PORTLAND – Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige was cruising through a southern town on his way to another baseball game when the blue lights of a police car glowed in his rear-view mirror. Pulled over, he was told he was speeding and that the fine would be $25.
Paige handed the officer $50. When told he couldn’t make change, Paige said not to worry about it, that he’d be driving back through in an hour or so.
The crowd of about 90 people at the Portland Public Library laughed loudly when Joe Caliro finished that story. It was just one of many that Caliro, an 80-year-old from Portsmouth, N.H., shared Wednesday afternoon with his audience during a one-day exhibit and lecture about baseball in the Negro Leagues.
Caliro spoke for about an hour, mixing light tales with more serious stories about the tribulations and prejudices that players in the Negro Leagues faced daily. He is passionate about preserving the memories of the Negro Leagues, which provided the only professional playing opportunities for black baseball players before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
“It’s a chapter (in history) about the worst in us,” Caliro said at the end of the lecture. “It’s also a chapter of hope, courage and perseverance.”
Caliro’s interest in the Negro Leagues began when he was in the military, stationed in Biloxi, Miss. He was asked by his superior officer to prepare a class on race relations in the South, or “to acclimate the military personnel on life in Mississippi as it was in 1956.”
The class was eventually canceled, but Caliro’s interest had been piqued. In putting the class together, he studied Robinson – how he handled discriminatory or racial situations – and became intrigued with the Negro Leagues. Caliro then began collecting memorabilia whenever he could.
Several years ago, he looked at his collection and thought he should do something with it. Thus began his lectures, which are free.
Caliro has presented his talk and exhibit – more than 400 pieces, including posters, poker chips, matchbook covers, photos, baseball cards and autographed balls – at several libraries in New Hampshire over the years. The size of the Portland turnout surprised him. Library staff had to add chairs as more people arrived.
“I was delighted by the crowd,” said Rachael Weyand, programming manager at the library. “I knew this would be a good program. I’m happy people came to it.
“This is not just about baseball. This is an important story about racism in our country.”
Doug Dransfield, of Cape Elizabeth, came wearing a replica Kansas City Monarchs jersey, No. 22, for Buck O’Neil, the late great Negro League star who played for the Monarchs from 1938-55. Dransfield met O’Neil at a conference in 1994, and his wife bought the jersey.
“Buck O’Neil told a lot of stories about the Negro Leagues at the conference,” said Dransfield. “And I wanted to see what (Caliro) had for an exhibit and hear what he had to say. I was not disappointed.
“He has a fantastic collection. And I thought he was fantastic.”
The crowd included several young boys, brought by their parents to learn a bit about baseball’s past.
Kevin Goldberg, a 16-year-old Deering High School baseball player, was joined by his father, Brian, and grandfather Jerry, who saw Paige and fellow Negro League legends Larry Doby and Monte Irvin play.
“We all love baseball,” said Kevin Goldberg. “This was an interesting topic that we all wanted to see and hear. Nothing he said surprised me. We learned about the history and it was really sad the way people were treated.”
Caliro, who grew up in Providence, R.I., presented some evidence that Maine played a role in the Negro Leagues. Although Maine did not have a team, several barnstorming teams played around Maine, at Sanford’s Goodall Park, Auburn’s Pettingill Park and in Biddeford.
Caliro spoke about a game in which Bill “Cannonball” Jackman was pitching at Biddeford. Jackman was a popular player wherever he went. On this afternoon, according to Caliro, one fan stood up and yelled racist comments at him. Other fans tried to quiet the man. When he refused their pleas, Caliro said the fans took another action.
“At some point they noticed black smoke coming from the parking lot,” he said. “The crowd had set fire to his car.”
With the help of Jeff Cabral and Renee DesRoberts from Biddeford’s McArthur Library, Caliro noted several games that took place in Maine in 1932 (the Philadelphia Colored Giants beating Saco 8-2 at Thornton Heights Field), 1934 (the Royal Colored Giants beating Saco 9-5 in Kennebunk) and 1938 (the N.Y. Colored Giants defeating the Biddeford All-Stars 16-6 at Prospect Park).
Dransfield was certainly glad that Caliro brought his exhibit here, if only to remind people of the nation’s racial past.
“I think it’s a forgotten story,” he said. “But it’s one that everyone should know.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: