Cam Perron was Googling himself (hey, we've all done it) when he came across an Internet article about the death of his friend, John Dawson.
Though Perron is only 19, this happens every so often. He finds out another one of his pen pals or phone buddies is dead and gone, and he is reminded of the shelf life that accompanies his peculiar-yet-impactful passion for tracking down former Negro League players and learning about their history in the game.
"It stinks," Perron said, "because I used to talk to these guys quite often. But I know they're going to pass away, so I know what to expect."
What Perron could not have expected was how many people would take interest in his pursuit.
We told you the story two years ago of how Perron, then a high schooler and now a sophomore at Tulane University, used his free time to track down former Negro League players previously not known to still be alive, even helping several of them attain much-needed Major League pension money.
It's a story that picked up steam last summer, when HBO's "Real Sports" aired a piece on Perron. And in the time since, the young man has received countless messages from relatives of former players either thanking him for his efforts or, in some cases, providing new leads to new discoveries of guys who fell through the research cracks.
"It's crazy," Perron said. "Some of these people that Facebook-message me are asking for help on their school project, telling me I'm an idol and stuff like that. I've got high school and middle school people messaging me. This teacher in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma had me Skype her class. All these young people are hitting me up, looking to me as an authority figure. I never sought that out."
Thanks to the exposure from the HBO spot, during which Bryant Gumbel accompanied Perron to an annual Negro League reunion in Birmingham, Ala., Perron was asked to do a TED Talk in New Orleans (he opened for Ashton Kutcher), received an unsolicited donation to offset the postage funds associated with his detective work, was contacted by a private investigator who has assisted his research and has even fielded calls from a few Hollywood producers hoping to turn his story into a screenplay.
People gravitate toward Perron because he took up the cause of an oft-overlooked and important chapter in the history of professional baseball and injected it with a needed dose of youthful curiosity, energy and, most important, technological know-how.
All these years after the walls of segregation finally fell and Major League Baseball became integrated, we still have far too many gaps in our knowledge about the vibrant and talented men who made up Negro League rosters, but Perron, thanks to his research acumen and innate empathy and communication skills, has personally helped fill those gaps. He's assisted the Center for Negro League Baseball Research (CNLBR) in tracking down more than 100 players, and he's helped roughly a dozen players find documentation of their Negro League careers to provide proof of their eligibility (four seasons of service) for a big league pension.
Perhaps most pivotal, Perron has created connections between these players and their pasts that otherwise wouldn't have existed. He's sparked conversations within families that would have otherwise never been initiated. When Dawson, a former catcher for the Birmingham Black Barons and Philadelphia Stars whom Perron first contacted when he was 13, died last month, Perron received a heartfelt note from Dawson's daughter about how her dad had rarely even mentioned his Negro League days until the final months of his life.
Perron had helped light that spark, just as he's done with so many others.
"I went to meet this guy Bill Stewart recently," Perron said. "He's 100 years old. He lives here in New Orleans. They brought, like, four family members to be there with us. They just wanted to talk to me, because they realized how big of an impact just people talking to their dad has.
"When some random kid calls you up and mentions something you haven't talked about, let alone even thought about, in decades, and you get a packet in the mail with, like, 20 newspaper articles that mention you as being this super-good ballplayer, I think it really makes a difference to these people and they tell their families."
But Perron understands the limits of his pursuit. The last competitive, post-integration Negro League games were played in the early 1960s, so the ranks of the living alums are thinning by the year. The men Perron has gotten to know over the phone and in person at the annual Birmingham gathering are not long for this world.
"It's getting way harder to find players," he said. "I can't tell you the amount of times I'll think I just found a guy and then Google his name and find an obituary that was posted a year ago. It's getting tougher and tougher."
Perron is working with Dr. Layton Revel, the executive director of the CNLBR, on a master list of all known living players, a total currently nearing 350. He does this between business classes at Tulane, where, he said, none of his fellow students is aware of his prestige in the baseball research community.
"I got rejected by the business fraternity," he said flatly. "I was kind of mad, but now I just think it's funny. I didn't get into their business thing, but I think I have been relatively successful."
Maybe they'll take notice if the movie comes out.