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By Michelle Von Euw
Hattie watches as Sam's hand wraps around the thick black pen, his knuckles, once dark and strong, now gnarled and gray. Carefully, painfully, he signs his name in jagged script, always followed by "HOF." Hall of Fame, she snorts to herself. Like that could make up for the way her husband was treated. But to Sam, it means something, something that runs deeper than letters on a baseball. So she keeps her mouth shut.
Hattie rarely stays quiet around Sam; she'd wondered aloud if this was such a good idea, flying up to Richmond to spend the day in a large, drafty room signing autographs at a baseball card show. They'd never asked Sam to do this before, but she'd heard all about it from the other players' wives: row after row of tables and chairs, set up with cards and bats and whatnot, people milling around, spending good money on useless items.
This card show, the Suttons' first, is located in the same complex as a NASCAR racetrack, and in the parking lot Hattie found herself surrounded by the type of people she was careful to avoid. Thick white men with faded jeans and long mustaches, voices too loud, and dark looks in their eyes. "I told you we shouldn't do this," she muttered to Sam, but he kept walking right into that building where he was greeted by a quick young man with a cellular phone clipped to his belt.
"Mr. Sutton, so nice for you to join us. Congratulations on your induction," said the man, holding out his olive-colored hand to Sam, then pumping the older man's grasp in a rapid motion. He introduces himself as Jeff, and he is dressed in a green blazer, a black T-shirt, and dark blue jeans. He's twenty, maybe thirty years old; Hattie can't tell for sure. Everyone under fifty, especially white people, has started to look the same to her. Maybe that's what it means to get oldyou can't tell what young is anymore.
"And you must be Mrs. Sutton." His smile looked less than sincere. Hattie nodded as formally as she could, wondering what happened to the young man's collar.
"I'll be sitting with Samcan I call you Sam?" And then, without waiting for a confirmation, he continued, "as Sam here signs autographs. I hope you're ready to shake a lot of hands todaypeople love meeting a Hall of Famer, particularly one so new."
Hattie had spent her whole life watching the major leagues turn their backs on men like her husband. But then things started changing. Baseball, always on its own schedule, began to talk of the Negro leagues as something wonderful and sacred in its own history. Names like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bellall men who'd eaten in her kitchenwere elevated to the level of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. The major leagues threw open its doors to players who were never allowed to set foot on their hallowed fields when it mattered, and Negro league veterans were annually placed in the Hall of Fame.
Hattie, never one to believe in symbolic gestures, scoffed at this practice. "Nothing those men up there in New York can do will change your life, can change the way we lived then," Hattie told Sam. "They didn't let you play their game; they can't pretend that this makes up for it."
But still he wanted it, wanted to join his friends and teammates who had been granted acceptance. "I was MVP in '41 and '42," Sam had often reminded his wife. "I won the pennant five years in a row, made almost as much money as anyone else did, and I was worth it. Thirteen years I gave them, thirteen years of nothing but the best."
He never mentioned the years after the war, Hattie noted, the five years following his return from Europe when his step and his bat had slowed and the major leagues, finally open to blacks, didn't want him. Jackie Robinson had changed things, but the player who came back from the war couldn't squeeze through the white gates Jackie had opened. When the Homestead Grays dropped his contract, Hattie thought Sam's baseball days were over. But he signed on with the Baltimore team, where his career died slowly, echoing the end of the league that had become a burial ground for men who were too old or too damaged by the war, or who never had enough talent in the first place.
"All that can be forgiven," Sam told his wife when she reminded him of how badly it had ended. "With just one phone call."
That phone call came last year. The Veterans Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame had elected Sam Sutton to join their ranks. Finally, Sam would see his image carved in bronze hanging alongside all the other faded greats with plaques in Cooperstown.
The induction ceremonies were spread out over a long weekend, and the Suttons spent time with people they knew from a lifetime ago. It was a reunion of old faces from the Negro leagues, a community that once felt like family to Hattie when she was a young wife and her own family was far away.
The best thing about being in the Hall of Fame, his former teammates told Sam, is the card shows. People stand in line for hours just to get an autograph, they claimed, so long as the letters "HOF" are somewhere under your name. Never forget that you're now a Hall of Famer, they said. That's why Sam and Hattie's expenses were paid to Virginia, why he would be receiving an "appearance fee" at the end of the card show, and why people paid twenty dollars each time Sam wrote his name on one of their baseballs.
As he whisked the Suttons past booth after booth of sports memorabilia to a row of tables in the back of the room, Jeff explained that anyone who wanted Sam's autograph had to buy tickets at the front doorone for each signature. Then they would line up, hand their tickets over to Jeff, and Sam would sign whatever they put in front of him. About fifty people are already waiting for Sam to arrive, some young, some old, most of them white, all of them male. A number of them are clutching jerseys, pictures, baseballs, all kinds of things Hattie can't believe anyone would want an old man's signature on.
Sam takes his time with each autograph as Jeff collects the tickets, each one a thick piece of four-color cardboard with the silhouette of a black man in mid-swing screened below the words "Negro League" and above the printed price of "$20.00." Periodically, Jeff confers with another man who is collecting tickets at the table next to Sam. Those tickets have the words "PETE ROSE" in capital letters printed above a photo of Rose from his playing daysand a ticket price much higher than what Jeff is charging for Sam's signature.
"Isn't that the man who bet on baseball?" Hattie asks Jeff, who just for a moment allows his face to shift from its genial expression.
"Mr. Rose is a wonderful friend to this company," he says smoothly, and the moment is over, the face rearranged and turned back to Sam's line.
Hattie wants to ask more questions, about why a man who isn't in the Hall of Fame gets more money for his autograph than her husband, a brand-new inductee, but she doesn't want to embarrass Sam, not now. Besides, she needs to figure out the best way to arrange the baseball cards.
"You'd be foolish to ignore the card shows," Carrie Snow had said to Hattie during one of the long, hot speeches given throughout Sam's induction weekend. "These ceremonies are nice, and the memories are a good time, but the shows, that's where the real money is. Especially when you sell Sam's baseball cards."
"Sam's never had a baseball card."
"None of them did," Carrie said. "That's the best part. All those people who collect paraphernalia about the Negro leagues will want one. There's other people who'll print the cards for you, put anything you want on them, make up something really sharp. Whatever you charge for them is pure profit."
"But won't the promoters be angry?"
"We all need to catch a break every now and then," Carrie's husband, Jake, inducted four years earlier, insisted from the other side of his wife. "They don't care what else we do at those tables, as long as we sign what they pay us to sign."
Inside her purse, Hattie fingers the plastic case holding the thick stack of baseball cards. Jeff, with his ear glued to a cell phone and his back turned to the Suttons, isn't paying one bit of attention to her as she pulls out a small quantity of the shiny new cards and places them between Sam's elbow and her arm.
"Hattie, stop fussing with those." Sam's whisper is louder than he intends, but she shushes him anyway. "People paid their money. Why would they want to pay again for another card?"
"Just leave it, Sam."
The very next person in line, a young man with a mustache and goatee, looks over at the stack of cards and asks Sam if they're for sale.
"They're five dollars," Hattie says, leaning a bit closer to Sam.
"Cool. I'll take one." The man lays a twenty on the table.
Change. She forgot to get change. Sam reaches for his wallet, but doesn't have any small bills. Hattie has only a couple of ones and some twenties in her purse. "Excuse me," she says. "I'll be right back."
Hattie stands and slowly studies the long banquet tables set up in front of her. She doesn't know which of these people to trust. She looks for a female face, but there aren't many of them, and definitely none with dark skin. With a sigh, she leaves the roped-off area and steps into the bustle of the main hall. She passes table after table filled with cards, bats, balls, and framed pictures of big, sweaty men, and is surprised to see that every so often the tables include brightly colored stuffed animals.
"It's a strange combination, don't you think?" A woman behind one of the tables speaks to Hattie as she lingers in front of her. "But I suppose the men think that arranging these little toys gives us women something useful to do."
The woman introduces herself to Hattie and asks, "First time at a show?"
"My husband played in the Negro leagues. He's signing balls over there." Hattie points back to the roped-off tables.
"And let me guess; you were sent out for change."
Hattie nods, and as the woman counts out dollars, she talks about the Beanie Babies, valuable to collectors just like Sam's signature. "It makes no sense to me, either," the woman continues. "My husband says the beanies are meant to attract the women, but there aren't too many who come to these thingsjust girlfriends and wives who couldn't talk their men into dropping them off at the mall down the road. I've never seen one here on her own."
"Women are smarter than men," Hattie tells her. "They realize how silly it is to throw good money away on a piece of paper with someone's writing on it."
The woman laughs, and hands Hattie her change.
"Thank you," Hattie says. As she reaches for the money, one of Sam's cards drops out of her hand onto the table.
"Is that a card of your husband?" the woman asks.
Hattie nods, and can't keep the pride out of her voice. "I designed it myself."
"Then you have to let me take a closer look." The woman's voice is eager, and Hattie hands her a card. Sam's face on the front is big and bold and young and powerful.
"This is nice," the woman says, running her finger over the shiny surface and taking in Sam's features.
"That picture was always my favorite," Hattie says, more to herself than the woman behind the table. "It sat in a frame in our living room for fifty-some years."
She likes that this is the photo of Sam that will exist in collectors' memories: the pain gives him a personality that goes beyond just a black face in a faded picture. On the back of the card are Sam's lifetime statistics, or at least as many as they could figure out. No one kept track of them the way they did with the white leagues. Sam remembered some, they'd gathered more from a pile of worn newspaper clippings, and Hattie made the rest up herself.
As she winds her way back through the tables, the one- and five-dollar bills held tightly in her hand, Hattie thinks about the time before that picture of Sam was taken, a time when the years written on the back of the card still stretched ahead of them. Baseball had always been there; it had marked her life even before she met Sam. When she was a little girl, her father would take the whole familysisters, cousins, everyoneto the dusty bleachers near their farm in Alabama. As a child, she'd never seen white men play; to her, baseball was a sport for the light brown, the rich beige, the dark ebony men in their faded gray uniforms and their cracked leather gloves. When she got older, she knew the other leagues existed; the Birmingham paper always carried the stories and statistics of teams that played in the North, in cities like Boston and New York and Detroit. But that was another world, another game.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2006 issue.
MICHELLE VON EUW, a Boston native and lifelong Red Sox fan, teaches writing
at George Washington University and the University of Maryland. She is currently
finishing a collection of stories about women and baseball entitled Daughters
of the Diamond. She resides just outside Washington, D.C., with a Ted Williams
autographed baseball and her husband, Joe Rodano.
© 2006 Michelle Von Euw
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