This story first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Pulse Literary Journal.

Elijah was his first Negro friend. It was 1870 when they met, and it was a game that brought them together, base ball as it was called initially, a game that was catching on in popularity both to play and watch. James was attending Union College in upstate New York. He and his friends had formed a base ball club that would play against other college teams, or other local teams. They would often wager on the games, and when people came to watch they would pass a hat and split the proceeds. They’d practice a few days a week, and usually play games on weekends. It was at one of their practices that spring that James first met Elijah.

James was tossing practice pitches to the batters, or strikers as they were called at the time. Not everyone was present that particular day, so there was no one in right field where one of the pitches was hit a long way. Three groundskeepers, all Negroes, sat watching the boys practice while taking a break from their work. The ball came to rest in their vicinity, and one of the players shouted for them to toss it back, “Hey boy,” he said, “throw that ball here, will you?” The biggest among them picked up the ball and effortlessly threw it all the way back, a strong accurate throw. James and the rest of the team stared for a moment, never having seen an arm like that. They continued their practice, and when it ended and the Negroes were still there, James decided to approach them.

“Do you guys play ball?” James said.

The one who had thrown the ball put his head down, and shyly answered, “Yes sir, we play some.”

James was the son of staunch abolitionists who taught their children that all men were to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter their station in life or the color of their skin.  But more than just speaking the words, they lived them. They assured their children were surrounded by love and support, and demonstrated, by example, the fair treatment of anyone they came in contact with. Being financially comfortable, they did employ servants, being sure to pay them a fair wage. They treated them as family and encouraged their children to do the same. James felt at ease approaching these men, even though the feeling was not immediately reciprocated.

“Interested in joining our team?” he asked.

None of the three answered, they just continued to avert their eyes while shuffling their feet.

“Look,” James continued, “we can always use good players. Why don’t you come around tomorrow about this time, and you can show us what you’ve got. My name is James by the way,” he extended his hand.

All three almost recoiled from his hand as though to touch it would be dangerous. James kept it out there until finally the one who threw the ball reached out to shake it. “Name’s Elijah,” he said reluctantly making brief eye contact, “this here’s Buck, and that’s Henry.”

The other two remained silent while hesitantly giving James a brief hand shake.

“Nice to meet you fellows,” James said smiling in an effort to make them comfortable. “So what do you say?”
“Sir,” said Elijah reluctantly as he glanced at the other two, “you want us to play on your team with those white boys?”

“If you’re good enough, sure,” James replied.

There was an awkward silence as the three gave each other glances filled with doubt. “Sir,” Elijah finally said, “are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

“It’s a great idea if you’re any good. And please stop calling me ‘sir,’ I told you my name is James. What’s the harm in trying out; you like to play don’t you?”

All three nodded wordlessly.

“So if nothing else, you’ll have some fun for a day, c’mon, give it a try.”

They looked at each other, seeming to at last relax a bit. Elijah gave the others an almost imperceptible nod which they returned in kind. “Yes sir,” he said at last, “we’ll be here.”

“James,” James said with mock admonishment.

“Yes James,” Elijah said, “thank you sir.”

James laughed shaking his head good naturedly as he turned to leave and Elijah returned the laugh. Elijah was a big man, a big black man, perhaps intimidating to some, but not to James. His broad smile and hearty laugh belied his threatening appearance and won James over quickly. Not that that was apparent right from the start, it was only after getting to know him a little that his warmth came through. The game opened the door to that friendship, and Elijah charged right in.

They did show up for practice the next day, and their talent for the game was obvious. Buck had speed and could field well, but excelled at pitching. Henry could play any position, but had a strong arm so that catching seemed to suit him well to deter base stealers. But Elijah stood out among the three. He was as proficient with the bat as he was throwing the ball. He hit the ball harder and farther than anyone they had ever seen. He had speed and agility in catching the ball and would make a perfect center fielder.

After practice was over James told them he’d let them know if they made the team.

“Thank you s…James,” said Elijah, the look on his face and the faces of the others told James they did not expect to hear from him again.

After they left the team had a meeting to discuss what they should do. They all agreed the three had talent and an enthusiasm for the game, but some of the fellows were reluctant to let Negroes on the team. They feared other teams wouldn’t play them and it would only lead to problems. James sensed that, like a lot of folks in the North, some of the boys while feeling slavery was wrong, nevertheless did not want to have Negroes too close and felt they were not equals. After much discussion James managed to convince the team to give the three a chance and had the pleasure of informing them they made the club.

They had to be updated on the latest rule changes since they hadn’t played organized ball in some time. The ball had to be caught in the air now for an out, not on one bounce. And no more throwing the ball and hitting the batter to get an out, the runner had to be forced at a base. Still three strikes for an out, but if the pitch was not in the area requested by the batter and he doesn’t swing, it’s a ball and nine balls entitle the batter to take his base. They had no problem in learning the new rules and their level of play was not affected at all.

James gravitated toward Elijah for some reason. Most of the other guys admired his baseball ability, but had little to do with him, or the other Negroes, outside of the game. But James was taken by his warmth and intelligence when talking to him about things besides baseball. He had a quick sense of humor and a deep infectious laugh. The closer they got, the more James learned about him. Elijah came from the South, the son of two slaves. His father was severely punished for trying to escape, before Elijah was born, but never lost his desire for freedom. When Elijah was eight years old his parents sent him north with a cousin who was running away from his owner and had arranged for shelter along the way by other blacks or sympathetic white folks. The hardest day of his life, he told James, was leaving his folks behind, but they insisted he be free so that he could explore the potential they saw in him.

It was at one of the shelter stops in Pennsylvania where Elijah learned the game of baseball. There were two teenage kids in the farmer’s family who taught him the game and played every day. When he left, they gave him a bat and glove to take with him to his final destination in northern New Jersey. A charitable organization there taught him to read and write and he meant to pursue his education, determined not to let his folks down. He recently heard of a professor at Union who volunteered his time to tutor Negroes and could even get jobs for them on campus. He managed to make it to Schenectady and talked his way into the professor’s unofficial program.

His background fascinated James who often thought it was too bad the other teammates didn’t hear it. But Elijah downplayed it and didn’t want to discuss it much. They came to enjoy each other’s company. One day after practice Elijah stayed behind to help James pick up the equipment. While they were doing so a pretty coed was walking by on a path near the field.

“There’s that Sue Gregory, boy, she sure is pretty, don’t you think so?” James said.

“I don’t know,” said Elijah not looking at her but continuing to put items in the equipment bag.

“What do you mean you don’t know, look at her,” James said.

Elijah just sighed and said “James, we don’t look at white women, it ain’t safe.”

James thought for a moment, then said “Yeah, I see what you mean, but it’s just the two of us, no one else is around, take a look.”

Elijah looked up briefly toward the girl but quickly averted his eyes, “Guess she’s pretty enough, know her?”

“I wish,” James replied.

“But you’d like to huh?” Elijah said with a slight smile.

“You bet,” James replied.

“Well why don’t you go talk to her?”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is,” Elijah said.

“Not for me. Maybe for you, you got a girl?” James asked.

“I’ve been seeing someone, yeah. I spotted her in the choir at our church, prettiest girl I ever saw. One day after service I struck up a conversation with her, found out she’s a nanny for some white folks, loves those kids to death. I knew then she’s just as beautiful on the inside as on the outside.”

“What’s her name?” James asked.

“Angelique,” Elijah responded, “why, you gonna steal her from me?” he continued with that deep laugh.

“No, pretty name though. Wish I had your guts, but when it comes to girls…”       “James,” Elijah interrupted, “if you want something you gotta try for it. Failing is okay, the pity is not trying.”

“I’ll think about it,” James said, and he meant it.

Their team won the first few games they played, and the three new players contributed greatly. Still, as predicted, they heard abusive things from their opponents or some of the spectators. It bothered James that the other members of the team didn’t seem disturbed that their mates were subjected to such insults. James decided that if they were to go on they needed to come together as a team in order to enhance their ability to be successful. There was a club from Troy that they played in the past, which was known for their dirty style of play. James scheduled a game with them hoping that confronting those hooligans would somehow bring his team together.

In the third inning, Buck hit a ball to left field, and intended to round first and head to second, when the first baseman stuck his foot out and tripped him. Buck got up quickly, his face full of dirt, and started to confront the first baseman, but a word from Elijah caused him to merely return to first. No one else on our team said or did anything, and James began to question his plan.

In the next inning, Robert, the first baseman on James’ team, hit a single and was on first base when Elijah came to bat. Elijah proceeded to hit a hard drive to the gap in right center. As Robert rounded second base, he turned his head over his shoulder to see where the ball was headed. At that point the short fielder, later to be called the shortstop, planted himself directly into Robert’s path. They collided with such force that Robert landed flush on his back knocking the wind out of him. As Robert writhed in pain trying to catch his breath Elijah just continued running, eluding second base and instead headed for the short fielder on whom he landed a hard right hand. As the two of them scuffled to the ground, players from both teams rushed the field. A few punches were thrown, but the umpires soon brought the brawl under control. The umpires ruled Elijah out for missing second base, and Buck and James helped Robert to his feet and off the field. “Thanks” Robert said to Elijah as they got to the bench.

“A man can only take so much,” said Elijah, “they can’t treat our team that way and get away with it. Now let’s go whip their asses.”

“Right,” replied Robert with a smile as he took his position in the field.

They went on to win the game, but more importantly, there was a different feeling on the team. James finally felt like they were one. It wasn’t long before the others treated the three Negroes as teammates. Not that they would invite them to their homes, but they no longer shunned them during games and would even socialize with them after the games or on the school’s campus between games.

They ended up with a record of 16-4 that season, and made a tidy sum of money. The three Negroes heard a lot of name-calling, and were the target of some dirty play, but James was proud of how the rest of the boys on the team stood by them.  James became particularly close to the three of them as the manager of the team, and liked them very much. They were not only good players, but were good, intelligent young men. They parted in early summer as their playing days took a respite, and Buck and Elijah were heading back to New Jersey to spend the rest of the summer with Buck’s family. James expected to see them again in the fall, but it was not to be.

In October he received the following letter from Buck:

Dear James,

It is my sad duty to inform you that Elijah has died. Forgive me for such a blunt opening, but I wanted to be clear straight off that you had that news. I shall provide details herewith.

In mid July we received word that Elijah’s parents had some trouble. After the war they were able to save some money to buy a small piece of property in Mississippi. They built a small house on it, and farmed the land as they could. Earlier this year a white man made a claim to their property contending he was the real owner and they had no rights to it. His parents wanted to fight it as best they could since they had a bill of sale and felt they were the rightful owner. I don’t know much about the law, that’s your area, and I’m sure you know that what may appear to be legal often, in reality, is not.

In any event, Elijah felt compelled to go down there to see what help he could be in fighting for his parent’s rights. He knew what the freedom to work for themselves meant to them and he wasn’t about to see them give it up. I, of course, insisted on going with him for whatever help or companionship I could give.

Along the way, we would play in some base ball games, not for enjoyment necessarily, but as a way to share in wagers to make some money to cover our expenses. In Tennessee we found ourselves short of money again, and happened across a group of other Negroes playing ball. We joined them and eventually asked if they wanted to form a team to play against others. They were not that good James, certainly not as good as the team we had with you, but they were okay. Elijah and I figured we could carry the team and win our share of games.

Some white boys became aware of our team and challenged us to a game. Many of us were reluctant to play against an all white team, fearing it would become too serious. Those boys lost a war a little while ago; perhaps they still had fight in them. But Elijah persuaded us otherwise, and a game was arranged. The wager was one hundred dollars to the winner, plus each team would share equally in what was collected from passing the hat.

I pitched as well as I ever have that day James, holding those boys to just two runs. You should have seen how Elijah tracked down every ball hit his way. He was a sight to see. Our side also had two runs as we entered the last of the ninth. There were two outs when Elijah came up to bat. Their pitcher was a mean son of a gun who, along with everyone else on their team, called us “nigras” in that demeaning way those folks do down there. Anyway, Elijah already had three hits against him, and came to the plate flashing that smile of his. The first pitch was right at his head, so fast he barely moved out of the way. Same with the next pitch. As Elijah dusted himself off, he grabbed his bat and smiled again. Not wanting to get too far behind, their pitcher threw another fast pitch toward the outside of the plate. Elijah reached out and swung with all his might and the ball went sailing over the centerfielder’s head. You know how fast Elijah could run James, but he was even faster on this day. He circled the bases and scored the winning run as the other team glared at him.

After our celebration, we meandered over to the other team to get our money.

“What money,” said the pitcher, “you boys must be mistaken, there ain’t no money involved here, we just play for fun.”

Our boys were starting to get upset when Elijah stepped forward and said to us, “Calm down, leave it to me.”

He walked over to the other team and began talking to the pitcher, who was the obvious leader for their team. We couldn’t quite hear what was being said, but Elijah turned to us and said “It’s okay, you boys go on home, these guys will make things right. We’re going to get a drink, I’ll pay you tomorrow.” The pitcher put his arm around Elijah as they walked off. Elijah turned and smiled at me as he waved me off.

The next day two boys found Elijah hanging from a tree. You wouldn’t have recognized him James, they must have taken a bat to him, his face was swollen, eyes completely shut, and the teeth that brightened his smile were gone.

I took his body to his folks in Mississippi. They cried like I’ve never seen folks cry before. Yet they were proud of him, just like they always told him they would be next time they saw him. They buried him not far from the farm where he was born.

I’m back north now, and we’ve heard that Elijah’s parents gave up the fight for their land. After what happened to him, the fight just went out of them. They work for the new owner now, at least they get paid some, but it’s all they seem to want at this point. I’m going to stay home for awhile James; I want to be close to my family. Perhaps some day our paths will cross again and we shall have a toast to Elijah. Thank you for all the kindness you showed us and I shall always remain

 

Your friend

 

Buck Miller

The heaviness James felt almost overwhelmed him. He slowly folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. He told himself he would keep the letter always, and that if he should be lucky enough to have children, he would keep the memory of his special friendship alive by telling them Elijah’s story. And he was faithful his promise.

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