Sports

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

Part three of three

Big Leaguers

DANVILLE, VIRGINIA — Two years after Percy Miller's short Leafs career had ended, the Carolina League had another black player. Part three of three

Big Leaguers

DANVILLE, VIRGINIA — 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 major-league franchise 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 would recall 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 red-faced fans to get away. White asked for a transfer to St. Cloud, Minnesota, but the team said 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 seasons in the major leagues, collecting 1,706 hits and 202 home runs. He served as president of the National League from1989 to 1994, the highest-ranking black executive in pro sports.

Other black Carolina Leaguers followed in his wake, using their talents and their determination to transform the league in the 1950s. The Leafs' 1956 team photo shows four black team members, including two home-run sluggers, 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 no league 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. Salem (Va.) 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 national study cited Danville as one of the most integrated cities in the nation. The City Council has three black members. In 1996 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 by another black man, Chris Carter.

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.

Other famous Danville sports alumni include Herman Moore, a Uni

June 2, 2003
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