Baseball fans keep Negro League player’s legend alive
By ED MILLER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 24, 2020
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The car crunched and shimmied down the cemetery road, kicking up dust and jostling retirees Tom Garrett, who was driving, and Sam Allen, riding shotgun.
They’d brought two rakes, 10 bags of topsoil and the best of intentions, wanting to do right by a baseball player who had been laid to rest 40 summers ago at Lincoln Cemetery in Portsmouth.
They parked the car and walked over to the grave site, where the white U.S. Navy headstone gave Leon Ruffin’s vitals.
February 11, 1912-August 14, 1970.
“He died early,” said Sam, who is 74 and knew Ruffin in his later years.
“Let me bring out the rakes,” said Tom, 60, heading back to the car.
Like nearly everything else in this section of the cemetery – in the entire cemetery, for that matter – the tombstone was weathered and tired-looking.
Elsewhere, headstones were leaning or overturned, grave sites sunken like collapsed lungs. The scrubby grass was rife with weeds and littered with beer cans, liquor bottles and other evidence of late-night trespassing.
“Sad, sad, sad, sad,” Tom said.
At the foot of Ruffin’s grave was a polished, Georgia gray granite marker that stood out, in this landscape of neglect, for its sheer, gleaming newness. It read:
Charles Leon Ruffin.
Negro League Legend.
1946 World Champion Newark Eagles
1946 East-West Negro League All-Star.
Black lithochrome made the sand-engraved letters jump out. On the marker’s lower left corner was an engraving of a pair of crossed baseball bats, with a ball beneath. In the right corner, a catcher’s mitt.
Tom and Sam had not been there when the marker was installed in March, part of a national movement to recognize Negro League players, many of whom lie in unmarked graves. When Tom came out to see it for the first time, that part of the cemetery was flooded and the marker was underwater.
They wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.
“Once we finish, it’s going to look like an island,” Tom said.
Tom and Sam gathered on a Tuesday afternoon in late July – mercifully, the coolest day in a blistering week, cloudy and mild.
They’d been meaning to get together all summer but had been unable to connect. They often have that trouble.
“You know how Tom is,” Sam said later. “You’ll call him 10 times and get him two. You’ve got to e-mail him.”
Tom said that it’s Sam who flat out disappears sometimes.
Sam occasionally threatens to pop Tom with a left hook.
So the banter goes. Sam played in the Negro Leagues. Tom is a scholar of local lore. They are history maker and historian. Combined, they are a force for remembrance – of players and an era of local baseball that otherwise would be forgotten.
“If we don’t recognize them, nobody will,” Sam said.
Looking much younger than his 74 years, Sam was dressed in jeans, work boots, a t-shirt and his ever-present Kansas City Monarchs cap. Tom, an avid Old Dominion fan, wore tennis shoes, shorts and an ODU T-shirt and cap.
They intended to rake out a pile of fill dirt dumped by a cemetery employee. They hadn’t been out of the car five minutes, however, when a woman parked on Deep Creek Boulevard, the road that runs in front of the cemetery, and came over to talk.
“Y’all going to clean this up?” Annette Sutton asked.
Tom explained that they were just tending the one grave.
“It’s horrible,” Sutton said. “My grandmother’s buried back there.”
She was not the only one upset about conditions there. The state cemetery board had been looking into the complaints, a spokesman said. An investigator found that the cemetery had not been licensed, though it should have been. In August, the cemetery’s longtime owners transferred ownership to Portsmouth Christian Church, taking it out of the state’s regulatory jurisdiction.
One of the former owners, Carl Wimbrough of Wimbrough and Sons, a company that makes burial vaults, said the family-owned company had done its best to maintain the property, digging drainage ditches to attempt to alleviate the flooding. The company continues to maintain the property for the church, but some things are beyond its control, Wimbrough said.
“You can go through the whole cemetery every day with trash bags and clean it up, but you’ll come out the next day and find beer bottles,” he said.
Tom, who grew up in Portsmouth, remembers driving by the cemetery as a kid. It was enclosed by a wrought iron fence in those days.
“My mother used to say, excuse the word, ‘That’s for colored people,’ ” he said.
No fence surrounds the cemetery now. It had fallen into disrepair and the city ordered that it be replaced entirely or taken down, Wimbrough said. The company took it down.
After Sutton left, Tom and Sam got to work raking while traffic streamed by. After they finished spreading the fill dirt, Sam reached for a bag of topsoil.
“You bring a knife?” he asked.
“The way you Negro Leagues players always talked about cutting each other, I thought you’d have one,” Tom said, laughing.
Sam threatened to pop Tom with a left hook.
Tom produced a knife and opened the first bag of topsoil. Sam dumped it, and small clods of dirt scattered on the new marker.
They began raking again and talk turned to another local player they hope to honor. Joe Lewis played in the first Colored world series in 1924 and later ran a bar and grill on County Street.
“He was a promoter of Negro Leagues teams in this area,” Sam said. “Matter of fact, he got me into it.”
Norfolk and Portsmouth were popular stops for barnstorming Negro Leagues teams. Many of the greats of the game – Leon Day, Monte Irvin, Buck Leonard and Mule Suttles, to name a few – stopped through. Willie Mays, stationed at Fort Eustis during the Korean War, formed an all-star team that played on weekends.
Portsmouth also had its own semipro teams – The Belleville Grays, the Portsmouth Quick Steps and others. They played semipro teams from Norfolk, Newport News and other nearby cities.
Ruffin and another Portsmouth catcher, Buster Haywood, were the best of the area’s pre-World War II players, learning the game on local diamonds and going on to long Negro Leagues careers. Haywood became a manager and is credited with helping discover Hank Aaron in 1951, when the 17-year-old was playing on a semipro team in Mobile, Ala. Two years older than Ruffin, Haywood died in Los Angeles in 2000.
When Sam came onto the local semipro scene, in the mid-1950s, Lewis was still the pope of local black baseball. He wasn’t from Portsmouth but died here in 1986. Tom and Sam aren’t sure where he’s buried but think it might be Maryland.
“He’s got a niece in Baltimore,” Sam said.
They carried more topsoil to the grave site.
“It floods so much around here, the gravestones are turned from the water,” Tom said, indicating a few that had shifted and now stood at an angle.
Tom, a retired teacher and principal who spent his entire career in special education, helped move Ruffin to the top of a long list of players in need of headstones when he chaired a committee that brought an annual Negro Leagues symposium to Portsmouth in 2007. The conference attendees, mostly members of the Negro Leagues committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, always try to honor a local player. They raised about $1,000 toward that goal.
A civil war and baseball history buff, Tom became interested in the Negro Leagues when he read a book that mentioned that Buck Leonard, a Hall of Fame first baseman, had played in Portsmouth. Tom began doing research and learned that Leonard played for a semipro team, the Portsmouth Revels, in 1933 and for the Portsmouth Merrimacs of the Piedmont League in 1953, when he would have been 45.
A newspaper story called him an “Ageless Negro Wonder.”
In August 1990, Tom called Leonard, who told him he didn’t have time to talk to him – over the phone. He invited Tom to his home in Rocky Mount, N.C., the next day. Tom hoped to stay two hours and instead was there for nine, sitting down to supper with Leonard and his wife.
He visited several more times before Leonard died in 1997. Tom’s e-mail address now begins with “Portsmouthbuck.”
“It was just a fascinating time in history,” he said of the Negro Leagues in general.
Sam and Tom met at the conference in 2007. Sam’s account is that he walked in on a meeting.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to let them have a Negro Leagues conference and not be a part of it,’” Sam said.
Tom said Sam was invited over. At any rate, Sam already was actively working to preserve Negro League history himself. His wallet is stocked with business cards that show him in his prime, in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform. He broke in with the Monarchs in 1957, in the waning days of the Negro Leagues, a decade after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line but before major league jobs for black players were widely available.
Sam played three years, with Kansas City, Raleigh and Memphis. His career ended when he was drafted into the Army in 1960, the last year of the Negro Leagues.
Sam was in the 82nd Airborne for two years. He returned home and worked as a longshoreman before getting into the flooring business. He now wears his Monarchs cap every day and is in much demand at card and memorabilia shows, and commemorations of Negro Leagues players. Still a bit of the alpha male ex-jock, he likes to tell a story about the time Tom and some friends called him from a major league game.
“Guess where we are?” Tom said. “Shea Stadium.”
“Oh yeah?” Sam said. “Guess where I am?”
He was at the White House, for a ceremony honoring Jackie Robinson.
They poured the last bag of topsoil. They had just returned from the annual Negro Leagues conference, in Birmingham, Ala., where they had been roommates. They were still buzzing about the tour of Rickwood Field. Built in 1910, it is the oldest professional park in the country.
“We had the run of the place,” Tom said.
Sam played at Rickwood when Birmingham was still one of the best Negro Leagues draws in the 1950s, getting capacity crowds of more than 10,000 on Sunday afternoons.
Sam also played in one of the last games at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, but the highlight of his career, he said, was playing at Yankee Stadium.
“Man, that dressing room had beer, sodas, everything,” he said.
Mostly though, life in the Negro Leagues meant long bus rides and low wages, which is why Sam can relate to players like Ruffin, who came along a generation earlier and endured far worse privations.
Like many players of his era, Ruffin barnstormed in Mexico in the off-season to make extra money. When he came home, he worked as a presser at a dry cleaner.
After he returned to Portsmouth for good, Ruffin managed local semipro teams and occasionally caught a few innings. In his prime, he’d been noted for his strong arm and ability to manage pitchers, and he was a natural teacher of the game.
Sam used to see him around town. Nobody would have thought to have placed a Negro Leagues marker when he succumbed to a stroke in 1970 at age 58.
“Legend” is a title gained over time, after all, and it did not apply to Ruffin then, when Negro Leagues memories were closer at hand and therefore not as exotic and celebrated as they are today, when few players remain.
Ruffin’s sister, Elnora Brown, 88, said family members didn’t want him buried at Lincoln. They preferred that he be buried in a veterans cemetery. Ruffin’s widow, Daisy, insisted, however, Brown said. She was buried in Lincoln herself in March.
“That cemetery never was well-kept,” Brown said.
Still isn’t, but at least one plot looked better as Tom and Sam finished up. Craig Steverson, another member of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues committee, had arrived with some grass seed. They scattered it but didn’t have any water.
They’d just brushed the last bit of stray topsoil from the granite when a woman walked over from the apartment complex across the street. She asked if they were here to clean up the cemetery.
“We’re just doing this for him,” Tom said. “We’re not groundskeepers.”
“The only field I ever worked in was left field,” Sam said.
The woman asked about Ruffin, and they told her a little bit about him. She listened, impressed, and then turned to leave. Before she did, though, she looked back and nodded at the grave.
“All right, Leon,” she said.
“I’ll tell him you said hello.”
They got in the car and headed back to Olde Towne, where Tom had picked up Sam at the ferry landing. Sam was not ready to go back to Norfolk yet, though. Tom speculated that Sam might have a date in Portsmouth.
Sam mumbled something about a left hook.
They talked about maybe having a dedication ceremony on Aug. 14, the anniversary of Ruffin’s death, but Sam was going to be out of town, and it was too hot besides.
They settled on Wednesday at 2 p.m. Chester Moody, a minister who played semipro ball with Ruffin, will officiate.
The grass didn’t really take. One day last week weeds had crept up at the bottom of the marker, obscuring some of the lettering. Tom planned to bring a trimmer and tidy up the place. He’s also going to plant an American flag. The cemetery is providing some folding chairs to accommodate an expected turnout of 15 to 20, including Ruffin’s son, Leon Jr., who Tom and Sam were finally able to contact after weeks of trying.
They are going to pick him up and take him to the ceremony.
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