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Black was a giant on and off the field

Black was a giant on and off the field

Black was a giant on and off the field
CHICAGO -- The on-field baseball accomplishments for Joe Black must be considered historic if not exactly vast.

Black played an important role in two Negro League championships as part of the Baltimore Elite Giants. He became the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game while pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 and captured the National League Rookie of the Year Award at age 28 with 15 victories, 15 saves and a 2.15 ERA during that same season.

But if Black's impact was based solely on the plethora of friends he left behind upon his passing in 2002 due to prostate cancer, or the father he was for his children or the huge amounts of people he touched, then the right-handed pitcher truly would be considered a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

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"Baseball was the least of what he did," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf of Black, who was his close friend for two decades. "He was a great, great guy. He had a great philosophy of life, where he really knew what was important and what wasn't important."

"He always had that sort of homespun practical advice," said Len Coleman, who became friendly with Black almost immediately after Coleman took over as the last NL president in 1994. "He enjoyed people."

While Coleman and Reinsdorf have enough engaging tales centered on Black to fill up a book and then have some left over for a follow-up printing or two, his biggest fan was his daughter Martha, who now carries on his baseball legacy as the coordinator of White Sox Experiences.

If you want to drag the infield or change the bases with the grounds crew on a given day at U.S. Cellular Field or have a wedding or party on the field during non-game days, then that sort of planning will be placed in Martha's capable hands.

She grew up with baseball greats such as Peter O'Malley, Roy Campanella and Dusty Baker, not to mention entertainment legend Bill Cosby -- to her, they were just good friends of the family. Knowing celebrities certainly didn't define a father who was devoted to his daughter, and vice versa.

"For me, personally, I wanted people to know that black men are good fathers and there were good fathers in the African-American community before [President Barack] Obama and Cosby," said Martha proudly of her dad. "My dad did everything. He did my hair ... and he was very happy to scare off boys. He was my father, and he was my best friend.

"Dad's biggest thing was helping people. He would try to uplift people and help them. And he thought education was the most important thing in life besides air and breathing."

During her college days, Martha had a friend attending Morehouse College in Atlanta while she was attending Spelman College. A paperwork snafu caused the friend to lose his financial aid as a sophomore, so Joe Black paid for his second year of schooling. That is how important education was to Black.

Upon his baseball retirement after the 1957 campaign, Black, a Morgan State graduate, returned home to New Jersey and became a teacher.

"Let's face the facts: When Joe went to the Majors, he was rare," Coleman said. "Joe graduated from college, and there weren't many who had college degrees."

He became the first African-American vice president of a transportation corporation while working for Greyhound. Black also wrote a column for Ebony magazine and even made a guest appearance on an episode of The Cosby Show, playing a fictional Negro League player.

As for his baseball contributions, Black and Joe Garagiola served as the driving forces behind the inception of the ongoing Baseball Assistance Team program, which serves former players who need help dealing with financial, psychological or physical burdens. Black played an important role in helping Negro League players gain benefits and health insurance as extended by Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent and Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig. His job was to determine who had played in the Negro Leagues, when and on what team.

"Records were somewhat questionable," Coleman said. "But Joe knew everyone."

Then, there were the long list of stories, the yarns of Black's impact on the people he touched. The list enveloped people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. For example, when Black played as part of a barnstorming baseball tour through Cuba, he got to know Fidel Castro and the two stayed in contact via letters over the years.

"They were all in Spanish," said Martha, adding that her dad was fluent in the language. "And the government started tracing his letters. My dad said Castro was OK as a player."

"Castro had a reputation of being a good baseball player," Coleman said. "Joe played one-on-one basketball with him, and he told me Castro was a much better basketball player than baseball player."

How about the time when Black apparently influenced the Game 7 outcome during the 1997 World Series between the Marlins and Indians? Bobby Bonilla had struggled in two previous at-bats against Cleveland starter Jaret Wright, grounding out in the second and striking out in the fourth, unable to get around on Wright's inside offerings.

Bonilla was standing in the hitter's circle before his seventh-inning at-bat when Black called him over and offered up some advice.

"Joe told him to back up a step," Coleman explained. "The pitcher won't notice the change in position and when he comes in tight, you can get the barrel head around and on the ball. Bonilla said, 'I'm going to try that, Joe.'

"So, [Wright] comes in tight, and Bonilla puts the ball in the right field seats. When Bonilla crossed home plate, he pointed right at Joe Black."

That home run cut Cleveland's 2-0 lead in half. Florida went on to tie the game in the ninth and win the championship in the 11th. According to Reinsdorf's retelling of this story, Mickey Mantle had employed the same strategy against Black during Game 7 of the 1952 World Series and produced the same long-ball result.

Reinsdorf invited Black to speak to the White Sox one Spring Training, mostly to the young players, about distractions they would face off the field. Serving as an unofficial ambassador for the game, Joe encouraged players to have a business plan for life.

"There wasn't anything Joe hadn't seen before," Reinsdorf said.

"My dad wouldn't say where to invest money," Martha said. "But he would tell you to do something, invest somewhere."

Black, who was a friend and roommate with Jackie Robinson while with the Dodgers, also was close with Jesse Owens, who was Martha's godfather. A group including Coleman, Black, Frank Robinson, Lou Brock, umpire Paul Runge, Garagiola and Don Baylor was dubbed "the posse" when they frequently were together, Coleman said.

There also were individuals who knew Black without really knowing him. According to Coleman, when Black was vice president at Greyhound, he received a call from an out-of-state agent who claimed some guy was using his name as having left him a ticket. Not having a record of the ticket, Black had the man put on the phone and he described himself as a broke comedian who needed help getting to his next gig. Joe green-lighted the ticket, and that comedian was Sinbad.

This story was confirmed years later by Coleman when he sat across the aisle from Sinbad on an overnight flight coming in from Los Angeles and joked with the comedian that he was there to pick up the overdue fair. Sinbad laughed and immediately knew his connection with Black.

A nickname of "No. 1" was bestowed upon Black by Coleman, because everybody knew "He was my No. 1 guy." That opinion of Black was shared by many.

"Physically, he was a big man," Coleman said. "He walked the Earth very softly and wisely."

"I'm telling you, everyone that came into contact with Joe Black considered him a personal friend," Reinsdorf said. "He was the ultimate goodwill ambassador and never met someone he didn't want to help."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Being Ozzie Guillen and follow him on twitter at @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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