Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Slick: A Good and Noble Man, By Fay Vincent

The following is an essay penned by Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, as he salutes his good friend, Slick Surratt, the Kansas City Monarch who passed away Tuesday at age 87.

Slick: A Good and Noble Man

By Fay Vincent

Alfred "Slick" Surratt died the other day and I am saddened to the core. He was my friend and it is no hyperbole for me to admit I truly loved him. Slick had played baseball in the old Negro Leagues, helped clear the airfield at Guadalcanal as an Army bulldozer operator, and came home from war hoping to play baseball. But he was the wrong color and so he spent some 50 years working on the line at the Ford Motor plant in Kansas City. The first time we met I asked him how he had come to be called "Slick". He looked at me with a broad smile and replied, "Commissioner, I don't know you well enough to answer that question." I still laugh when I think of that line.

We met at a weekend event Joe Garagiola and I organized to honor the alumni of the Negro Leagues who had been so badly treated by their country and by baseball. In 1991 we arranged to bring some 75 former players and their wives or significant others or family members to Cooperstown to the site of the baseball Hall of Fame to celebrate their contribution to baseball by continuing to play the game in a professional setting during the years when they were precluded from playing in the major leagues.

We were reminding them that by keeping the game alive in the black community they made possible the big league careers of such super stars as Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, along with the hundreds of other players of color who have graced the game.

The weekend was a total joy and one of the many benefits was my friendship with Slick. Even at that time, long after his playing days, he looked like he could still out run a rabbit When I asked if he could bunt, his anser was, "Commissioner, if it hops twice, ain't no point in you picking it up 'cause I'm already there." He was as slim as a pencil, and the build of a greyhound. But it was his smile that set the tone. He was always smiling and he always seemed happy. He always seemed to be having fun and he was fun to be with.
Over the first few years after we met, I made sure he and some of his baseball colleagues were included at all star and world series games and after several such occasions, when I knew he had been having a wonderful time, I would approach and ask him if I were getting to the point where he would explain where he got the name Slick. "Oh you gettin' very close Commissioner. Very close." But of course I never got there.
One night Larry Doby, the first black to play in the American League, and a dear pal of both Slick and mine, explained to me. "Commissioner, if you are as smart as you are supposed to be , you should have figured it all out by now."

I think I had.

We had kept in touch by telephone so I knew things had turned bad but whenever we spoke, he always sounded upbeat and that smile came through. He was not one to complain.The thing I never will forget about him was his total lack of bitterness. The travails of growing up in the severe segregation of his native Arkansas were dismissed . He pointed out the licence plate of Arkansas has the slogan on it--Land of Opportunity. "Well', explained Slick, " at the first opportunity, I left." Similarly, he never complained at the denial of any chance just to try out for a big league team.

He was thrilled for Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby but he accepted the restrictions Fate had imposed. When I reminded him of those tough days at Guadalcanal when he had to lift the front of his bulldozer to ward off Japanese bullets, his only comment was a regret his all black engineering unit had never received any recognition for their work. But that was it. The sense of anguish he had to have felt when he came home as a member of the victorious citizen Army but was not able to play baseball in the major leagues was never expressed.

"I see no point in being bitter, Commissioner. It won't do no good for no one." I will not forget the lessons I learned from this good and noble man. I will miss him, but I will never forget the joy of being in his company. If there are reserved seats where he is, I hope he keeps me in mind.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Claire Smith: Baseball Around the Horn: A great and good man passed today

Claire Smith: Baseball Around the Horn: A great and good man passed today

A great and good man passed today

Slick Surratt died today.

It is likely a name you're not familiar with, so it is my great privilege and pleasure to introduce you to this brave, kind man who epitomized The Greatest Generation.

Slick, born in Arkansas in 1922, served his country without fail, on the battlefields of Guadalcanal, on the assembly lines of Ford Motors for over 60 years.

Slick also played pro ball, teaming with some of the greatest players to ever toe a mound or swing a bat.

Slick was a member of the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro Leagues player who called Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson teammates, and Buck O'Neil "Skip."

Slick, like most African Americans of his era, bore the pride of having survived in the Jim Crow south, but never hid the scars caused by that spirit-rending segregation. He lost a brother because no hospital in rural Arkansas would treat a black child with a burst appendix. Slick apologized to no one for his limited education. You see, unless you could attend the one high school dedicated to African Americans in the Arkansas of the 30s and 40s, your schooling came to an end after sixth grade.

It was the law. It was a way of life best left in the dregs of history. Yet, as Slick said, these slights did not break him. As he liked to say, the license plates in Arkansas proclaimed that start "The Land of Opportunity and the first opportunity I had, I got out."

Slick became a member of an all-black unit within the Army'c Corps of Engineers, drove a bulldozer that helped build an airfield while under bombardment on The Canal.

Slick survived the war, and the indiginities of a segregated military. Then he came back to a country that once again tried to pigeonhole him as a second-class citizen. It failed.

Instead he proceded to carve out a career at Ford that lasted over 60 years. He played ball with a passion and joy in the leagues that would have him.

He could bunt, run, hit. If a grounder hit by him bounced more than once, he joked, you might has well put it in your hip pocket. It was a hit, pure and simple.

Slick's fondest memories involved his two-man barnstorming tours with Paige, the "money" player teams would bring in to boost the gates across America. Slick often drove the back roads of the nation as Satchel's chauffeur and companion.

Oh, the stories that emerged from those trips. Slick's fear at being pulled over by a country sheriff only to see that lawman step back in wonder as Satchel won him over with one of the autographed baseballs the pitcher kept in the glove compartment. the sheriff got the ball and Satch and Slick got a police escort all the way to their destination as sheriff after sheriff cleared traffic for these baseball VIPs.

Paige's love of speed - and Surratt's reluctance to temp fate, again - often led to Paige relentlessly teasing Slick as he asked again and again why wheel barrels kept passing them by.

Speaking about Satchel always made Slick laugh. Those who had the privilege of having heard their telling no doubt are smiling at their memories today.

I met Slick when we became members of the Fay Vincent Fellows, a merry group that included Joe Black and Larry Doby. The former commissioner and his band traveled from college campus to campus, speaking to students about The great contributions black America made to the Greatest Generation. Today, Fay and I comforted each other in that our trio of friends are now all gone. Then came the laughter, the gratitude and the love of our friends as we remembered the memories left us.

Slick's lessons were models of grace, tolerance and love of a country that often didn't love him back, but could not shake him in his belief that things would always get better.

Slick often spoke about working in the Ford plant when the news of Jackie signing with the Dodgers broke. Slick cheered as loudly as his fellow workers. It was like a holiday, he said.

Slick would never get that call. But he never let go of that day, because, in his heart, Jackie's victory was always his victory, as well.

In the end, how Slick lived, how this most patriotic, optimistic society within a society lived, was their gift to us all. What Slick, what Larry, what Joe Black, what my parents and my parents' parents taught me was this: The burdens borne, the wrongs suffered do never relieve one of his or her duties to country, family, self.

Thank you for reminding me of that each and every day spent together, Slick. Thanks for the opportunity to know you, to be your friend. I will miss you. Travel well ... and let not one wheel barrel ever pass you again.