I had already filled my suitcase with baseballs, printed photographs, and multiple cameras before realizing that I’d forgotten to pack a change of clothes. I decided I could go without them. I’d only be staying in Alabama for one night. The autographs were more important.
The next morning, before the sun was fully up, I left my apartment just off the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, and took a taxi to the train station. It was Friday, August 28, 2015. I had just arrived at Tulane the previous Sunday for the start of my junior year of college. Thankfully, my professors had understood when I explained why I needed to skip my Friday classes. I had to be in Birmingham for the opening of the Negro Southern League Museum—just the second museum in the entire country devoted to Negro League baseball, after the one in Kansas City. It was an event that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. For me and a few of my closest friends, it was the culmination of years of work.
I found my Amtrak train at the station, and settled in for my first-ever journey by rail that wasn’t on a crammed Boston subway car. The ride was scheduled to be seven hours and fifteen minutes. I wanted to get to Birmingham as quickly as possible, but there weren’t any direct flights, and this had been the best option. I’d been buzzing with nervous excitement all week; the feeling was still there. I hooked up to the Wi-Fi; put on an eclectic playlist of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic, Fleetwood Mac, and Soundgarden; and tried to relax.
Birmingham had become a second home to me of sorts over the previous six years. It was the place I’d been to most outside of Boston, where I grew up, and New Orleans, where I was now in school. Every year since 2010, I had joined a group of around fifty former Negro League players in downtown Birmingham for a weeklong reunion. These events had been put together by me and two men in their sixties, Dr. Layton Revel and Chef Clayton Sherrod, who I would be seeing in a matter of hours. We had chosen the city because of its rich history of Black professional baseball. It had the largest number of living former Negro League players of anywhere in the country, it was central to many other Southern cities where former players were still located, and it was also Chef Clayton’s hometown.
Dr. Revel and Chef Clayton were the ones who had dreamed up the Negro Southern League Museum, and had been the primary engines of turning it into a reality. For years, they had pitched the idea to the city’s political authorities, but hope came and went as fast as each mayor. Then, seemingly all at once, the idea finally got traction. Budgeting and architectural designs were approved. I’d gone to the groundbreaking ceremony in May. And now, after only a matter of months, the ribbon cutting event was happening. An empty dirt field downtown, behind the home stadium of the Birmingham Barons—the Chicago White Sox AA minor-league affiliate team—had been selected as the site. Today, a fifteen-thousand-square-foot testament to the people who had participated in one of the least understood and most important sports leagues in American history would be officially opened. I could barely believe it.
As the train made its way through Mississippi, I thought of all of the letters and packages I had sent to former Negro League players who lived in that state. Odell Daniels of Byram; Russell Mosley of Shuqualak; Raymond Aguillard of Vossburg; and so many more. I’d never been to any of those towns, but I knew their area codes off the top of my head.
When 769 popped up on my phone, that was Daniels. He either wanted to catch up and chat, or would ask me to make him more baseball cards, which he could sign and give away to friends and family.
If the phone said 662, that was Mosley. I was still working on his pension, and he would most likely be checking in with me about it. I needed to find a newspaper article proving that he’d played for a fourth year in the Negro Leagues, in order for Major League Baseball to accept his pension application and approve his payout. I’d been digging through archives for years with no luck, but I’d tell him I was nowhere close to giving up.
If the number was 601, that was Aguillard. He would ask what I was up to, what project I had up my sleeve this time, and then would tell me about the latest happenings on his farm, where he had dogs, chickens, and a variety of other animals, including peacocks.
As the train passed through Picayune, Mississippi, a disaster occurred for a millennial like me—the Wi-Fi gave out, and with it, my music. This trip was going to last an eternity. How was I going to entertain myself? I pulled my suitcase down from the baggage hold and unzipped it to see what I could find.
The baseballs and photographs filling up my bag were all clean and unmarked: I’d brought them to be autographed. No matter how much my relationship to sports and fame had changed over the years, no matter how many players I’d met and befriended, one thing that I could never seem to put aside was my obsession with autograph collecting. I had been a collector as far back as I could remember; it was in my blood, and I didn’t care to pretend otherwise. Signed baseballs, photographs, and trading cards filled the closets, dressers, and drawers of my room in my parents’ house back in Boston. I wasn’t interested in a ball signed by Mickey Mantle, which would be one of thousands. I was interested in a ball signed by Russell Mosley, who had not signed one since the late 1950s. For me, it wasn’t about trophy hunting. It was about preserving history.
It had long been my goal to obtain a signed baseball from every former Negro League player that I interviewed and spoke with. Blue ink, ideally, right in the “sweet spot,” at the narrowest point between the seams. If I really got my wish, I’d also ask them to write the names of the teams and the years they’d played above the signature; then their position or nickname below. An autographed baseball might seem like an unimportant thing, but to me it was an encapsulation of a career, long since passed but still remembered. As it turned out, these baseballs I so diligently collected had a destiny. Over the past few months, I’d sent many of them ahead of me to Birmingham. Dr. Revel had spent much of the summer driving truckloads of Negro League memorabilia from his home in Texas to Birmingham. From what he told me, the balls I’d sent were now encased on a wall in the museum, along with hundreds upon hundreds of others. I couldn’t wait to see them again.
The train was delayed for more than an hour, and it was nearly 3:30 p.m. when it finally pulled into Birmingham. The ribbon cutting ceremony was scheduled to start at four, so my anxiety was hitting overdrive. I ran out of the station, jumped into a cab, with my suitcase in one hand and a camera in the other, and went straight to the museum. Fortunately it was only a half-mile drive and I was there in no time. Chef Clayton Sherrod was waiting for me. “Cam, you made it,” he said, as he helped me out of the cab. Then he took a hard look at me and asked, “Have you eaten?” It wasn’t a surprising question, given that he is indeed an elite chef, but I realized that he was actually right—I had been so focused on getting to Birmingham for the past nine hours that I hadn’t eaten all day. “I’ll get something soon, don’t worry,” I told him.
I found a spot to stash my suitcase, and took stock of the crowd. There were about twenty former ballplayers, along with family members, city officials, and members of the wider community, gathered around. I knew most of them well. The annual reunion had become such a popular event in Birmingham that it seemed like we’d all gotten to know everyone in town. Some of the players had put on replica jerseys for the teams they had once played for; others wore suits and top hats. I was used to the wheelchairs and walkers. One of the players, Roosevelt Jackson, was not only ninety-seven years old but also blind.
The ribbon cutting ceremony for the Birmingham Negro Southern League Museum, August 28, 2015. Front row, from left:
Roosevelt Jackson, Mayor William A. Bell, Oliver “Son” Ferguson, and Merritt “Pee Wee” Stoves.
Within a matter of minutes, the mayor of Birmingham, William A. Bell, joined all of the players congregated in front of the brand-new, two-story glass-and-brick building. I stepped back to take on my unofficial but well-established role of event photographer for our group. Scissors were passed around and a long ribbon was spread out. Cuts were made, the ribbon fell, and cheers rang out. I captured the moment.
I grabbed a sandwich and joined the players and guests, hugging, smiling, seeing how everyone was doing. Then the museum doors opened, and we all went inside. One of the first things I saw was the “wall of balls.” The display case ran the length of the entire entrance hallway. There were signed balls from floor to ceiling, alphabetically arranged by last name. I walked along the wall, spotting many of the balls I’d sent. They called to mind the stories, experiences, and histories I’d come to know so well. Players I’d spent countless hours with and grown close to had died over the past few years. I knew it wouldn’t be long before there weren’t any more Negro League players left. But this place, and these balls, would be here. As I took in the museum over the next hour with Dr. Revel, Chef Clayton, and the players, laughing, remembering, teasing, debating, like we always did, I kept coming back to the baseballs. Each time I did, I couldn’t help but smile, just to know they were there.
There were a couple of local reporters at the ribbon cutting ceremony, and before I headed to the La Quinta hotel where I’d booked a room, one approached me. He had noticed and been a little bit confused about why all of these seventy-, eighty-, and ninety-year-old Black men were treating me like something between a grandson and a pal. So we started talking, and it wasn’t long before I got a version of the same question I’d been hearing for nearly a decade.
“How does a white kid from a suburb of Boston become friends with all of these former Negro League baseball players?”