Maury Wills: Barnstorming with Jackie Robinson and Luke Easter

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As regular readers might recall, I spent an hour on the phone in April 2020 with Maury Wills for Sports Illustrated. As often happens with long interviews and subsequent 1,500-word articles, a lot of good stuff wound up on the cutting room floor when I went to write. Among this: Much of what Wills told me about barnstorming with a team, Jackie Robinson’s All Stars in the fall of 1953.

I was reminded of this again this week in finding an autographed baseball at an antique fair from another barnstorming team, Roy Campanella’s All Stars of 1955. In researching the origins of this ball, I learned that Black barnstorming teams were much more common than I thought and it’s motivating me to share a little more of what Wills told me.

In my piece for SI, I talked about how Wills idolized Robinson growing up in Washington D.C., how he was written of as a pitcher (which he’d done a little in the minors) on the barnstorming tour, and how he’d gotten $300 a month for the tour. “I would have barnstormed with him for nothing, but they didn’t know that,” Wills said of Robinson, as I noted for SI.

There’s definitely more to the barnstorming trip than what could fit at the time in my SI article, which went through Wills’ entire career in the majors and minors.

Wills joined the barnstorming club a few years into his professional career with the Dodgers, having played only in the low minors to this point. While Wills would eventually go on to become a star shortstop in Los Angeles, leading the National League in steals six consecutive seasons from 1960 through 1965, he was still years off of even making the majors when he joined Robinson’s team.

Turning 21 in October 1953, Wills was part of an integrated barnstorming team with white players of note like Gil Hodges, Al Rosen, and Ralph Branca and legends of Black baseball such as Luke Easter. “That was the thrill of my life at the time,” Wills said.

Not having a roster in front of me at the time I interviewed Wills, I didn’t ask what it was like for him to play on the barnstorming team with Hodges, Rosen, or Branca. I did ask Wills what Robinson was like in person, with Wills telling me, “He was very aloof. But a nice man. Aloof. He didn’t get involved with any controversy or anything like that.”

My favorite thing that I left on the cutting room floor concerned Wills’ interactions with Easter, something of a tragic figure from baseball history for multiple reasons. First, Easter was barred from the majors until well past his 30th birthday due to the game’s color barrier. Easter would die tragically as well, fatally shot in a payroll robbery in 1979 according to his SABR bio.

By the time Wills got to know him on the barnstorming tour, Easter was a 38-year-old first baseman on the downslope of his brief big-league career after a few years of stardom with Cleveland Indians. “Luke had his own chauffeur with a big Cadillac,” Wills said. “I was a minor leaguer from the Dodgers. We rode on the bus with the opposing team, the Indianapolis Clowns from the old Negro Leagues.”

Stories of Negro League accommodations can be notorious. It was no different with this bus. “The bus was like, oh man, it was bad. But everything was in that bus,” Wills said. “It was like a gymnasium.”

So Wills decided he would ride in Easter’s Cadillac, befriending him and becoming his driver. “That was quite an experience, driving all through the South… and here I was driving Luke Easter around,” Wills told me. “He’s sleeping in the back seat and I’m on that freeway or highway, going through the South at night. Big curves and everything and big trucks on the road, headlights hitting you right in the face, going around curves. But it turned out alright.”

For Wills, it was a small taste of the big life, with several more seasons beckoning in the minors before he could find it for himself.

A Find at the Antique Faire

With infection numbers from the COVID-19 pandemic finally beginning to wane in America, life is starting to get back to normal. One facet of this has been the resumption of the monthly Antique Faire in the city I live, Sacramento. The latest one happened yesterday and led me to a piece of baseball history I’ve spent the last 24 hours swept up in.

For those unacquainted, which is likely most people reading, this fair happens on the second Sunday of each month. Until recent times, it was held under a freeway at the south end of Sacramento’s central city, though construction recently forced it to relocate to the former home of the Sacramento Kings, Sleep Train Arena. At each site, the same thing happens: Vendors set up informal, outdoor booths and members of the public pay a $3 fee at the main entrance to browse.

Initially, my wife Kate and I had gone to the fair yesterday to maybe find a few items for our house. We bought our first place about nine months ago and it still feels like a work in progress. But after a short time at the fair, Kate and I got separated and I found myself at a booth with a few items of sports memorabilia.

I suppose some people collect sports memorabilia voraciously, either to resell or keep in private collections. I’m not this kind of person. But as someone who loves researching and writing about baseball history, I was intrigued the second I saw a dirty autographed baseball in a case at this booth. I asked if I could hold the ball and saw Minnie Minoso’s birth name, Orestes. Turning the ball over, I was stunned to quickly recognize Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, and Hank Thompson as well.

The seller mentioned that he wanted $300 for the ball, which was more than I wanted to pay. He lowered the price to $200, which seemed very reasonable to me, but still a lot. As I mentioned, I don’t buy a lot of memorabilia. As a full-time freelance writer, I’d rather interview an old ballplayer free of charge (and maybe sell an article out of it) than plunk down hard-fought earnings for something that’ll sit on one of my shelves. I just don’t see the point.

But I also had the feeling that this was an item of special historical significance, something I shouldn’t pass up. I tweeted out the photo above of the seller holding the ball and the immediate response from Twitter was enough that I found an ATM on-site, withdrew $200, and bought myself a ball.

In just over 24 hours since, my task has morphed into trying to figure out where this ball came from. Aside from the six players I listed above, I have identified five others: Jim Gilliam, Bob Trice, Charlie White, Jim Pendleton, and Al Smith. I’m reasonably certain Gene Baker is on the ball as well. One more signature, at bottom below, is too hard to read, though there’s a chance it’s Roy Campanella, Dave Hoskins, or Brooks Lawrence.

The reason I say this is that the 11 players I’ve identified so far and the additional one I’m reasonably certain on all played for Roy Campanella’s All Stars, a 15-player barnstorming team from 1955. (I found a full roster here.) Like Campanella, each man had played in both the Negro Leagues and either the National League or American League. In the time before free agency and television revenue helped increase baseball salaries exponentially, every one of these players could have used an offseason side hustle. Barnstorming was a common way it happened through the 1950s.

In all, the ball has 13 signatures, meaning that two players from the team more than likely didn’t sign it. My gut is that Campy passed on it and that the final signature might be from Hoskins or Lawrence. But it also could have been a random clubhouse person or coach, I’m really not sure. I’m sharing the signature in hopes that someone might know better than me.

I’m curious where the ball came from. The seller told me he found it in a box. The ball doesn’t have a certificate of authenticity and it’s possible some sick soul sat down and devised a very convincing forgery. Still, it seems far too specific to be made up for me and I think a forgery would have a clearly legible signature from Campanella and all 14 other players from the team. The fact that all 13 signatures on the ball are in the same ink color tells me that someone more than likely took a pen and the ball and got signatures from as many players as possible.

After I’ve had a little more time with the ball, I intend to donate it to the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. It’s the kind of item that belongs in a museum and if spending $200 on an impulse purchase at an antique fair helps me do my part, it will have been well worth it.