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.