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Mudville: August 9, 2022 4:33 am PDT
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Gray Cat & The Giants

Louis Clarizio had beer bottles and firecrackers thrown at him while experiencing the anger and frustration exhibited by many of his teammates during the waning days of the Negro American League.

It wasn’t that Clarizio, 90, was a bad person or had done anything wrong, he was simply trying to play baseball. The fact that he was a white man playing in a league full of black players, however, was a direction in which many fans and players weren’t interested in seeing the circuit head.

By the time Clarizio had signed with Chicago American Giants in the summer of 1950, though, the league was already on a respirator and heading for the same ending that befell the Negro National League just two years earlier. The integration of Major League Baseball, so long sought after by so many, had contributed to the demise of the fabled leagues that were once filled with legendary players.

While the Negro American League would lose much of its structure after that season as attention shifted to the Major Leagues, there was still enough interest that Clarizio’s signing was met with scorn by more than a few people.

He was one of only a half dozen or so white players to ever sign with a Negro League team and is the last living player from that select group, according to The Center for Negro League Research Founder [CFNLR] Dr. Layton Revel.

Though he experienced similar reactions, taunts and insults that greeted Jackie Robinson, the abuse he took was not nearly as great nor as widely publicized. Still, Clarizio and the other white players who stepped on the field for the teams in the Negro Leagues earned their place in baseball history simply because he wanted to reach the Major Leagues and would do anything to achieve that goal.

“People are happy now and they react differently when they find out, especially since they made the Negro Leagues and all the records part of the Major Leagues” Clarizio, said. “Back then they [the public] believed me when I told them but they didn’t like it. ‘Are you crazy?’ they would say. That was their favorite expression.”

He wasn’t crazy. Far from it. He just loved the game and still does all these years later.

FROM SEMI-PRO TO THE NEGRO LEAGUES IN THE WINDY CITY

Clarizio grew up on the west side of Chicago and was a White Sox fan because Comiskey Park had lights. That meant night games, which he was able to attend. The crosstown Cubs only played day games and because Clarizio was in school well into June every year, he never got to see them play. His favorite player was Hall-of-Fame second baseman Nellie Fox.

“He played different positions if they needed him to and that kind of reminded me of the American Giants,” Clarizio said. “Everybody played two positions, maybe more. I played all three outfield positions, wherever I was needed. That’s how it was different than the Major Leagues. We’d pick up some players, go to some town and play but they didn’t stay long. Sometimes they would just play a couple of games and they’d be gone.”

“Double Duty said to me ‘What are you doing, starting World War III?’ I told him, no, I was just playing baseball.”

Before the right-handed hitting Clarizio experienced life on the road with the Giants he was playing semi-pro ball in Chicago’s Garfield Park. He did not play baseball at what was then known as Crane Tech High School. Rather, he operated a hot dog stand on a busy Chicago street corner, leaving him little time for the high school team. His performance in the local Industrial League, though, earned enough attention that he was able to try out for the Philadelphia Phillies. Fellow Crane student Lou Chirban, who was also white, also went to the tryout and ultimately signed with the American Giants at the same time as Clarizio.

“I was 18 when I tried out for the Phillies, me and another fellow Louis Chirban,” Clarizio said. “I was up at bat and they told me to take five swings. I said okay and Louis was pitching. He threw five balls into the ground and I never got a ball I could hit. I said Louis, just let me hit one.”

Neither Clarizio nor Chirban, who played for Crane Tech’s team, got a call back from the Phillies. So, they headed back to the Industrial League where Clarizio was tearing it up for the Armour Stars, the company team for a meat packing manufacturer. It was his effort with the Stars that first attracted the attention of American Giants owner J.B. Martin, who warmed to the idea of signing white players to keep his team/league going when all the Black stars were heading to the Major Leagues.

Clarizio did so well that Martin dispatched the Giants’ manager, the legendary Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe to have a talk with the youngster.

Birmingham Black Barons baseball player Ted 'Double Duty' Radcliffe crouching with catcher's mitt on Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1942. (Photo by Charles 'Teenie' Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)

“I didn’t do too well there [with the Phillies] but that’s okay because I wasn’t too excited about having to go east,” Clarizio said. “I wanted to play around here. The Armour stockyard had an Industrial League team and they were looking for players. The last job I had was working for Sears while playing ball but this was much better pay so I went to Armour and played for them.

“I did well and one day we were playing and Double Duty came up to me after the game and asked if I wanted to play for the American Giants. I asked, ‘Who are they?’ and he explained it was the Negro Leagues. I had never seen a Negro League game. I said, “How much?” and he said “$500 a month’. I said, ‘Where do they play?’ and he said, ‘White Sox Park [Comiskey Park] is our home field’. So, I said sign me up. White Sox Park was nice and I thought I would get a lot of exposure there so I went with them.”

Clarizio, 20 at the time, and Chirban, 19, signed with the Giants on June 29th to become the first two white players to ever sign with a Negro American League team. The contract Clarizio signed is located in the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago. The Sox would add three more white players to the roster before the season ended – Frank Dyll, Al Dubetts and Stan Miarka, according to The Demise of the Negro League, a book put out by the CFNLR.

The move made headlines around the country. The Cedar Rapids Gazette carried an Associated Press story about the signings with the headline “Reversal: Negro Loop Signs White Players”. The Towanda [Pa.] Daily Review featured a United Press International Story with the headline “White Players in Negro Leagues Now” while The Wisconsin State Journal ran an extended UPI story under the headline “Two Whites Set Precedent; Join Negro Baseball Club”.

At the time, Clarizio told the UPI that he “accepted the offer to get a start in baseball”. According to the story, Chirban was also being courted by the White Sox but was advised by that club to take the offer and gain some experience rather than play in “the white bush leagues”.

“I was surprised they wanted a white guy,” Clarizio said. “I asked Double Duty why and he said they wanted good ballplayers. I said fine because I was hoping it would give me a leg up to get onto a Major League team. I thought I would get more exposure, which I did. Several papers did stories and people came to my house and interviewed me.”

The duo made their debut on July 9, 1950, in the second game of a doubleheader at Comiskey Park against the Indianapolis Clowns and the was covered but it was more filler than actual reporting. The Southern Illinoisan ran a four-column game day picture of Clarizio and Chirban sitting on the dugout steps with Radcliffe. Dubetts, a left-hander, was also in the picture.

Clarizio said that his teammates called him the Gray Cat.

“The players didn’t call anybody white, they always called them gray,” Clarizio said. “I walked into the clubhouse that first day and it was a real thrill going in the players entrance. I walked into the clubhouse and the guys were putting on their uniforms and one says, ‘Hey can this gray cat play baseball?’. Double Duty told him ‘You just better watch yourself and don’t worry about this gray cat’.”

The Cat’s Negro Leagues debut did not go as well as he would have liked, though. He only played four innings and struck out in his only time at-bat. Chirban gave up five runs on four hits and two walks in two innings as the Clowns completed their doubleheader sweep. Their debut was covered with several papers offering a few paragraphs but overall, there isn’t much information regarding what the duo did throughout the remainder of the season.

Revel said his organization does not keep individual statistics. Clarizio said he was with the Giants for the rest of the 1950 season and 1951, though Revel’s book disputes the latter, before getting drafted into the Army in the spring of 1952. He said he was a fairly good hitter, adding that he believes he hit about .345 for his time in the league.

“I did well and I ran full speed as soon as I hit the ball,” Clarizio said. If someone didn’t throw the ball to second base I just kept running. I knew the manager liked that. He never said anything but I knew he liked it.”

Playing well, however, was only half of what Clarizio faced.

AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE

Clarizio said that he was facing insults and taunts from the fans and other players almost immediately. While it was not to the level of what Jackie Robinson faced when he broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues it was still disturbing.

“Well, there was a lot of prejudice at that time,” Clarizio said. “There was a lot of that going on where they didn’t like me. The first time I came to bat against the Indianapolis Clowns someone threw a lit roll of firecrackers at me. I went over to the other team and they said they didn’t do it, that it must have been someone in the stands. It was a constant thing.

“I was playing the outfield and they would throw beer bottles at me. They had these little bottles; back then they didn’t use paper cups. The ball would be coming at me from home and the beer bottles would be coming the other way from the stands. I would just pick them up and throw them back on the warning track. When I got back to the dugout once Double Duty said to me ‘What are you doing, starting World War III?’ I told him, no, I was just playing baseball.”

Clarizio’s teammates would also pester him but he had no answers for them.

“They would say, ‘You know you’re taking a Black kid’s job, why don’t you go play in a white league?’,” he said. “I said ’Okay, where should I go?’  and it would end there.”

While Clarizio would ultimately gain a measure of acceptance with his teammates he quickly learned what their experience, life, not just baseball, was like. There were issues traveling through the South to play games in terms of eating and lodging that Clarizio would never have experienced if he were on his own.

Motel signs featured the words “Whites Only” prominently and the team was denied entry to restaurants because of their color. As a result, Clarizio said that many of their meals consisted of eating hot dogs at the ballpark.

“It sure did give a sense of what they were going through, wow,” Clarizio said. “I went into one restaurant and said I have a baseball team here, can we come in? What color are they? Black, nope. That was maybe 50 miles south of Chicago so you didn’t have to go way down south for that stuff to happen.”

One of his most unnerving experiences, however, came when the team was in the deep south and scheduled to play a game in Alabama. There wasn’t an issue until the club arrived in Birmingham and Clarizio stepped off the bus. There he encountered well-known white supremacist Theophilus Eugene Connor, better known as “Bull”. Connor would gain national notoriety in the early 1960s when, acting as Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, ordered police to stay back while allowing the Klu Klux Klan to attack a bus full of Freedom Riders. He would add to his unsavory reputation when he turned water cannons and police dogs on demonstrators who were peacefully protesting with Martin Luther King, Jr. in May of 1963.

On this day, however, he had Clarizio in his sites.

“We were going to Alabama and the manager said you don’t have to come,” Clarizio said. “If you want to take the day off go ahead because we are expecting trouble. I asked him what kind of trouble and told him I wasn’t afraid of anyone. But the minute I put my foot on the ground off the bus Bull Connor hits me with a stick across my chest. He said, ‘Where are you going boy?’ and I told him I am going to play ball here. He said ‘You’re not playing ball here. It’s a black ballpark and white boys don’t play on the same field as black boys.’

“He had another deputy with a dog and I was kind of in the middle. The manager came over and talked with him and told him that I was just riding with them, that I wasn’t going to play. Connor said that he didn’t want to see me on the field, in the dugout or the clubhouse, that I could go in the stands and watch if I wanted. I thought he was crazy. It was scary but I knew I could take him out. I knew I could take that stick easy and whale on him with it. But they had the dogs and I didn’t want to hurt the dogs because then they would be after me. So, I just let it go and let the manager take care of it. I told him if we ever played down south again maybe I would take the day off.”

Clarizio, who never made it to the Major Leagues, stayed with the team for a while after the season to play exhibition games against affiliated minor league teams, colleges etc. He said that these were more welcoming environments and that the team would play at any field that “had a gate so they could collect money”.

His experiences were unusual for the time, but Clarizio handled it all with aplomb. He’s currently writing a book about it all. He still gets cards and letters from people looking for an autograph and he is happy to oblige. Clarizio also attends card shows and conventions and is always more than willing to discuss the time when he made his mark on professional baseball.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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