNO producer Pierre Kimsey, who says Scott's parents were suspicious at first of their son's involvement with baseball.
"Satchel Paige met Joe in 1939 and was so impressed with his skills that Satchel wanted Joe to travel with him and play some baseball," said Kimsey. "Joe's mother didn't know baseball. She didn't think it was right for a young man to be around a sport that had so much gambling in it."
The solution, says Kimsey, was that any money Scott made on the road had to be sent back home to Joe's mother. Kimsey says Scott was "not at the forefront of the civil rights movement, but just by showing people the skill he had in the game would shut some of them up."
Scott's role in the sport was part of a broader picture, which WKNO will air immediately after the Joe Scott documentary. That is the award-winning 1996 documentary "Black Diamonds, Blues City" by Steve Ross, filmmaker and professor of film and video at the University of Memphis.
Ross says the Memphis Red Sox had been owned by the once-powerful Martin family, a black family that tangled with Memphis political boss E.H. Crump and ended up leaving the city after the filing of trumped-up charges against them. Ross says the family head moved to Chicago, formed the Negro Leagues and became an important figure in the Republican Party there.
Ross said the Negro Leagues were never the same after Jackie Robinson joined the major leagues. "It was a slow death. The best players weren't in the Negro Leagues anymore. By the early 1960s the leagues were dead."
For Joe Scott, the leagues will never die. He received a fan letter last week from Belgium with one of his cards and a postage receipt to be cashed in for the return postage. "I'm a great fan," the letter said.
"I love those people (fans)," Scott says. They have been part of a legacy that remains for a sport with diehard fans and a respect for the game and its players. It's one reason Scott says he was never bitter about his exclusion from the major leagues: "My feeling was that one day the black players would get to the majors. If I'd gotten there, I'd have set some records. It just wasn't time."
-- Michael Lollar: 901-529-2793