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Teen's research brings Negro Leagues to life

Teen's research brings Negro Leagues to life

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Teen's research brings Negro Leagues to life
The first check arrived in the mailbox at Paul Jones' Hamilton, Ohio, address in June of 2010.

There it was, in permanent ink: "$833.33."

Proof, finally, of a Negro League past of which few were aware. It was pension money long-deserved and newly claimed, decades after Jones suited up for the Cleveland Buckeyes, Homestead Grays and Memphis Red Sox.

"To get something like that, something that belongs to you," Jones says of that monthly pension, "it makes a big difference in your life."

And for that, the 84-year-old Jones has an accomplice to thank. For he would not have had evidence of the extent of his Negro League service time and his pension eligibility if the Center for Negro League Baseball Research's best gumshoe hadn't been assigned to the case.

That researcher was Cam Perron, an Internet-savvy sleuth who has tracked down dozens of Negro League players whose stories had never been told. Perron scoured newspaper archives to find proof of Jones' playing days, and that information was passed on to Major League Baseball to process the payments. Within a week of Perron's discovery, the first check arrived at Jones' home.

Jones now considers Perron one of his closest friends.

A close friend who happens to be a white teenager from suburban Boston.

"Boy, I tell you," Jones says, "that kid is magnificent."

* * * * *

That Perron, a 17-year-old high school senior from Arlington, Mass., spent a large chunk of his childhood collecting baseball cards and trying to accumulate autographs doesn't distinguish him from the average young fan.

But his particular interest in the Negro Leagues -- the oft-overlooked chapter of the game's history -- certainly does.

Perron began writing to former big league ballplayers requesting autographs when he was in the seventh grade. He didn't target the superstars but rather the bit players who would show a genuine appreciation for the attention. And in 2007, when Topps released a set of cards that featured players from the alternative leagues where black players were relegated before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Perron started writing to those guys, too.

Responses began to arrive. Some of them even included phone numbers. The players wanted to talk to the youngster, to see if he had any information about their old teammates.

"I wasn't able to offer them any information at all," Perron says. "I was like 13."

Perron came to realize something about the players they were asking about. Not only did they not have baseball cards of their own, but, in many cases, no almanac had ever chronicled their playing time and no researcher had ever unearthed their existence.

So Perron made a call to Dr. Layton Revel, the executive director of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research. In the 16 years since Revel founded the all-volunteer non-profit organization, it has located hundreds of players whose whereabouts were either unknown or undocumented. Perron wanted to assist in the search.

Revel gets calls all the time from people intrigued about the Negro Leagues, and many of them are kids writing a school paper. Perron's call, then, didn't strike him as strange. Revel informed him of some resources for locating ballplayers, and that was that.

"But he called back again," Revel says, "and the more we talked, the more we found this young man is interested not only in the history of Negro League baseball but the ballplayers themselves. What started as a typical conversation we have with the school students interested in writing a paper became watching someone grow and develop over the years into a top-line researcher."

* * * * *

Perron began to search for rosters and archived newspaper articles about Negro League teams from the 1940s, '50s and '60s. When he'd come across a name he didn't recognize, he'd try to hunt down contact information.

"I paid $30 a year for this private website where I could get unlisted numbers and addresses," he says. "What I would do is call a guy up and just say, 'My name's Cam. I was wondering if you played in the Negro Leagues with this team back in the day.'"

Wrong numbers were par for the course. So, too, were family members informing Perron that the person he was trying to reach had passed away.

Among the living players Perron managed to get in touch with, several were stricken by strokes that rendered them unable to talk. Still others were simply reluctant to chat about their long-ago playing days.

"I did this for a year and a half," Perron says. "From eighth grade to 10th grade. Maybe I'd get through to one out of 10 guys. Some guys I'd find on the first call. Others, it took a few months."

Perron, though, was persistent. He's proud to point out that he made all these calls and sent out all these mailings on his own dime. And he estimates that he found about one or two players a week.

One player he managed to get in touch with was Charlie Dees, a Negro Leaguer who wound up playing parts of three seasons with the Angels in the 1960s and was notorious in the collecting community for being difficult to pin down.

When Perron called him, Dees was initially gruff, demanding $30 for an autograph. But as Perron began asking him questions about his life and career, Dees realized that he wanted more than just a signature.

"He's a wonderful guy," Dees says. "So intelligent. I couldn't believe it. He knew everything about baseball and a lot about me. We just got along like family."

With his growing list of contacts, Perron was often able to put players back in touch with old teammates. He even started to use Adobe Illustrator to make homemade baseball cards for guys to sign.

"Eventually, people were calling the house like every day," Perron says. "They would call and my mom would be like, 'He's in school now.' A lot of them didn't even realize I was this kid."

This kid was doing important work. He was reconnecting people with their past, proving to them that their small part in the game's long history has meaning. Any white player who has played so much as a single inning in a single game in the lowest of the low Minors can find documentation of that appearance. For the veterans of the Negro Leagues and their family members, however, such documentation has long been difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

"Over 95 percent of the history of Negro League baseball had been unrecorded and undocumented," Revel says. "One of the biggest problems in black baseball is that the games were not reported nearly as well as in white baseball."

* * * * *

Revel realized how invested Perron was in improving that percentage. And so he involved him in the planning of a Negro League reunion held in Birmingham, Ala., in June of 2010. He also gave him an assignment.

For a former Negro League player to qualify for an MLB pension, he must have proof of four years of service time. Revel had been working on Jones' case for about a year, but he could only find evidence of three. A deceased former player with the same name had actually collected what should have been Jones' pension money.

"I started looking up this stuff," Perron says. "I used Google news and this other newspaper archive website that I paid $15 a month for. I called Paul to narrow down when he played, but nothing matched up. His career was all jumbled up. So I started typing in the names of the teams he played for, trying to narrow down two or three years that he could have played. And I found a box score from a 1948 Homestead Grays game. It had him listed as a pitcher."

Perron printed it up and brought it with him to the Birmingham reunion. It was there where he met Jones, who was both thrilled and thankful for a gift that essentially amounts to $10,000 a year in pension money.

And Jones wasn't the only player impressed by Perron.

"That white kid had all these black ballplayers gathered around him," Jones recalls. "When he gets to talking, everybody gets around him. He sits down and relates to them."

Revel estimates that Perron has discovered more than 80 players who had league experience that MLB would accept as criteria for a pension. For his research, Perron has been given awards, been written up in the Boston Globe, asked to speak before the Boston chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research and invited on the field at Fenway Park.

"Cam is the top researcher we have in the country at this point in time," Revel says. "He's a valued colleague."

And whether it's helping them obtain pension qualification, making them aware of autograph shows where they can make a few bucks or simply chatting with them about their playing days, Perron has become a valued friend to many former players. When Perron's family went to Myrtle Beach for vacation, two former Negro Leaguers he had tracked down -- James "Cowboy" Atterbury and Russell "Crazy Legs" Patterson -- drove in excess of three hours to meet up with him, just to say thanks in person.

These Negro League veterans are all elderly, which means that Perron's work has an expiration date.

But as he awaits responses to his college applications and plots out what he hopes will be a career in the business world, he knows that this experience has been as invaluable for him as for those he's helped.

"Back in the day, these guys were disrespected," he says. "But each person has their own story. The fact that this little white kid who has nothing to do with their past is reaching out to them, I think that, in itself, is important."

For more information on the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, visit http://www.cnlbr.org.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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