Uncle Charlie Yakker's Baseball Rants

A look into the mind of baseball fanatic.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Ross Davis

Recently I had an experience I’ll never forget.

It all started when my aunt “JoJo” visited our house last spring. Knowing my love and passion for baseball, she bragged that she met, “Satch” a former Negro League player, while surfing the net. Immediately I questioned her claim because Satchel Paige died more than 25 years ago and there was virtually no chance another Negro leaguer had the same name. As soon as she left, I began scouring the internet for any information that would help me identify the man in her online chats.

Within a few minutes I read an article featuring, Ross “Satch” Davis. Ross pitched in the 1940’s for several Negro League teams. I read how began his professional career after playing in the sandlots of the Midwest and at some point played in a profession baseball league.

After confirming the identity of the man, I went over the details with JoJo. She informed me that Ross was living in southern California but recently moved to a tiny apartment in a small city in Texas. A woman, Melinda, and her husband, owners of a crop dusting business had taken Ross into their home. A small apartment, at the rear of the home provided Ross a place to call his own.

My aunt, JoJo, gave me an email address, which quickly fired off a quick note. I didn’t hear back from Ross and after several days, I verified the address with JoJo. This time she explained that Ross expressed a willingness to exchange a few words over the internet.

I gave it another shot and immediately got a reply. The email he sent was short, but he agreed to sign a ball or a jersey for me, through the mail.

It was a year or more after that encounter that a family matter took me to Texas. When I verified the route I’d be traveling was shocked to find that Ross lived within 30 minutes with our route from Austin to Houston.

I emailed Ross and verified that he’d be open to a visit during my trip. As soon as I arrived in Texas I again called him and asked when he’d prefer I arrive. His answer, “come tomorrow at 1”. I tried to think quickly and wondered if we’d be able to make it to his home at the time he’d asked. My calculation was that we’d make it work.

The next morning we woke early and saw a local historical site. We loaded into the car began figuring the exact route to the small town where Ross lives. It seemed we’d have plenty of time to get there, giving plenty of time to grab some lunch and search the web for any facts and figures of Ross’ career.

After following the route, mapped out with a couple of internet sites, we closed in on the town. I watched as the clock seemed to tick a little faster than normal and it soon became clear that even after the great planning, we’d be a few minutes late. I was quite embarrassed and dreaded the call I’d need to make to announce we’d not be on time. Seeing my stress, my wife picked up the cell phone and called Ross. She said he was pleasant and understood that we were getting close.

The directions were pretty simple, “it’s a small town, so don’t blink. Turn left at the sign”. I found the sign, then turned left and pulled into the driveway.

Until that time I hadn’t put much thought into the sort of house we were visiting. As we arrived, it was darn hot outside. The humidity wasn’t what I expected for southern Texas during the summer, so that made things more pleasant. It was very windy though, so I was happy not to be speeding on the open roads, swerving side to side with each gust.

I remember thinking how unique this experience was going to be for me. My wife and 18 year old son seemed interested but obviously lacked the excitement I had. As we closed in, I put on my Negro League baseball ball cap. I’d worn it out over the last few years. It used to be a bright royal blue with logo’s of the teams stitched around it. By now it was dirty with sweat stains, missing the button that was originally fastened to the top.

We parked in the driveway and Melinda, the homeowner, greeted us. She seemed excited to meet us and said that any family of JoJo’s was welcome to visit anytime they wanted. She seemed very happy and immediately showed me to Ross’s apartment.

As soon as we went into Ross’s house, I was taken back because the living quarters seemed so small. The living room was literally coupled with the kitchen and his bedroom was attached nearby. My first thought was that a former world-class athlete would be living a life more similar to that of a modern professional athlete. I figured that he’d be living comfortably, with luxuries of a man with an outstanding career. Then it dawned on me that his life must have mirrored the conditions the Negro League players lived in the old days. I wondered how society and all of the current players and fans could have seemingly forgot this man. I was immediately grateful that Melinda and her family had the ability and the love to bring this man into their lives. She must have had a strong intuition that Ross’ life was not one of luxury while he supported himself in California, before moving here to Texas. How grateful I was that he was able to live comfortably, with friends and an adopted family. It gave me a pleasant feeling that Melinda and her family were able to provide him with a place continue his life.

Ross stood from a chair positioned on the far end of the room. Again, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Again, I hadn’t put much thought into what Ross would look like now that he’s getting older. In my mind I thought of the only photo I’ve seen of him, standing on the mound, leaning way back, and hiding the ball behind his right hip. As he walked across the room, my mind focused on the present day Ross Davis, born in 1918, in Greenville Mississippi. I had never thought of him as a 90 year old man, but I guess that’s my own fault.

As I surveyed his apartment I noticed several 8x10 photos on the walls most featured Ross standing next to men that obviously were associated with baseball. The only really ornamental item was a very large framed picture with a matted Negro League logo. A computer screen and a large TV were the only items that appeared to be up-to-date.

The only 8x10 I recognized was Ross standing next to Buck O’Neal, the most famous Negro League spokesman I know. Buck only passed away a less than two years ago, and what I knew most is that Buck helped to establish the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City. Buck had been the man attracting my attention after he appeared in the Ken Burns documentary “Baseball” in 1994. On a shelf I noticed a baseball with several different autographs. One of the names was from Buck O’Neal, something I’d never seen before.

By the time I gained my focus on the man standing in front of me, he turned and walked off. He walked right into his bedroom and grabbed a stack of baseball cards. The cards had his photo on the front and his stats, he played from 1939 until 1947. As quickly as he had walked into the back room, he turned and walked to the desk positioned near a chair in the living room. He took out a rubber stamp, inked it up and then stamped each of the cards with his autograph. He handed me the cards and told me about his aches and pains. He talked about the severe damage to his rotator cuff and said he can’t lift his arm much above his waist anymore. It dawned on me again that a pitcher in the Negro Leagues would never have been rested and pampered. Although I’ve never cherished a “stamped” autograph, it suddenly made sense why some of the older players did that.

The odor from a tobacco pipe filled the room and again it was something I could never have preconceived. I was amazed with myself and the fact that there was so many details I didn’t imagine before walking into the house.

At that point he sat down and I pulled up a seat next to him. The moment seemed very awkward for me and I am sure it was for him too. He turned his chair toward the large television and then his attention was immediately drawn to the game, the Yankees and the Blue Jays. A batter reached first base, for the Blue Jays, on four straight balls. Scott Rolen walked up to the plate and swung wildly at the first pitch. Ross then remarked “in my day” we never swung at the first pitch after four straight balls. This is the time you need to make the pitcher prove that he can still throw strikes. It made so much sense to me and it was so clear I didn’t understand why Rolen would ever swing at that first pitch. I felt as though I didn’t know nearly as much about the game as I thought I did.

Ross then began to tell me how they played in the Negro Leagues with more with more discipline. More respect for the game. They especially had more respect for the players, on both sides of the plate.

“What do you think about Bonds?” he asked.

Quickly and honestly I answered, “Hate him.”

“Ya, he has no respect. And he’s not a nice guy either”. Ross talked about Barry showboating and strutting instead of respecting the other players.

Then there was another long awkward pause. His attention was then drawn back to the TV. Within a moment he commented on another fundamental error made by the Yankees. Again it was clear that he made a lot of sense. His familiarity of baseball and his keen eye on the details of the game impressed me. Although I saw an old man when I walked into the room, my assessment was that he was a quick and articulate man. It made me feel somewhat inadequate that before my visit I had not learned more about the game and more about the league he played.

We talked a little about his playing days. He said that he’d only given up one home run during his entire career. That hit went to Josh Gibson, the greatest home run hitter of all time. They say that Josh hit 800 or more homers, but the record keeping and game summaries were not kept at that time, in that League, for those players. Josh died only three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues. According to one story I read, Josh was so depressed and so distraught that he was never given a change to play in the majors that he literally died of a broken heart. Needless to say, it must have been quite an accomplishment to allow only one home run. Ross bragged that he did get Josh out, not only that, but he did it by striking Josh out.

Ross had a nickname, “Satch” Davis, so I had to ask. He said that he’d pitched in front of the most famous Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige. At some point Paige tagged Ross as the “Young Satchel”. The media picked up on the quote, but then the media shortened the name to “Satch”.

As Ross talked, he said the game was faster back then. You could play a double header after church on Sunday and be back in time for dinner.

“You know they’re tearing down this stadium after the season”, looking at the TV again, talking about Yankee Stadium. He talked about playing there, playing at the Pollo Grounds and other major league stadiums.

“Most people don’t realize that we played there, when the other teams were out of town”. Again I felt as though I didn’t know as much about baseball as I thought I did.

I told Ross about my passion and love for baseball, I asked if he felt that people were recognizing the Negro Leagues more that ever. Without hesitation he said “no”. There was a time a few years ago when they were honored, brought to game in limousines, and put up in nice hotels. At one game Ross was featured on a the screen at a major league game. He was embarrassed and talked about signing autographs from hours during and after the game. Today though, they players are forgotten, left behind again, in somewhat the same way it had been in the old days. He said that a couple of baseball historians had contacted him, several conversations have taken place and a few articles had been written about him. Ironically, he showed me a book that had been written by one of the historians, “I will never forget”. Ross said that only 150 or so Negro leagues were even alive today. He said not to be fooled by some of the guys that say they played, some of which claim to have done so even after the league was extinct.

As some point I looked at the back of his baseball card. It showed that he had taken time off baseball to fight in World War II. I asked about his experience, but it was clear that he didn’t want to converse about that time of his life. I saw tears in his eyes and he said that he’d blocked out that time of his life. Although he remembered nearly every detail of his playing career, his recollection of the war was long since forgotten.

We had continued some small talk, but by now I noticed my wife and son beginning to drift out of the conversation. The heat was getting to them and the topics were not something they enjoyed as much as I did. Melinda talked to them, but I admit that my attention was on Ross.

Finally, I announced that we’d better be leaving. Before walking outside I handed Ross one of the most cherished items in my collection. It was a jersey with an embroidered emblem of a Negro League player. For a split second he began to turn down the offer, but then accepted it, kindly and graciously.

Melinda, my wife, my son, Ross and I then walked outside. The atmosphere was more casual and not nearly as awkward as it had been inside. The talk was more casual and the topics were geared more toward the Texas summer heat, the bugs and water moccasins that lived outside. Ross then blurted out “You won’t catch me out there at night”, pointing to the open fields beyond the back of the house. Everyone laughed and it was another highlight of the visit.

About that time, Melinda snatched off her shoe and smashed a huge bug that landed on the bench where Ross was now sitting. I wasn’t paying close attention to the situation because I was still wondering, “what’s a water moccasin?” Everyone else seemed to know. I pretended to know, and then researched the information as soon as we left.

After driving away, I thanked my wife for allowing me to fit this meeting into our vacation. I told her that it was a highlight of my life. There will never be a multitude of people that would find the experience as such a special experience. Something most people have never done. Something I’ll never do again. Something “I’ll never forget”.