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.