Copyright (c) 1997, Roanoke Times

DATE: Sunday, April 13, 1997                 TAG: 9704110016
SECTION: EXTRA                    PAGE: 1    EDITION: METRO 


THE PITCH came in and Percy Miller Jr. swung. He connected and the ball zipped over second base. Two teammates scored and the runs spurred his team, the Danville Leafs, to a 5-4 win over the Durham Bulls.

Miller, 20 and just two months out of high school, found himself standing safely on first base. Cheers washed down on him from both sides of the rope separating white and black ticket buyers.

"Negro Gets 2-Run Single in Debut," the Danville Bee's headline said.

It was Aug. 10, 1951, and baseball had been integrated in the last capital of the Confederacy.

Percy Miller had broken the color line in the Carolina League. He had become, as baseball historians could best discern, just the second black man in the 20th century to swing a bat or throw a pitch for a white minor league team in the South - the first having appeared just a few months before in the border state of Tennessee.

On the surface, that moment had the elements of another Jackie Robinson story, just four years after Robinson had integrated the Northern-cities-only major leagues. The story line sounded simple: A lone black man beating down a baseball color line after getting a chance to show what he could do on the field.

But Percy Miller knew better: In those days, nothing about breaking racial barriers was simple. When he ran from home plate to first base he didn't feel triumphant. He ran on his heels. He was angry.

He was angry because he was wearing a size 48 shirt and a size 46 pants. He says the team's equipment manager said that was the only uniform they had, but Miller saw the oversized uniform as a snub designed to put him in his place.

"Here I was a 31 inches in the waist," says Miller, now 65. "It fit me like a bathrobe."

In the end, Miller played 19 games at the tail-end of the '51 season. His batting average was below .200, and that winter the team released him.

The Carolina League's first try at integration had ended.

The battle to wipe away the color barriers in sports - as in the rest of society - didn't play itself out in one dramatic episode. It was a wrenching fight that went on in fits and starts for many years on many fronts, in small towns and big ones all across America.

Miller, a quiet-spoken man, says he harbors no ill feelings about his sometimes painful experiences in the Carolina League, or about his abrupt release. He knew he didn't play as well as he could have. He just figured he'd catch on with another team eventually.

But James Slade, his former high school coach, will say what Miller won't. Slade, 80, is an unofficial but passionate historian of black sports in Danville. He says Miller didn't get much of a chance; the time was too short, the pressure too much, for a young man just entering baseball's major-league farm system.

Miller never considered himself another Jackie Robinson. He was just a ballplayer. "I didn't think I was a trailblazer. I figured Jackie had done the job. And everybody who followed along after had him to thank."


James "Wimp" Slade was a child of the Great Depression. "Let me tell you the story," he begins.

He was 12 when his family moved home to Danville from Washington, D.C. The year was 1928.

It took him eight years to finish high school. He'd go to school in the fall, stay through basketball season, then drop out. He'd sell newspapers, shine shoes, do odd jobs. His family needed money.

His mother never knew he wasn't going to school. He'd leave the bit of money he earned in a place where his mom would find it, or go buy something the family needed.

One day, Harry Jefferson, the coach at Virginia State College, a black school in Petersburg, remarked to Mrs. Kate Page, one of Slade's teachers, that he'd never been able to recruit an athlete out of Danville. "I have one for you," she said.

"You know how you get attached to a teacher?" Slade recalls years later. "She knew the plight I was in."

He played four years of basketball in what was then known as the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

He graduated in 1940 and took a job teaching and coaching basketball at Langston, the black high school in Danville.

He became a driving force in the growth of the state's black athletic association, which included Roanoke's Lucy Addison and Salem's G.W. Carver high schools. In 1945, he started Langston's football program on a shoestring budget with castoff uniforms from Danville's white high school.

In the mid-'40s, he began to notice three local youngsters - Percy Miller, Eloyd Robinson and Kenny Vincent. He'd never seen athletes like those three. Percy was rail-thin, 6-foot-2, 165 pounds, but he could punt a football 50, 60 yards or more.

The three formed the heart of a football team that went undefeated - 9-0 - in 1949 and a basketball team that won the black association's state tournament in 1950. Percy was all-state in both sports.

Before his junior year, Percy was playing baseball on a local black team, the Danville All Stars, when it was booked for a game against a Negro barnstorming club, the Jacksonville Eagles.

At the end of the game, his father, Percy Sr., the All Stars' player/manager, was on second base. It was Percy Jr.'s turn at bat and the game was on the line.

"People said: `Mr. Miller, are you going to let Junior bat?' My father said: 'I'm going to win with him or lose with him.' So I doubled him home to beat 'em."

The Eagles' owner was so impressed he offered five All Stars contracts. Including 17-year-old Percy Jr.

His mother didn't want him to go. But his father told him: "Go ahead and pack your clothes, I'll straighten it out with her when you're gone."

Percy Jr. played with the Eagles two summers while he was in high school, and again after he graduated in 1951, batting a sizzling .375 as the team bounced around the United States and Canada.

One day he had a stopover back home, and his father came in and told him a man was there to see him. The man was from the Danville Leafs, and he had a contract in his hands.


The Leafs were mired near the bottom of the Carolina League standings. The team didn't have a working agreement with a major league club to help balance its books. And as the Southside Virginia sun grew hotter, and tobacco-harvesting season came on, attendance at Leafs' games wilted. The team tried bathing beauty contests and raffles. Nothing worked.

Then local black leaders suggested the Leafs sign Percy Miller Jr. Team officials decided to give it a try, hoping the stunning move would perk up attendance.

Percy wasn't so sure about the idea. "I didn't want to sign," he says. "I told him I was supposed to go to spring football practice the next year at West Virginia State."

The Leafs man came back the next day. Miller's father urged his son to sign. He wanted Percy to have the chance he never had.

Sitting in his living room decades later, Percy Miller Jr.'s eyes mist up as he recalls his father's pleas.

"I'm about to do what he did," he says. "He cried."

The son signed the paper.

He headed over to League Park to work out with the Leafs. At first, Miller says, no one would play catch with him. But then pitcher Al Ronay came over and suggested a game of "pepper."

He tossed the ball to Miller, who slapped it back to him. "You're pretty good with the bat," Ronay remarked. Soon others joined in.

"From then on," Miller says, "everybody was all right."

His signing hit the papers on a Friday, and that night paid attendance was 1,718, double the normal. That included about 600 black spectators - a tenfold increase.

His high school coach, James Slade, took it all in from the ballpark's segregated section, far down the third base line. Miller struck out in his first at bat. On his second trip to the plate, he singled home two of his teammates.

Slade jumped out of his seat. "I was halfway up in the air. It was just like my son doing something that was making history. Just having a chance to do it. And he came through."

Afterward, Leafs officials said some fans had vowed not to attend any game while Miller was on the roster, but they said most people had responded favorably.

One of the team's stockholders said, "it was one of the biggest thrills of my life - to hear the roar of applause that they gave him when he came out on that field."

But even over the cheers, Miller says, he could hear kids heckling him from the fence along the first-base line: "You're a lucky nigger," one of them yelled.

As for his teammates, the newspapers said their reaction to Miller's signing was "mixed." Some would only say "No comment."

Even the favorable remarks seemed colored with the prevailing notions of race relations in the South.

"I never played with a Negro before," teammate Roy Peterson said. But "I see nothing wrong with it, especially if this boy Miller can help us win ball games."

"I didn't see anything wrong with signing the Negro," Leafs manager Bob Latshaw said. "I had three on a team of mine in Canada, and they were easy to handle."

The next day Miller went hitless in four at bats.

The Leafs headed to Raleigh, N.C. When the bus arrived at the team's hotel, Miller recalls, his teammates started filing in, but "a guy grabbed me by the arm. He had $8 and an address. And there was a cab waiting. He said the driver knew where to go."

Later, during a home game, Miller says he was sitting in the dugout when a batter hit a foul ball into the black section of the stands.

"Look at those niggers scramble," one of his teammates joked.

He played each game under unrelenting pressure. He couldn't seem to buy a base hit. "I was making contact with the ball," Miller says. "It just was falling into people's hands."

After he went hitless four games in a row, the team said it was holding him back from a road trip to Durham for workouts "to polish up his performance."

He came back and had his best game Aug. 19, stroking two hits in three at bats, but was pulled in the eighth inning for a pinch hitter.

He was benched for six games, but on Aug. 30 he collected one of the two hits the Leafs could manage against the Greensboro Patriots. The last day of the season, Sept. 3, he went one-for-three in the nightcap of a double header against the Reidsville Luckies.

He had just 39 at bats during his 19-game run. But in February the team announced it was releasing him. The Leafs said he was "simply not ready" for the Carolina League.

Big leaguers

Two years after Percy Miller's short Leafs career had ended, the Carolina League had another black player. The Leafs had signed on as a farm team for the New York Giants, a team committed to cultivating black prospects.

In 1953, the Giants assigned a young infielder from Ohio, Bill White, to Danville.

It was a long season for him. "I had to put up with crap from the fans. I was called names I'd never heard," White recalled years later. "I rebelled. I yelled back at the name callers. I was only 18 and immature."

In Burlington, N.C., he made an obscene gesture at his tormenters and the team had to run a gauntlet of angry fans to get away. White asked for a transfer to St. Cloud, Minn., but he was playing too well to let go.

He coped by channeling his anger into his hitting. "The more the fans gave it to me, the harder I hit the ball." For the season, he hit .298 with 20 home runs. "They eventually decided to leave me alone, which was a victory over bigotry."

White went on to play 13 seaons in the major leagues, collecting 1,706 hits and 202 home runs. He served as president of the National League from 1989 to 1994, the highest-ranking black executive in pro sports.

Others followed in his wake. The Leafs' 1956 team photo shows four black faces, including two home-run hitters, Willie McCovey and Leon Wagner, who would become big league stars.

Still, many major leaguers who passed through the Carolina League - including Curt Flood, Rod Carew and Dock Ellis - recalled being the targets of racism.

In the league's defense, North Carolina historian Jim Sumner notes that the league integrated long before the barriers fell in many Southern schools, and that, unlike the experiences of other minor leagues, no team ever refused to play against black players.

Today, things have changed dramatically in the Carolina League. The shouts of "Go back South and pick cotton" ended after the first few years of integration. But even into the 1970s, some Carolina Leaguers said they were targets of racial taunts. Some Salem Pirates players complained hecklers would shout "Leroy" at them when they came to bat.

Walls of fame

When the Giants moved to San Francisco, they shifted their farm team locations westward with them. The Leafs went out of business after the '58 season. The grandstands at League Park were torn down and moved to Burlington.

Like many American cities, Danville still has some racial tensions. In 1993, bitter words flew over the flying of a Confederate Flag outside a local museum.

But there are signs of racial strides in this city of 54,000. A recent national study cited Danville as one of the most integrated cities in the nation. City Council has three black members. Last year, Harry Johnson, a black man who coached basketball at Danville's George Washington High for 17 years, retired after winning the state championship. He was replaced this year by Chris Carter, who is also black.

James Slade has been a keen observer of Danville's athletic triumphs over the years. He left high school coaching in 1952 to become an elementary-school principal and eventually finished his career as an assistant principal at G.W., the city's integrated high school.

At his home on U.S. 29 Business at the north end of town, the basement walls are covered with memories - photos, trophies, autographs. There's a drawing of George "Tic" Price, the former G.W. basketball star who coached the University of New Orleans into the national limelight and was recently hired by University of Memphis.

Other famous Danville sports alumni include Herman Moore, a University of Virginia star now with pro football's Detroit Lions.

In Slade's basement, there's a special corner for black-and-white photos of Percy Miller and the rest of the young men from his great Langston teams from the Class of 1951. One shows Miller, his leg driving high, punting the ball skyward.

Miller and the others from Slade's great teams never got much chance to play outside segregated ball. But they were famous in Danville. A generation of black kids looked up to them. "Oh, they were idolized," Slade says.

Many of these admirers went on to play sports, or their children did, Slade says, and helped bring trophies back to G.W.

Percy Miller didn't give up his dream easily. He went back to the Jacksonville Eagles in the spring of 1952. He says the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him a contract, but he couldn't get out of his contract with the Eagles.

His military draft notice chased him around the country and caught up with him in May in New Mexico. He missed fighting in Korea because he got a job playing baseball on an Army team, thanks to a white captain who walked up to him one day and said: "I was in Raleigh last year, and I saw a black fellow playing right field for the Leafs. Could that be you?"

But then he tore up his knee when he fell off a "half track" vehicle during maneuvers. His baseball career was over.

"I always felt like one day I would be in baseball," he says. "There wasn't but two things I wanted to be - a baseball player and a railroad conductor."

Miller got his second wish. He sidestepped racial barriers to getting a railroad job up North and worked as a conductor for Conrail and Amtrak for 21 years before retiring in 1990.

He returned to Danville and lives in a comfortable brick home, with a hilly yard dotted with balls - a football, a basketball, a baseball - belonging to his 6-year-old grandson.

One day recently, he and James Slade sat in his living room and recalled the first time he put on a uniform for coach Slade. It was a football game in the fall of 1947.

"The first game we played up in Martinsville," Miller says, his speech slowed a bit because of Parkinson's disease.

"Tell 'em what you wore," Slade says.

"I don't remember, coach," Miller answers.

Slade laughs. He can't forget. "Tennis shoes."

"....and had three guys playing without helmets," Miller quickly recalls. "We only had about six or seven helmets. Those sneakers were slippery."

A few days later, Slade is back again for a photo session with his protege.

They step outside under the shade of a tall evergreen. "The two of us together here," Slade suggests.

The old coach puts his arm around his player. The photographer clicks the shutter. Another snapshot of history, destined soon for its place of glory on the basement wall.

LENGTH: Long  :  316 lines

his former high school coach, James Slade, the unofficial historian

of black Danville athletes. Slade has chronicled the achievements of

young black athletes, especially Miller, in a photo collection he

keeps in his basement. 2. "There wasn't but two things I wanted to

be,'' says Percy Miller Jr., now 65. ``A baseball player and a

railroad conductor." color. 3. Courtesy James Slade. A Langston High

School photo (above) shows Percy Miller (left) and Coach James Slade

(right) as members of the state championship basketball team of

1950. At left is Percy Miller in August 1951 as a Danville Leaf. 4.

Courtesy Tommy Cannon and Paul Gentry collection. League Park in

Danville (in a photograph from the 1950s) continued to have

segregated seating for fans even after there was a black player on

the field. 5. Other black players who followed Miller to Danville

went on to national success. 6. In 1953, the Danville team (left)

included Bill White, who went on the majors and became National

League President from 1989 to 1994. Leon Wagner (above, 1956) hit 51

home runs for Danville and went on to become a major-league star. KEYWORDS: PROFILE

by CNB