Sports

Breaking a Barrier: fifty years ago this year, Percy Miller made baseball history in the Carolina League

Trailblazer
DANVILLE, VIRGINIA — 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… Trailblazer
DANVILLE, VIRGINIA — 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 years old and just two months out of high school, found himself standing safely on first base as 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 August 10, 1951, and baseball had been integrated in the Last Capital of the Confederacy.

Percy Miller had broken the color line in Southside Virginia and in the Carolina League. He had become, as baseball historians could best discern, just the third 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 two having appeared just a few months before in the border regions of Tennessee and west Texas.

On the surface, Miller's shining 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 claimed it was the only uniform available, 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," recalls Miller, now 65. "It fit me like a bathrobe."

In the end, Miller played 19 games at the tailend of the '51 season. His batting average sank 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 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."

Legacy 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

May 19, 2003
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