Black players who paved the way for others honored with tribute at Charlotte Knights game

Wali Cathcart’s love of baseball forced him to leave the South. Because he was Black he knew the only chance he had to play professionally was to leave York County. So after he graduated from high school in 1955, he packed his bags and moved to New Jersey.

Baseball was also Moe Hill’s game of choice and he became one of the first Blacks to play in North Carolina’s American Legion league in Gastonia — in the middle of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Racism was still very much alive in baseball.

“You talk about the things that Jackie Robinson went through, I can relate to that because I had to go through some of the same stuff,” Hill said.

Both men were among those recently recognized as the Charlotte Knights celebrated their 10th Annual Negro Leagues Baseball Tribute.

The tribute highlights the accomplishments and journeys of Black baseball players who helped open the doors for future generations.

Cathcart and Hill talked about their lives in baseball — the good and the bad.

Pitching his way through the Negro Leagues

Cathcart grew up in rural York County but found his love for baseball while playing in the summer with his cousin Lindward Cathcart from New Jersey.

When Cathcart graduated from the all-Black Emmett Scott High School in 1955, he already had a plan.

“(Lindward and I) had dreams of being (professional baseball players),” said Cathcart, a descendant of slaves who lives on his family’s farm in York County. “We both knew that because of segregation, I wasn’t going to get a good shot at it in the South, so we made a pact. After graduating from high school, I was to come to New Jersey, and we would take over the left side of the infield for the Brooklyn Dodgers because Jackie Robinson, when we (make it to the majors), would be getting too old.”

That plan took Cathcart to Plainfield, New Jersey, where cousin Lindward lived.

Plainfield was the hometown of another baseball player — Joe Black — who would play a role in Cathcart’s career.

Black was a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the first Black pitcher to win a World Series game, in 1952 against the Yankees. Black made three starts in the seven-game series, which the Yankees won.

Lindward attended the same high school as Black, Plainfield High School, and the two developed a relationship as Black would come back to his hometown during the Negro League and Major League Baseballoff-seasons and work out with the high school team.

One day, when Cathcart and his cousin were watching a local league baseball game at Green Brook Park in Plainfield when they spotted Black.

“... (Lindward) said, ‘Do you want to meet him?’ Are you serious?” Cathcart said. “Yeah... So we walked down there and (Lindward introduced me), and man, I was in seventh heaven.”

Cathcart was playing on a league team with his Lindward at the time, so the two asked Black to manage the team; Black told them he would think about it and eventually came out to help the team the following spring.

That conversation helped spark the creation of the Joe Black National League All Stars in 1959.

Black invited Cathcart and Lindward to play pitcher and infielder on the team, which played Negro League teams.

The team had uniforms representing all of MLB’s National League teams; Cathcart and Lindward both represented the Dodgers.

Black used to open up the games pitching, usually no longer than two or three innings, before substituting Cathcart in to pitch the bulk of the game.

However, a particular Saturday game against the New York Cuban Giants sticks out in Cathcart’s memory because things didn’t go according to plan.

“My fiance was at the game that night,” Cathcart said. “She wasn’t that much into sports but she came to that game because all her friends were there. You couldn’t fit another person in those stands... She was expecting me to pitch and play because I told all of her friends I would be pitching. And that night Joe didn’t put me in, and I didn’t know why. He held me out.”

The reason was the Giants had another game the following day and were going to be short on pitching heading into that contest.

The team told Black, and Black decided to loan Cathcart to the Cuban Giants for their Sunday matchup against the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Because of that Cathcart couldn’t play on Saturday.

“Joe’s instruction to me was go six innings, tell them your arm hurts, take a shower and collect your money,” Cathcart said.

Cathcart did just that, pitching six innings of one-run baseball.

When he left the game, he left the ballpark as well, with the Cuban Giants leading 4-1. That following morning, the first thing Cathcart did was check the Newark Star-Ledger; the score had held, and Cathcart got the W.

Cathcart received $100 in game pay that weekend — $50 for the Saturday game he didn’t pitch in and $50 for the Sunday game he did.

Cathcart never even made it to the minor leagues, but he doesn’t view his playing career as a failure or a letdown.

The larger disappointment, said Cathcart, went toward those in his hometown who viewed his playing career differently.

“It bothered me at first, then I thought about it, no it doesn’t,” Cathcart said. “I did play professional baseball. The Negro Leagues is professional baseball because practically all the players that came into the Negro Leagues... when they went to the Major Leagues, they were MVPs. They were already professionals. That’s one of the problems we’ve had, and I think it’s a matter of perception in the way the league had been presented. It had not been presented in its true colors.”

Cathcart still proudly wears Dodgers gear and lives on his family farm in York County. The 84-year old hosts community groups to teach them about the benefits of gardening.

Hill breaks his own color barrier

It was in the 1960s when Hill and Willie Gillespie became the first Black ballplayers to play American Legion baseball in North Carolina.

Sandwiched between Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” Speech in the summer of 1963 and the passing of the Voting Rights Act in the summer of 1965, Hill made his American Legion debut in his hometown of Gastonia, in the summer of 1964, the same summer the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Hill compared his baseball journey to that of another color barrier-breaking player — Jackie Robinson — in 1947, two months before he was born.

He regularly heard and felt the bigotry and hate, but always kept his eyes on the prize: baseball.

“It’s bad when you have to go through it in your own home ballpark. Where do you go to get relief?,” Hill asked. “Back then, there was no relief, if they see you, they got on you, regardless of where you were. But like I tell people, I wasn’t there for them; I was there for me and to help my team win.”

Any jeers or racial remarks Hill received while playing, he ignored, knowing that a reaction would give those hurling the insults exactly what they wanted.

And that strategy carried him beyond the baseball diamond.

“My dad told me just let them go, they’ll get tired of talking,” Hill said. “Most of the time, they’re serving alcohol at the park and it’s the alcohol that’s talking. If you see them on the street, they’ll think I’m supposed to stop and talk to them. I’ll just ignore them the same way I did at the ballpark and keep going. That’s the way I approached it.”

The following year, Hill signed with the Baltimore Orioles organization, the start of a 15-year minor-league career.

The most successful stretch for him came from 1972 to 1978 with the Wisconsin Rapids Twins, the Minnesota Twins’ Single-A, Midwest League affiliate.

In those seven seasons, Hill hit .270 and 20 home runs six times knocked in 100 RBIs three times. He also became the first of only two players ever to hit for the Triple Crown in the Midwest League.

Despite that, the Twins never promoted Hill to AA after his initial stint with the Charlotte Hornets to start the 1971 season, and Hill knows exactly why.

“I played under Calvin Griffith and he was a racist,” Hill said of the then-Twins owner. “I’m not ashamed to say it and some of the white folks would say the same thing. He was a racist. The whole family was racist. I’m sure they will back me 100% on that. If he’s going to promote (Black players), we’re going to be last at the bottom of the barrel. He didn’t want to pay us. I had five years where I should’ve played in the big leagues after my third year with them, but I didn’t. Never got invited to a major league camp, and that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.”

In 2020 a bronze statue of Griffith was removed from Target Field in Minneapolis because of racist comments he’d made in the late 1970s. In announcing the removal of the statue, the Twins said,”...We apologize for our failure to adequately recognize how the statue was viewed and the pain it caused for many people.”

Because he never played in the Negro Leagues, Hill acknowledged he was a little puzzled about being recognized at the Negro League tribute.

However, he understands what Negro Leagues went through and appreciates the roads they paved for Black baseball players, which allowed him to break his own barriers.

“I know exactly what they had experienced,” Hill said. “They’re barnstorming; they’re playing three to four games a day to support a family. I never had to go through that. I have two sons. ... But I never had to go through that to support my family.”

Hill said the current status of Blacks playing baseball is underwhelming.

He works with Carolina Metrolina Reds, a program in Charlotte aimed at increasing the popularity of baseball among Black kids.

The 76-year old also hopes to create a stronger sense of community among Black baseball players and their non-Black counterparts in the area.

“Our kids are getting discouraged in the game, that’s why we’re trying to get them back in the game,” Hill said. “I work with Metrolina Reds; 98 percent of our kids are Black. Don’t turn your back on (your non-Black counterparts) because some of your best friends could be white. I have white friends, and they tell me every day I hate that you had to go through that, but they didn’t control it. I didn’t control it.”

After his playing career ended in 1980, Hill spent the next 31 years as coach or scout in the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles organizations.

Others recognized at the game

The Knights also held a memorial service for Eddie G.G. Burton.

Burton, who made his Negro Leagues debut at 16, was a Charlotte resident who played a major role in putting together the annual Negro League celebration starting in 2014 until his death in 2018.

This year was the inaugural year of the Knights’ Eddie G.G. Burton Scholarship, aimed at providing support to high school student-athletes in the area attending an HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities). Fort Mill senior and Virginia State commit Thomas Ealey won the scholarship last month and was recognized at the game.

Former Negro Leagues outfielder Sam Allen was also recognized by the Knights.