What’s in a name? The Negro League Player of the Week

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I’m a very outspoken supporter of modern athletes. Fans of past players may take exception to the facts, but players today are stronger, faster and generally more skilled up and down the roster in any given league. This isn’t a knock on players of the past; any logical thought leads one to see that players in 50 years will be proportionately better as well. While the players are more skilled than their predecessors, one area where players of the past can more than keep up is in the quality of their nicknames. While there are a few decent nicknames in modern sports (My personal favorite is “White Mamba” for Brian Scalabrine), it seems as though players are too concerned with their image and brand to truly embrace a unique nickname or persona. 
Players in the first half of the century had no such worries, and consequently, had some of the best monikers of all time. “The Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams”, “Hammerin” Hank Aaron and “Say Hey” Willie Mays to name a few, some of my favorite players also happen to have some of my favorite nicknames. While some of the names make sense; Leroy Paige earned his nickname, Satchel, when he was a young boy carrying bags (and satchels) at railroad stations for passengers and William Drake got the nickname “Plunk” thanks to his reputation for pitching high and inside, others carry more mysterious back stories. My personal favorite: Floyd “Jelly Roll” Gardner. I’m not sure what a guy has to do to get the nickname “Jelly Roll”, but I don’t imagine it’s based on his slim waistline or speedy base running. While we may never recreate the glory days of cheesy nicknames, thankfully we have the internet and other written records to keep them alive in our hearts.

This week’s Negro League Player of the Week is Theodore Roosevelt “Double Duty” Radcliffe. Radcliffe grew up in rural Alabama playing baseball using a ball of rags with one of his best friends, Satchel Paige. Known primarily as a defensive ace, Radcliffe started his career as a semi-pro ball player, playing for 50 dollars for every 15 games and 50 cents a day in meal money. After 8 years of this lifestyle, he jumped to the Negro Leagues where he played catcher and pitcher for a variety of all black teams from 1928 to 1946. While some biographers credit him with 4000 hits and 400 home runs throughout his baseball career, one of the many sad things about segregated baseball is the lack of reliable statistics, which keeps us from accurately comparing black and white players. Official Negro League stats credit him with a mere 15 home runs and 24 pitching wins, but his impact on the sport went far beyond statistical impact. Known as a “glib, fast-talking player”, Radcliffe was an intense competitor and a showman of the highest order.  According to Ty Cobb, Radcliffe wore a chest protector that said “thou shalt not steal” during one exhibition game and his constant chatter from behind the plate was widely known to effectively distract batters and entertain fans as well.  While this behavior no doubt earned him a few bean balls and high spikes, many baseball authorities called him the most effective defensive catcher of that era. Similar to Satchel Paige, he was born too early, as he would have been an internet darling, with GIF’s of his opponents glaring at him and compilations of the goofy things he would write on his shin guards and chest protector. The commissioner would have a steady bank draft set up to cover his fines for wearing unauthorized equipment and he would no doubt recoup the losses with endorsements embracing his style.
Although his stats may not have been otherworldly, his versatility certainly was. He earned the nickname “Double Duty” when he played as a catcher and as a pitcher in the successive games of a 1932 Negro League World Series doubleheader. In today’s world, we go crazy if a pitcher is able to ably field a ground ball or lay down a sacrifice bunt. If a player started at catcher and pitcher in the same day, I’m pretty sure that it would have broken Twitter. There would be debates about paying players more because of their versatility and whether Radcliffe was overworked. Stat guys would break down his WAR based on positional flexibility and argue about whether he would be better served sticking with one position. However, it was all in a days work for Radcliffe as he played catcher and pitched in each of his professional seasons, doing so well enough that he was named the 5th best catcher and 17th best pitcher in Negro League History by league experts. 1930’s writer Damon Runyon wrote that Radcliffe was “Worth the price of two admissions” and by all accounts, his versatility and overwhelming personality on the field definitely supported that statement.
Establishing roots was not in the cards for players of that generation. Another by-product of the barnstorming style of the Negro Leagues was the fact that Double Duty played for more than 30 teams in his career, including 5 teams in one season and managed at least 6 more. This meant day after day of long car and bus rides, with no promise of a place to stay when they arrived. Many of the cities where they played were far from friendly to the black players and Radcliffe, along with his teammates, spent many a meal eating in the back of a diner after being refused service and many nights sleeping on the bus after being unable to find a place to stay. In one famous story, Radcliffe and his teammates were refused gas by a white station owner and ended up having to push their car the last 5 miles to the hotel for that night’s game. As a relatively privileged, white male, I can’t begin to imagine how this would affect me. I get grouchy when people cut in front of me in traffic or stop the elevator; I would not handle institutional racism with class and dignity. 

Fortunately, Radcliffe was a far better man than I am, and despite the blatant racism, he continued to help in the fight for integration. His most significant contribution to the sport took place in the later stages of his career and in 1934, Radcliffe was named player-manager of the integrated Jamestown Red Sox of North Dakota, making  him the first black man to manage white professional players. In 1945 he roomed with a young Jackie Robinson while playing for the Kansas City Monarchs and in 1948, he helped to integrate two leagues, the Southern Minny and Michigan-Indiana leagues, by signing both black and white players. After his playing and managing days were over, he moved into the scouting department with the Cleveland Indians through the mid 1960’s.

While I don’t begrudge modern players their high salaries, it makes me sad to read the stories of how little players used to make. Despite Radcliffe’s likability and value to his teams, his highest salary at any point in his career was 850 dollars a month and he and his wife lived a life of poverty for most of their married life. Sadly, it took them being beaten and robbed at their home in the projects of South Chicago in 1990 for things to turn around. When news came out about the crime, they received aid from both the mayor’s office and a local church program for the elderly and were able to piece together a life from that point forward. Even after enduring poverty, racism and overall hatred, Double Duty continued to contribute to the world around him. He was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the city of Chicago and publicly recognized by Mayor Daley. Despite 2 strokes, cancer and other age related issues, Radcliffe continued to attend games and even threw out the ceremonial first pitch each year after his 100th birthday. In 2005, at the age of 103, he threw out the first pitch for a game in Alabama. When he passed away two weeks later, it marked the close of 86 years of involvement in baseball.

Despite everything that he contributed to the game, Radcliffe is not a member off the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not to take away from other inductees, but 86 years worth of personality, high quality play, battling racism and community involvement qualify as Hall of Fame worthy to me. The sad thing, is that even if he were to somehow get inducted, Double Duty wouldn’t be around to enjoy it.
I love players who leave it all on the field and make me feel like I didn’t waste my time reading about or watching them. Whether it was  pitching and catching on the same day, fighting racism, integrating leagues or annoying Ty Cobb; Double Duty Radcliffe was worth more than the price of 2 admissions. 

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