Flood washes away Negro League star's memories - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Flood washes away Negro League star's memories

Print
Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008 9:43 pm | Updated: 8:52 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Baseball stole Art Pennington's future. The Cedar River washed away his past. His house, his car, his clothes, nearly all his pictures, even one of his two dogs — it was all lost to the Midwest floods.

"Every damn thing I had just floated down the river," he said.

He is hardly alone: There are 10,000 or so others totaling up their losses just in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, perhaps 10 times as many across the waterlogged region. But possessions can be replaced.

"A big part of my life is gone for good," he said.

His skin color cost Pennington a shot at the major leagues as a young man. He flourished instead in the Negro, Cuban, Mexican and Venezuelan leagues in the 1940s and, when baseball in America finally opened the door to blacks, in minor leagues across the country.

Six decades later, the water came and carried off nearly every bit of proof that Pennington was the equal of just about anybody who played anywhere he went.

Newspaper clippings, programs, autographed photos from Mickey Mantle, Sal Maglie and a dozen other big leaguers who assured him he would play alongside them someday, scrapbooks that gave his living room the look and feel of a baseball museum.

Last year, Billy Valencia, Pennington's agent and his guardian angel, talked the old man into letting him scan some of the albums to create a digital archive. But that was just a small fraction of what he had.

"He used to carry a camera to Negro League get-togethers and he had priceless videos of Cool Papa Bell and some other guys, talking and laughing and horsing around, and now they're all gone," Valencia said.

Now, a month past his 85th birthday, Pennington wonders where he'll find the cash or the strength to begin picking up the pieces.

"When you get old, you can't keep moving. You have to stay where people know you. I'm not doing too good, but I'm lucky to have a few good friends. Without them," Pennington chuckled, "I'd really be up a creek."

His neighbors remember the man who won a batting title and hit home runs in bunches for Keokuk and Cedar Rapids in Iowa's Three-I League as his career was winding down in the mid-1950s.

His own favorite stories were about the time he homered off the great Dizzy Dean when their paths crossed on separate barnstorming tours — about the only chance black ballplayers got to measure themselves against the white stars of the major leagues. And the first time he faced Satchel Paige, issuing his standard warning — "Throw it and duck!" — only to strike out three straight times.

"I could hold my own against anybody, except Satch, maybe, and he was the onliest man that made a fool out of me. But I played against the best — Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson — and not just the black ballplayers. You could ask Roger Maris, Harvey Kuenn and Sal Maglie, any of those boys, too.

"They'll tell you I should have been there," Pennington added, "but I understand why I wasn't. ... My grandfather was white and he told me life was going to be tough all the way, so I always tried to be tougher. When I was growing up, my mother was sure I'd get killed."

With a $5 gift from his aunt to cover the trip, he traveled from Arkansas to Memphis, Tenn., at 17 for a tryout with the Negro League's Chicago American Giants. And he never looked back. He played every position but catcher, played winter ball most years in Latin America, averaged about .300 at every stop.

His last pro game was in Modesto, Calif., in 1956, and he eventually found his way back to Cedar Rapids, where he worked 23 years for an aerospace and defense firm and two years for the railroad before retiring in 1985.

He ran for sheriff and the town commission, "everything but dog catcher," Pennington laughed, "and that's probably the only office I could have been elected to.

"I didn't care about losing. I was more interested in the chance to speak out against prejudice," he said.

All the while, locals and out-of-towners knocked on his door to ask if he was THE Art Pennington, and often left with an autographed souvenir.

He kept many of his own. Pennington hit one of the longest home runs in the history of old Comiskey Park for the American Giants and had an old brick from the since-demolished ballpark, but that was swept away, too. So were hats, jerseys and baseballs used in games.

Pennington does have a scrapbook and a glove in the Negro League exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. And three bats were recovered from the flood; two were given to him by Henry Aaron — one a "Remember me?" gift for the time in the mid-'50s when Pennington and Hammerin' Hank tried to walk through the front gate of a spring training game in Florida together and were told they had to use the service entrance.

"The day they let us back into Art's house was the worst," Valencia recalled. "We'd start cleaning up and something would spark a memory and I couldn't even imagine what he was thinking. I know it would kill me if I was good enough to play in the major leagues and never got the chance."

Pennington is staying now with friends and neighbors. Valencia helped him file a claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is seeking a grant from MLB's Baseball Assistance Team, which helps aging ballplayers.

Valencia set up a MySpace page where Pennington sells autographed baseball cards that Valencia helped design and print. He also arranges speaking engagements and card-show appearances.

Last weekend, the pair traveled to Kansas City for the Royals' annual tribute to surviving Negro League players and helped pass the hat seeking donations from current major leaguers.

And as word of his plight rippled through the game, some current major leaguers, among them the Detroit Tigers' Curtis Granderson, began exploring ways to get teammates and friends involved in raising money for Pennington.

But money will only replace material things, like the recliners and TVs where Pennington used to watch the Yankees or Cubs and laugh out loud at an error by some player making more than he ever dreamed about with half his skills.

"When you get up into your 80s, you forget a lot of things," Pennington said, "and that's my biggest regret."

  • Discuss

Happening Now...

Your Az Jobs
Loading…