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Mudville: August 16, 2022 10:20 pm PDT
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Catching Greatness

Larry LeGrande’s professional baseball career was not particularly long, lasting for only six seasons during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Still, the Virginia resident proved to be an integral part of baseball history, often serving as Satchel Paige’s catcher while also playing with a pair of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Famers who spent time moonlighting in the Negro Leagues.

LeGrande, 82, was a baseball star as a teenager growing up in Virginia despite the fact that he didn’t play in little league or for his high school, which didn’t have a team. So, he began playing for the Webster All-Stars, a squad that had players as old as 21, when he was just 14. His ability behind and at the plate allowed him to not only compete against much older players but to excel.

It was his time with the Webster All-Stars that led him to the Negro Leagues and a long-time relationship with Paige. LeGrande was given a brief opportunity to play affiliated ball – he signed with the Yankees and spent some of 1961 in the Class-C Florida State League – but a long career never materialized. He was done with baseball by the end of 1963, going on to have a successful 32-year career with General Electric.

LeGrande, who caught and played right field, chronicled his exploits in his 2015 biography, I Found Someone to Play With, A Biography: Larry LeGrande. The Last Member of the Satchel Paige All-Stars”, a tale of when he played and with whom he shared the field. The someone he found to play with, he says, was Paige.

“Playing with Satchel Paige was the greatest thing in my baseball life,” LeGrande said. “Up until that point, I had thought the greatest thing was being 14 and catching guys who were 10 to 15 years older than me. He had the greatest control of anyone I have ever seen. He was more than amazing.”

While LeGrande’s status didn’t quite reach that of Paige he was still a well-known commodity in the Negro Leagues and on the barnstorming circuit. And it all started largely because an aquaintence went for a walk.

VIRGINIA IS FOR BALLPLAYERS

LeGrande was an athlete growing up in rural Virginia. While Carver High didn’t have a baseball team, it did have a football team, for which LeGrande played quarterback and halfback.

“I was the left halfback and ran from the T-formation,” LaGrande said. “I also made the third team in basketball. They had a championship team. I loved to play football but I was a baseball player. I still have injuries now from high school football and blocking the plate. My hands shake a little but from banging my head on the ground.”

LeGrande still was able to enjoy baseball, though, learning from his older brother Douglas, who was left-handed. Douglas LeGrande favored tennis but played ball in his front yard with the left-handed hitting Larry, who says those sessions allowed him to become a better hitter against lefties.

Baseball was in LeGrande’s nature. He would spend his free time walking the roads of Roanoke, picking up empty soda bottles for the deposits. He would take them home and wash them out on the back porch, cleaning all the mud off in order to get his two cents per bottle. He would then use the money to buy the Afro-American, a newspaper out of Baltimore, just to read Sam Lacy. The Hall-of-Fame writer covered the Negro Leagues and worked for the Afro-American for nearly 60s.

LeGrande would read the stories about Paige, Josh Gibson, Willie Rogan, Leon Day, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe and Buck Leonard in an attempt to soak up as much knowledge about the game as possible.

“I would buy that newspaper and I didn’t care about anything in it but the ballplayers,” he said.

Reading about the greats who played the game wasn’t enough, though, for LeGrande. He wanted to play and there weren’t many options available to him at the time.

“I never played Little League baseball because that was for the white kids,” LeGrande said. “When this [semi-pro] team in the neighborhood practiced, I would go over there. They had all the gloves in a duffle bag and it as always bring that glove over here you little so and so. If someone didn’t show up to the field to play because they all had jobs I’d take their glove and go out on the field.

“One day, the catcher didn’t show so I grabbed his mitt and they let me practice with them. Now, I was born and raised in the country and I could throw rocks like a bullet. They asked my folks if I could play with them. After that, it changed and I went to a place called Blue Ridge, Virginia. It was 10 miles down the road from Roanoke where I lived. I joined that team and I played with them until my senior year.”

That team was the Webster All-Stars and they provided LeGrande with a pathway to the Negro Leagues in addition to turning him into a local celebrity.

“I used to walk around in high school with my left hand up at my chest so people could see that it was swollen from catching all those fastballs,” he said. “We had a great team and everybody looked up to me, teachers, the football coach, everyone.”

LeGrande’s reputation as a ballplayer began to grow in and around Roanoke. So, when the Memphis Red Sox arrived in nearby Salem, Virginia to square off against the Birmingham Black Barons one spring afternoon in 1957, LeGrande’s life would change. Memphis manager Homer “Goose” Curry was on the lookout for some new talent and when he asked Butters Lewis, a local if there were any good black ballplayers in the area. His response was immediate – Larry LeGrande.

Curry was a 20-year Negro Leagues veteran, starring from the late 1920s until the late 1940s. He was running Memphis and though the Negro Leagues were in its final days, Curry was still on the lookout for new talent.

“The team was at a restaurant and low and behold, a black man walks past,” LeGrande said. “The manager asked if he knew of any good players and he said he only knew of one, Larry LeGrande. So, my brother drove me to the park that night I went to speak with him. He asked me if I wanted to come to spring training and I said yes.”

LeGrande’s father worked for the railroad so he got him a pass to take the train to Memphis. The trip took several days and LeGrande remembers it vividly.

“I took two chickens and killed them and my mother fried them up for me,” LeGrande said. “My mom put one bag in another so I had two chickens and nine biscuits. Night fell and morning came and I said to myself, ‘Lord, what have I done?’ I had never been away from home like that before. Another day passed and all I had left was a chicken leg, a back and half a biscuit. Finally, the conductor comes through and says Memphis.

“I looked out the window and saw how big that railyard was compared to Roanoke and I said this is a big, big city. Homer was there at the station and he said, ‘Here I am boy’. Then he took me in a car to this modern stadium [Martin Stadium] on East Crump Boulevard. Then we went to my room and I was assigned to room number nine, which was my number of the Memphis Red Sox.”

The Memphis players were not particularly accepting of LeGrande at first, mostly because of his age. He said they chided him, asking him if he were the bat boy but largely avoided having many conversations with him once tryouts started.

“I was raised on a farm and I was strong,” he said. “If I had played Little League or high school ball, I wouldn’t have been as mature. They were great players and all of them could hit. When they saw me throw and hit, they begam to talk to me but at first they didn’t want anything to do with me. On the third day we lined up on the left field line and ran to the right field line. I was leading the pack until a guy named Sam Allen passed me like I was backing up. He didn’t make it, though. There were only three uniforms available and I got one of them.

“The first thing I did was get some quarters, put them in the telephone box and called my folks to tell them I made the team. I never heard such hollering and going on. I can hear it today.”

LIFE AS A PRO

While he was excited, LeGrande was still only 18 years old and the bravado he displayed walking around the halls of Carver High amongst his peers quickly disappeared. He admits he was intimidated but quickly adds that the four years of playing with older teenagers and men on the Webster squad helped him adapt quickly.

Individual statistics for the Negro Leagues are exceedingly difficult to verify so there is no way of knowing how well or how poorly LeGrande did that season. He said in his book that once he calmed down he hit well over .300. One thing that is certain, though, is that he made a friend on the team that would go on to become a country music legend – Charley Pride.

Pride, who passed away in 2020, pitched professionally from 1953 to 1960 in both the Negro Leagues and affiliated ball, seeing time with Memphis and Birmingham in the former and in the Yankees organization in the latter. His time on the diamond was sandwiched around a stint in the army.

His real claim to fame, however, would come after he finished playing when he skyrocketed to fame as a country music singer. Pride would collect 30 number one hits and was named as the 1971 Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year.

While LeGrande and Pride became close friends he wanted more in terms of baseball. He wanted to have more exposure in hopes of landing a contract with an affiliated club. So, he jumped to the Detroit Stars, later renamed the Clowns, in 1958 and it proved to be a life-changing decision. LeGrande began to get the exposure he sought while establishing himself as one of the better players on the circuit, wowing crowds with his arm and earning a spot in the East-West All-Star Game in Comiskey Park.

The Detroit team featured a pair of basketball Hall-of-Famers – Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who had played for the Chicago American Giants a decade earlier, and Reece “Goose” Tatum, who had played in the Negro Leagues during the early years of World War II.

Clifton, who also played for the Harlem Globetrotters, was the second black player to sign an NBA contract and appear in an NBA game. He played in the NBA for eight years, mostly for the Knicks, and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014. Tatum, meanwhile, played 11 seasons for the Globetrotters, had his numbered retired by the fabled team and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011.

“Sweetwater Clifton played left field for us and he was a big man,” LeGrande said. “He was 6-foot-7 and had huge hands. Goose Tatum was really something, too. He worked out with us at first base and booked basketball games in every state we played in.”

LaGrande was having a strong season in ’58, hitting close to .350 by all accounts while earning a spot in the East-West All-Star Game that summer at Yankee Stadium before moving on to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1959. According to LeGrande’s account in his book, Paige recruited him to play for the Monarchs and he responded by “leading the Negro Leagues in outfield assists for a third consecutive season” while “hitting better than .300”. He also began to attract attention of several Major League teams, including the Yankees.

“I was 19 going on 20 and I had arm speed and I hit the ball out of the park,” LeGrande said. “I had one of the greatest throwing arms in baseball.”

He also got the opportunity to catch Paige on a regular basis and he says that remains the thrill of a lifetime.

“I wouldn’t take the Yankees or anything else over playing with Satchel Paige,” LeGrande said. “You had to be good to play with him. How good did you have to be to play with Satchel? You had to be better to play with Satchel than with the Yankees, I can tell you that right now.”

The Monarchs toured the country and LeGrande was getting the kind of baseball education of which most youngsters only dream. He played with some terrific ballplayers and has hours of stories to tell about them, including Willie Washington [who also managed the Monarchs that season].

“Willie Washington was one of the greatest hitters I ever saw,” LeGrande said. “He hit a ball at Yankee Stadium one time that never got 15 feet off the ground. It was a line drive over the monuments in center field. It was unbelievable how far he could hit a baseball. Satchel called him Josh Gibson because Josh was a long-ball hitter.”

THE YANKEES, SATCHEL PAIGE AND CALLING IT A CAREER

LeGrande’s talent was obvious to just about everyone by this point, including the Yankees, who signed him near the end of the 1959 season. He finished the year playing with Kansas City and then was assigned to Instructional League in St. Petersburg.

He arrived at Miller Huggins Field in the fall and began to show his new teammates what he could do, particularly with his arm.

“We worked out and did some exercises and they found out what kind of arm I had after started playing games,” LeGrande said. “We’re on the bench in St. Petersburg one day and the manager Steve Souchok looked at me and said have you ever pitched? I had never pitched before. I wanted to go through their system and play for the Yankees but I thought what if you hit one of these white guys on the side of the head and killed them or put them in the hospital. I could throw the ball 100 miles an hour from right field. So, I told him I never pitched and he just shook his head.”

While he played for St. Petersburg in 1960, there are differing accounts as to how well he did. LeGrande said, both in his book and through interviews, that he was hitting over .300 and leading the Class-D Florida State League when the Yankees unexpectedly released him. Baseballreference.com and StatsCrew, however, both have him appearing in 21 games and hitting .250 with 13 RBIs that season before he was released late in the spring. Baseballreference, however, did misspell his name [LaGrande].

LeGrande returned to what was familiar, moving on to barnstorm with the Monarchs and the Paige All-Stars for the next three seasons before calling it a career in 1963. He went on to have a long career with General Electric and was a fixture at ballparks and card shows around the country before the pandemic, often talking about how much Paige and playing with the Hall-of-Famer meant to him. He even has one of two remaining Satchel Paige uniforms from his days with the traveling team.

“I stopped playing because I really didn’t have anyone that I wanted to play with,” LeGrande said of his exit from the game. “Paige had the greatest control of anyone I’ve ever seen. He was more than amazing; I tell you that. He could throw 100 miles and hour and didn’t know what the heart of the plate looked like. As old as he was when we played together, he could still hit the corner of the plate.

“He would tell me that he didn’t pitch inside anymore because he didn’t want anyone to hit it out of the park and say they hit Satchel out of the park. Playing with Satchel Paige was one of the greatest things in my life.”

LeGrande certainly had quite a baseball life, and Paige played more than a significant role in it.

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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