How Joseph Louis Reliford made his place into the annals of baseball history is unbelievable! On July 19, 1952, while being only 12 years old, Reliford became the youngest person to play in a professionial baseball game and the first African American to play in the Georgia State League (Class D Minor League). Considering his young age, that initial time of racial integration in professional baseball, and the hostile racial environment that was brewing in the South, Reliford’s story is amazing.
Although born November 29, 1939 in the small community of Richton, Georgia, Reliford grew up in the nearby town of Fitzgerald. He became a fan of the Fitzgerald Pioneers, the Philadelphia A’s Class D Minor League team of the Georgia State League. Not having the money for a ticket to sit in the “Jim Crow” segregated section for colored people in the Pioneers’ stadium, Joe and his friends watched what they could of the games from the nearby railroad tracks.
Joe’s mother had concerns about him travelling through southeast Georgia with a team of white men. Adams promised her they would take care of him. But Adams did not travel with the team. On road trips the responsibility of fulfilling his promise was the team’s player/manager second baseman Charlie Ridgeway. About Ridgeway Reliford said in the 2008 JockBio.com article, “Joe Louis Reliford: 12 Year Old Pro:
“He didn’t treat me like a batboy. He treated me like I was his son. I wanted to be just like him. So I wanted to play second base, I wanted to run like him.
I didn't see any difference between the way he treated me and the way he treated the ballplayers. He expected me to hustle, and when I was done with my duties, he would tell me to go out and take grounders and shag flies.”
About what happened on road trips, Reliford also said in the article:
“Only one or two didn't want anything to do with me. They were both pitchers, and they couldn't win anyway. When they got pulled from the game, I was the one they threw the glove at.
Other than that, I felt like a member of the Pioneers. When they gave out meal money for the ballplayers, they gave me meal money, too. When we stopped at a restaurant, and they wanted me to eat in the kitchen, Mr. Ridgeway said, “He's a ballplayer like the rest of us, so he eats with us.”
If the place objected, he would take the team out of the restaurant and go somewhere else.”
On July 19, the Pioneers were losing a road game 13 – 0 to the Statesboro (Ga.) Pilots. An Elks Night promotion attracted 6,000 – 8,000 fans to the game, unusually high for minor league baseball. Due to the apparent home team victory and for some the consumption of adult beverages, the crowd was in high spirits. In the late innings a boisterous chant came from the crowd to put Fitzgerald’s bat boy into the game.
No African American had ever played in a Georgia State League game. However, after getting approval from the umpire, Ridgeway told Joe to go pinch hit in the eighth inning. After he stepped up to home plate, Joe discovered the pitcher was not going to make it easy as he felt the breeze of a fastball go by. He hit the next pitch to the Pilots’ third baseman who threw him out at first base. The crowd cheered Reliford as he ran back to the Pioneers’ dugout. But to his surprise, he was not finished for the night.
When it was the Pilots turn to bat in the bottom of the eighth, Ridgeway sent Reliford out to play right field. The crowd continued going wild as the 4’11’’, 68 pound batboy in the oversized uniform ran out to his position. With one out and a runner on first base, the Pilots’ batter hit a single to right. Challenging the kids throwing arm, the baserunner rounded second base and headed towards third. Reliford threw the runner out! The next batter hit a long fly ball that appeared to be a home run. But Reliford jumped to catch the ball before it went over the fence to end the inning.
What happened next is best described by Reliford himself in the Jock.Bio article:
“The bleachers emptied. All those white folks were coming right to me! I started to holler. It frightened me to death. I was a little boy. They grabbed me and I didn't know what to do—I was so scared—I knew I couldn't beat all those people. They were slapping me from my head to my feet. I was crying.
Finally, Mr. Ridgeway made it out to me, and I felt better. He grabbed me and rushed me into the dressing room. I finally caught my breath when someone said, “Look here, Joe Louis—you're pockets are full of money!” Those fans had been stuffing bills and coins into my pockets.”
In the aftermath of the game, Georgia State League officials fired the game’s umpire that allowed Reliford to play. Also, Pioneer Manager Charlie Ridgeway was fined and suspended. It was also Reliford’s last season as the team’s batboy.
The next season Reliford played with Fitzgerald’s all-black minor league team, the Lucky Stars. As a publicity stunt, team owners took him to the spring training camp of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Tars; the Class A minor league team of the Boston Braves. Nineteen year old shortstop Henry Aaron was the talk of the camp that spring. Despite the efforts of the Lucky Stars’ owners, the Tars did not want to sign the 13 year old Reliford. When he broke his collarbone after high school playing football in college at Florida A & M, Reliford did not continue his professional baseball career.
At 77 years old, Joe Louis Reliford lives with his wife today in Douglas, Georgia. However, he is in ill health. The National Baseball Hall of Fame has a display acknowledging his feat. Also, his place in baseball as “the youngest person to play in a professional baseball game” is recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records. His story is truly incredible!
Other sources for this post include: Society for American Research, and BR Bullpen-Baseball Reference.Com. All pictures are from Google Images.com.
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