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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US
The Zulu Colored Giants
By John Judson
The year I would turn nineteen, in mid-season, on a Tuesday afternoon, the Zulu Colored Giants arrived in Pittstown, Maine. They came in what looked like an old Greyhound bus that drove behind two large trucks. The trucks carried a portable lighting system strapped on long flatbeds, and each had large loudspeakers mounted on top of its cab. They drove right down Main Street, PA system blaring, playing jazz and advertising their game that night against us, the AC's. Admission was two dollars; kids under age ten got in free. Their team bus followed, players hanging out the windows, smiling and waving at all the white Maine folk who had stopped to look, almost in disbelief. But everyone looked, and when they did, they smiled. And kids yelled, and several ran alongside the bus talking to the players.
Their bus was almost a sky blue, but along its sides was a kind of hand-painted mural, the background of which was thick green leaves and tufts of very tall grass and several exotic jungle trees with vines hanging from them. One tree had a python in its lower crotch hissing at you. Partly hidden behind each of the other trees and some vegetation were the faces and torsos and arms of nine black warriors. All wore loincloths, but on each head was a deep blue baseball cap. Each warrior smiled and held a bat or a glove.
That night during the game, I learned that baseball could be theater as well as sport. Their catcher, a huge man they called Redbone, had a booming Southern voice and talked constantly to the crowd, commenting on the game. (Later, after the game when I talked with him, he spoke perfectly measured English in soft, pure tones. I found out then that he had graduated from Fisk University.)
In the fourth inning, I, Pittstown's center fielder, hit a one-bounce shot to deep short, and Redbonebecause their shortstop had backhanded the ball deep in the hole and still tried to make the playhad chased me down the line to back up first base. I beat the throw but was surprised that the play was as close as it was. I had not played against shortstops with that kind of range or arm before. When I returned to first, Redbone was still right behind first base in the coaching box staring at me. Then he broke into a broad grin and walked back to home plate.
When he got to his position behind the plate, he didn't bend down to give the sign to his pitcher. Rather he turned, and facing the first base stands with his mitt raised to point at me, he said in a booming voice, "D' you see dat? Dat boy's fast! I'll bet he goin' to steal. But he'll get a sur-PRIZE when he do, cuz Ol' Redbone gonna throw him OUT!" And with that he turned around, squatted down, and called the next pitch.
Standing on first, next to their first
baseman, a man who went six feet ten if he went an inch, and who had the longest arms I had ever seen, I was amazed. I had no intention of stealing, really, and Roger Philburn, our manager, didn't have any signal on. But with a count of two and one on Dewey Marsh, our next hitter, Redbone let a low curve get by him, just far enough for me to react. I read that and took off for second knowing I could make it. I went as fast as I could and took a straight-in slide.
To my surprise, Junior Jefferson, their second baseman who looked about forty years old, had the ball in his glove and had tagged me on the right toe. Suddenly, it seemed that everybody in the stands as well as those on the field were yelling. As Junior started to throw the ball around the infield to celebrate, he said quietly to me, "Fast ain't the only thing, son."
When I got back to the bench, my face was crimson. I sat down, wanting to sink underground or at least put a towel over my head like some pitchers now do between innings. Then, Redbone, in his booming voice, said to all, "I tol' ya all, didn't I?" Both our grandstands and the extra bleachers the Zulus brought and erected down the foul lines were filled with farmers and townspeople, and they erupted. Some laughed and others yelled, probably in response to the power and precision of Redbone's arm. Most of them had come to town to watch our ace, Buford Fowler, pitch against these Zulu Giants. For the past two weeks the Giants and the AC's had paid radio stations all over western and central Maine to advertise this game, and many of our boosters had placed posters in every country store and barber shop within a fifty-mile radius. So there was a very large crowd. Some people were even standing along the baselines out to the foul poles in right and left field. And there were more behind the snow fence in the outfield that divided our playing area from the rest of the town park. When I finally got back to the bench, Buford himself came over and sat down next to me.
Buford Fowler was angular and tall, graying at the temples and half bald. He walked like a farmer behind a horse and plow: slow, concentrated, and bowlegged. Since retiring from Triple A ball, he was a chicken farmer. But he had been a pro for ten years. He was always chewing on half a mouthful of Redman tobacco and carried his big glove in his fielding hand when he wasn't wearing it. Buford spat a wad on the ground in front of his feet and put a very large hand on my knee.
"Charley," he said in a voice almost as deep as Redbone's, "don't pay the Giants or these people any attention. You can't afford rabbit ears." Then looking around at the stands and the way the Giants infield was set up, he went on: "You are good, and plenty fast, but you've got to learn to play smart, to use your eyes and head as well as your legs."
Then, right there at the far end of the bench, under those floodlights and in front of more people than I had ever seen at any baseball game I ever played in, he explained exactly how to make a fadeaway slide. Before the end of the inning, he had explained first how to remember the count, then to check the number of outs and the position of the shortstop and the second baseman so I might know who was probably going to cover second base in case of a throw. And then he told me how, as soon as I got to first base, to pick up dirt in each fist, holding both tight so I wouldn't risk tearing up fingers or the palms of my hands when I slid. And he also explained how to let my lower body go lax just before I started to slide. He said, if I could, to throw both hands up as I dropped into the slide to keep them out of trouble; they might also distract the player who was waiting for the ball. During my fall, I was supposed to let whichever was my rear leg start to slide out to the front or rear of the base I was sliding into.
Buford went over all this clearly and smoothly, paying nobody but me any mind. Then, just after we had made our last out of the inning, when we jogged out to our defensive positions, Buford ran with me. Even though he was our starting pitcher and should have been at the mound warming up, he jogged to a place midway between first and second, and to the great delight of the crowd, he demonstrated everything he had explained. He ran toward second, and at the last minute, with perfect composure, threw up his arms and slid in, touching the farthest corner of the bag with only the very tip of his toe. By then everybody was laughing and yelling and clapping. And that included Redbone, who laughed a huge laugh and then yelled: "Thas it, Speedy, you listen to that man and learn somethin'!"
That night, we lost to the Giants 32, but after the game both teams gathered to talk and share a couple cases of beer that Roger, our manager, had brought in his car trunk. Although Roger always made me drink Coke because I was not twenty-one, during the next couple of hours I learned that most of the Zulu Colored Giants were under minor league contracts, that the huge first baseman also played for the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, and that several others had graduated from college. By barnstorming, Redbone said, they made more money than playing on regular league teams. Besides, if they were on the roster of a minor league club south of New Jersey, they stood a good chance of real trouble, especially when it came to finding hotel accommodations or a restaurant that would serve them. In some towns, black players even had to sit out games because local ordinances allowed only whites on the playing fields. But this way, as the Zulu Colored Giants, they could pick where they wanted to play, use their color as a drawing card, and avoid all that nonsense. In fact, Morris Ellis, their shortstop, told us that they had the best time playing in Canada, where they were headed the following week.
It seemed only fitting that the Giants were able to turn the tables on white America, taking advantage of the black man's stereotyped image while playing before sellout crowds in the North. Because one thing was for sure: these were fine ballplayers and men, worthy of emulation and respect.
JOHN JUDSON played ball from the late forties through the sixties for the Pittsfield Athletics in Maine, the Solon Pirates in Iowa, and the Seward Carriers (USAF) in Tennessee. This memoir piece, based upon fact with names, places, and dialogue altered by plan and memory, is excerpted from a novel in progress entitled Walking Circles Around The Panther.
© 2002 John Judson
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