Sports

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

Part Two of Three

Making History DANVILLE, VIRGINIA — The Leafs were quagmired 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. Part Two of Three

Making History DANVILLE, VIRGINIA — The Leafs were quagmired 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 man from the Leafs 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 stroked a two-run single. 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."

Afterward, Leafs officials said some fans had vowed not to attend any game while Miller was on the roster, but that 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 remarked.

He played each game under unrelenting pressure. He couldn't seem to buy a base hit. &#03

May 26, 2003
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