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Lester Lockett Hit .408

A Living Legend of the Negro Leagues



It's 11 on a Saturday morning in February, and the sky is a soiled white. Plenty of parking is still available just outside Triton College in River Grove, and station wagons are still being unloaded. In the basement, aisles marked by folding tables have been laid out for the first Black Heritage Expo. In the first aisle along the wall is a table with T-shirts, and another piled high with copies of In Search of Goodpussy: Living Without Love. Across the aisle is an empty table with a large Illinois Bell sign behind it. Tacked up on the wall behind the next table is a small square of paper on which someone has written in blue Magic Marker:

Lester Lockett


Chicago American Giants

Birmingham Black Barons

Baltimore Elite Giants

All-Star Third baseman/Left fielder.

Hit .408 in 1943

The man sitting under the sign is ruffling through a briefcase that's beside him on the floor, talking softly to himself. "I've got to have a black pen. I know I brought one." He straightens up and sees several pens lying on the table, right next to a stack of eight-by-ten glossies of a young Lester Lockett, holding a bat and smiling, in the uniform of the Baltimore Elite Giants ("We pronounced it ee-light"). Lockett doesn't look much different now, though he's certainly older. Unprepossessing, a bit thinner, maybe grayer. He's wearing a baseball cap and a brand-new jersey that looks just like his Elite Giants one, except that he has a tie on underneath it. And he's smiling. He pulls a picture off the stack, ready to sign it. But it's still a little early for a crowd, and heavy snow is forecast.

Four-oh-eight. That's a high average, higher than any other batter's since World War II. Lockett was one of the best hitters of his time. He was also the kind of player who let his bat do the talking for him.

Lockett's old friend Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe is sitting next to him, and three other men who played baseball in the Negro Leagues are sitting behind a table across the aisle. A middle-aged white woman, Claire Hellstern, leans over the front of their table, scrawling with a blue Magic Marker on a large piece of paper: "Living Legends of the Negro Leagues--Autographed Pictures--$5." "Now, make sure you have enough pens," she tells the men behind the table. Two of them nod. The third looks away.

Hellstern, a registered nurse and the volunteer agent for ten living legends of the Negro Leagues who live in the Chicago area, gives the sign to one of the men, who tapes it to the table. He's Bobby Robinson. The sign taped up behind him says people used to call him the Human Vacuum Cleaner. He's in uniform today, as is Joe Barnes, who's sitting next to him. But Nap Gulley, a left-handed pitcher with the Birmingham Black Barons and other teams, is wearing a suit. Like Radcliffe, he's put on some weight since his playing days.

Double Duty Radcliffe is only a couple of feet away from Hellstern, who's talking to an Expo organizer. He barks out "Clara," the name the men call her. She doesn't hear him. He calls her name a bit louder, but she still doesn't hear. A woman who's walking by asks him what he wants. "You see that white woman over there talkin' her you know what off?" he says. "Get her over here." The woman taps Hellstern on the shoulder, and Hellstern says, "I'll be right with you." Radcliffe calls out again, "Clara!"

"OK. All right," she says, bustling over. "Duty, you know I'm in charge of all of you. What do you need?"

He says he wants to eat. The other men say they want to eat too. Hellstern collars the organizer again, who points out tables where she can get big plates of homemade food for six dollars each, then adds that for these men the food is on the house. Hellstern can't carry six plates. Lockett rises slowly and says, "Come on, Clara. I'll help you."

Lockett still possesses an athletic grace, moving with ease, always comfortable, whatever his surroundings. There's a gentleness about him that's as natural as breathing. You can't imagine him raising his voice.

He was born in 1912 and grew up on a farm in rural Princeton, Indiana, one of ten boys; he had only one sister. He went to Lincoln High School there (schools in black areas then were almost always named after Lincoln) and was the quarterback for the football team. But he had to drop out and work to help support his family. He worked on farms in the area until he was 21, then found work in Indianapolis. A year later, in 1933, he moved to Chicago, where he started playing semipro baseball. In 1937 he joined the Chicago American Giants. The rest is baseball history, but it's a history that's been buried until only recently.

A book came out in 1975, Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues, that started the shift in how major-league baseball thought about its segregated past. The author, John Holway, remembered going to a 1945 game between the Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs and seeing Josh Gibson, the great slugger who hit more than 800 home runs, and Satchel Paige, the man people said threw harder than anyone else in the world. Holway didn't remember much more; he was just a kid.

Holway became a journalist, and in 1970 wrote an article about Gibson. Then he thought, what about the other guys? Who were they? Where are they now? He went looking, intending to write a book. As a kid he'd thought the Negro Leagues--East and West--were about equal with the white minor-league teams. But after collecting about 450 old box scores for the book, he discovered that when barnstorming black teams played white major-leaguers the blacks won about a third more games. Visiting Cooperstown later in 1970, he found that the Hall of Fame had practically nothing on the Negro Leagues in its files, just a thin folder with six or seven articles. "In America's baseball library, half the history of baseball was missing!" he wrote. "Very possibly the best."

Holway interviewed players who had bigger reputations than Lockett, but then Lockett was never a showy player. He was a very good line-drive hitter. He hit home runs, but not in bunches. He was fast, but not as fast as Cool Papa Bell. He played a number of positions in the field, mostly third and some left field--and he played them well, but he didn't leap over any walls. Yet in his prime he was one of the top hitters in the western division of the Negro National League.

Hardly any autograph seekers have come by. Lockett is finishing off his plate of chicken and greens. Then he polishes off a slice of sweet potato pie. A ten-year-old in a Homestead Grays T-shirt asks him about hitting .408. Lockett says softly, "I think I was the best hitter in the league. I mean, when the team needed a hit, needed a run, situationally I was the best. I really believe that."

If he was so great, then how come he isn't famous? We know why he isn't rich. "I never liked the limelight, not really," he says. "I liked to have a good time, and I liked to win."

Gulley is talking to one of the exhibitors. "You saw that Bingo Long movie? Well, that movie was wrong. It made us look like clowns. Hell, we left blood on that field!" He laughs cynically. "I wanted to get some of the guys together and give James Earl Jones some money. He must have needed it bad to do that part. Hey, Lockett, did you ever hit against me?"

"I don't remember hitting against you. Maybe in batting practice. But I helped you out a lot."

"What do you mean?"

"I had to run and keep up with the ball when they hit it off you."

"Huh," Gulley snorts, turning to Barnes. "I won 14 in a row, and he wasn't even in the country."

Lockett turns to the boy and says, "We've been kidding each other like that for about 50 years. It doesn't mean anything."

Gulley and Lockett were teammates on the Black Barons in '43 and have been friends ever since. During all the years when there were no games, no memorabilia shows, no heritage expos, they remained close. Gulley, who became a printer and graphic designer, now lives in Skokie. Radcliffe lives alone on the south side. His wife died last year. Lockett, who has lived at the YMCA on Marshfield since 1971, takes the el down to see him from time to time.

Hellstern tells a group of women surrounding Radcliffe, "Duty was in a car wreck last week, you know. He rear ended a truck with his Cadillac, looking at young girls. He's 91 years old, but he's here anyway." They seem unimpressed.

Radcliffe asks one of the women, "Say, you got any kids?"

"Yes I do," she says. "You want some?"

Radcliffe chuckles grandly.

A representative of the NAACP wants some of the living legends to give a talk at a public library in Bellwood. Hellstern asks whether they'll be paid. "Both Lester and Double Duty have spoken for free," she tells the man, "but we like to get them something, some kind of pay."

"I'll check with my board, but I think we can find something. I'd love to have them out and let the kids see them."

"They will donate their time for a good cause. I'm their agent, but I want you to know that I don't get a cent for this. All the money goes to them."

Today the living legends will get $75 cash each. They were supposed to be paid when they came in, but it's 2:30 before one of the organizers hands it to Hellstern. She waves it, saying happily, "I've got your money." Lockett puts his in his pocket without counting it.

He's sitting alone now. His eyes slide closed, flicker, then close again. He leans back, way back in his chair. Hellstern taps him on the shoulder. "I'm fine, Clara. I'm used to this."

The first time Hellstern met Lockett he was with Radcliffe and Jimmie Crutchfield, a lifetime .300 hitter who died last year. The three were at the 1989 National Card Show, held at the Hyatt Regency on Wacker, having been invited by Monte Irvin, a Hall of Famer and one of the players who broke the color barrier. Hellstern, then a part-time reporter, was there to see Steve Carlton, who was silently, stoically signing autographs. Suddenly he smiled and warmly greeted a heavyset elderly man wearing glasses and a crumpled hat, who closed Carlton's hand in a mitt of a hand with gnarled, stubby fingers. "Suddenly Carlton was like a human being," Hellstern says. She asked someone else in line who the elderly man was. It was Double Duty Radcliffe.

She talked to Radcliffe and found out that he was living with his wife in the Ida B. Wells projects. They were scared. He'd been mugged twice. His wife had been cussed out by gangbangers. They wanted to move to senior citizen housing, and their application had been approved. But the city sent their notice to the wrong address, and they were put back at the bottom of the waiting list. They'd now been waiting for seven years. Hellstern got on the phone, Mike Royko wrote an angry column, and Rich Daley himself got the Radcliffes moved to senior citizen housing.

Hellstern volunteered to be an agent for the three players at that card show. She was surprised that several sportswriters she called had never heard of any of them. When she called a baseball-card company about them appearing at a card show at Navy Pier, a representative told her, "The kids don't know who these guys are." The kids and the sportswriters knew how many warrants had been served on Darryl Strawberry, they knew what "Canseco dollars" meant, but they'd never heard of these three? It seemed criminal.

She soon had the three men barnstorming around the midwest. They went to a picnic put on by Equitable Life Insurance that featured some major-leaguers, among them Nolan Ryan, who came over to shake hands. The three were busy eating chicken. They told him it was good, maybe a little greasy.

By 1990 they were just busy enough that Lockett could retire from his job as a security guard with the city. He didn't have a pension, but the major leagues' Baseball Assistance Team, a nonprofit organization headed by Joe Garagiola that gives funds to indigent ball players, gave him a small stipend. Lockett figured that with the stipend, social security, and his income from shows, he'd be OK, maybe even a little bit better off. He was 78 years old, and he felt fine.

He went to Comiskey Park in 1991, when the White Sox had a day in honor of the stars of the Negro Leagues, and stood on the field and waved at the crowd. He's been rooting for the White Sox ever since. Later that year the Hall of Fame hosted a reunion of Negro League players in Cooperstown. Lockett and Radcliffe took the train together; Radcliffe's afraid to fly. Of 180 surviving players, 60 showed up.

The reunion lasted three days. The weather was fair, the testimonials pleasant, and the food and lodgings terrific. But it would be the first and last event of its kind. Fay Vincent, then baseball commissioner, had pushed for it, but a man from his office told Hellstern it cost too much to do again.

It's nearly three o'clock, and one of the few customers at the expo reports that a half foot of snow is already on the ground. It's a long drive back to Chicago, and the men have fulfilled their obligation. Radcliffe leans over to Lockett and says, "I'm never coming back here." Lockett, returning a stack of unsigned photos to his briefcase, says mournfully, "No, this wasn't very good."

There's no one to blame really. It was just a low turnout on a bad day. Hellstern assures them the event the following weekend will be better. It's a baseball-card show at the Clarion hotel, near the Rosemont Horizon, and attendance is practically guaranteed. Reggie Jackson will be there.

Before the 1980s the prime collectors of bubble-gum cards and baseball players' signatures were children. But the election of Ronald Reagan, who played a sort of grandfather to the nation, seemed to set off some kind of infantilism in the country, along with rampant speculation in anything that showed any potential for profit. Grown-ups scrounged for old baseball cards, which had acquired values of up to several thousand dollars. Other memorabilia--autographed baseballs and bats, bases, chunks of old sod--were hunted and collected like holy relics. It was just a matter of time before baseball players themselves would become collectible.

The Clarion show is now just one of many on the baseball memorabilia circuit. The sky is gray, but the breeze has no sting in it. It's both warm and cool. The parking lot is full of the cars of baseball fans who sense the coming of opening day, and with it the return of innocence--despite all the overpriced stars, greedy owners, and television. Professional baseball has always been a business.

Only three of the living legends--Gulley, Radcliffe, and Lockett--are in the hotel lobby today. They're waiting for Hellstern to return with a wheelchair for Radcliffe, who often has a hard time walking. None of them is wearing a uniform. They stand out in a crowd of younger men who came outfitted to play, in caps, jerseys, and starter jackets. Hellstern returns, and Radcliffe slowly lowers himself into the chair.

Hellstern pushes the chair, which makes a loud thump with every turn of its wheels, through the corridor, which is packed with fans waiting for the official opening at 11 o'clock. The four are admitted to a large room where red velvet rope defines an aisle that leads to a long banquet table with a gold skirt. Reggie Jackson is sitting alone behind it. He stands up and reaches over to shake each of the three men's hands. They don't stay long, but head toward their own room. "Are we ready?" says Jackson. " Let's go." He sits down, flexes his hands, and grabs a pen.

Gulley and Radcliffe have just settled in at either end of a table, with Lockett between them, when the fans start streaming in. They're mostly white men, occasionally a woman or child. There's no rope, but they line up politely, as if they'd been lining up all their lives. They all have small cards with the name of one of the legends printed on it to prove they paid at the front desk. No card, no autograph. There are no hand-printed signs behind the living legends today, and Gulley gets a Lockett card. "I'm not him," he says, pointing to Lockett. "He's him."

The fan seems suspicious. "You're not Lester Lockett?"

"I'm not him," Gulley insists. "Look, they're trying to make me a D.H.!" he says, playing to the room.

Another fan says to Lockett, "You were at the National with Joe Barnes, right?"

"Yes," says Lockett, and keeps right on writing.

The line stretches out the door and into the hall. The fans have books, cards, programs, photographs, balls, bats, and jerseys to be signed. One even has a brand-new home plate. Hellstern directs traffic. When she starts telling the story of Radcliffe's car accident, Gulley mutters, "Would you please be quiet?"

Most of the fans approach Radcliffe first, though Lockett is also busy. Gulley has the fewest fans.

Lockett goes about his business quietly. He wasn't on cards in his playing days, but he's now included in a couple of commemorative series. He also rated a mention in a book called The Negro Leagues: 40 Years of Black Professional Baseball in Words and Pictures, by David Craft. Several fans have brought a copy. One man, his son standing next to him, holds the book open for Lockett's signature. "Could you put down the years that you played?" he asks.


"So this kid and his kids will know."

"Why, certainly, doctor."

"It says here you hit .403 in 1941."

"Well, I don't know about that." Lockett shakes his head. "I did hit .408 in 1943."

The stats in the Negro Leagues Register in the 1990 Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia show Lockett hit .328 in 1941 and achieved a .321 average over a nine-year career, including the .408 for the Birmingham Black Barons in '43 and .386 for an unlisted team in 1948. The following year reads "no data available." The last year listed is 1950, when he's shown playing for the Chicago American Giants. Some of this is right, and some of it's off. He was actually with the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1950, and his career lasted 15 years, from 1937 to 1952, though his last year was with a minor-league team, the Fort Wayne Capehearts, not a Negro League team. He was 40 when he retired from baseball, and as with other Negro Leagues players, a good part of his career was never recorded.

Many of these games weren't watched by an official scorer; often one of the players was responsible for the score book, and if the player went into the game, the scoring was incomplete. Newspapers paid little attention to the league games: the white papers almost never, and the black papers only sporadically. If you can't tell the players without a scorecard, how can you know what they did without a box score? Without records, history is myth.

Yet many of the players are still alive, as are many of those who watched their games. Between 35,000 and 50,000 fans saw Lockett double in the winning run in the East-West all-star game at Comiskey in 1943. He also played in all-star games there in '45 and '47. Hitting in the middle of the lineup for the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the great traveling teams, he played in ball yards all over the country, from Yankee Stadium to Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. When the Negro Leagues season ended, he joined winter teams in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama, and Venezuela. Most of the teams outside the U.S. were integrated. Only here was baseball divided; blacks and Hispanics were barred from the white teams.

None of those spectators are at the Clarion today. An elderly white man wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap has a small round table in a booth in the corner of the room. His name is George Cisar, and he played for the Dodgers in 1937. He's been mostly ignored by the autograph seekers, so he walks over to Gulley to pass some time. They never saw each other play, though they've met at other card shows. They greet each other warmly, but run out of conversation quickly.

They're joined by a heavyset man wearing a Satchel Paige T-shirt ("World's Greatest Pitcher" on the front, Paige's famous line "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you" on the back). "Lester Lockett is one of the area residents who belong in the Hall of Fame," the man asserts.

Gulley agrees, adding, "Martin Dihigo was the best ball player that ever lived." Dihigo is in the Negro Leagues section of the Hall of Fame.

"Duty's brother Alex ought to be in there too," says the man.

"Rumor has it that Leon Day will be voted in this year," says Gulley.

Cisar waves goodbye and returns to his table.

After an hour the line starts thinning out. Someone wants to take Lockett's picture. "If I have to get up, forget it," he says. The picture taker tells him he doesn't have to get up. Lockett laughs and says he was just kidding. "I want another $15 for this," he says, still laughing.

A representative from a relatively new organization, the Negro League Baseball Players Association, formed to market souvenirs and raise money for the surviving players, approaches and spreads his hands out on the table. "How you young men doing?"

Lockett nudges Gulley. "Young men? He's talking to you."

"You all look good," the man chides him. "Good enough to play ball."

"I can't play," says Lockett. "I don't have a uniform."

"He's not interested if you can play now," says Gulley. "He wants to know if you could play then."

"If I couldn't play then, I wouldn't be here now."

"Lockett, you know what I'm talking about. There's a lot of pseudo ball players out there, want to blow on another man's dice."

"I suppose that's so."

Lockett has more time to talk at a signing the next week, at Ann Sather's on Belmont. Only he and Radcliffe are there, eating a breakfast of eggs and coffee.

Lockett is a regular at the restaurant, and when the waiter brings over a pot of coffee he says, "More coffee, Mr. Lockett?"

Lockett laughs. "You mean "Grandpa' Lockett? Sure, go ahead." He shakes a couple packets of Sweet'n Low into the cup and half the contents of a little plastic creamer.

Hellstern appears at his shoulder. "You'll be sitting at the table by the door today," she says. "And remember, no charge for autographs. That's all been taken care of in the fee. Plus you're getting free meals all day."

"I'll never leave here, Clara," Lockett promises. "I never quit a place where there's food."

Until Hellstern persuaded him to go to a doctor a couple years ago, Lockett hadn't had a physical in nearly 60 years. She made him an appointment at the Humana HMO where she works, and the doctors found that he had diabetes. He used to load up his coffee and soup with six packs of sugar.

One of the waitresses walks up to the table to talk, and Lockett starts flirting with her. She's probably 60 years younger than he is, but she happily flirts back. Lockett was married once and had a daughter, but he and his wife divorced while he was still playing ball. "We separated amicably. There weren't any bad feelings or anything like that. You see, I was on the road all the time. She got remarried to a minister from Oakland. I was very happy she married the minister." He's still friendly with his ex-wife and her husband, and whenever the two come to town they all get together at Lockett's daughter's house on the south side.

At nine o'clock Radcliffe and Lockett move over to the autograph table. They both put on jerseys and flirt with the waitresses while waiting for customers. Hellstern tapes signs and pictures to the wall behind them and lays on the table their pictures, short bios, and a sign-up sheet for those interested in a 500-page biography of Radcliffe that's due out this summer.

The waitresses keep coming back to the table. Radcliffe describes how he quit smoking last year at the age of 90. Lockett recounts some baseball history. "The Negro Leagues just about disbanded after Jackie Robinson. There were a lot of good players that went to the majors--Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella. I played with Campanella, you know. Down in Caracas, in Venezuela. Must have been around 1947, '48. That was such a good time. We were all living together under one roof, and one day we were playing a game--just us--and Campanella was hitting. He was the manager of the team, took us all down there. Anyway, he bunted down to me--I was playing third. Now Campanella wasn't a fast runner, so what I did was I came in on the ball, let him run, then I tossed it over the first baseman's head, just so we could have a laugh. We had great times there."

He glances around and sees that a woman is beckoning for a waitress. "Hey, that woman's calling you. You better get over there. Yes," he says, only half seriously, "you better get over there."

When the waitress returns, Lockett goes on. "I played all over the place--Panama and Cuba. Played for a team in Lachute, Quebec. It was wonderful there--the food, the people. They treated us like ball players. Played in Puerto Rico around maybe 1949, 1950. Now here was something I couldn't understand. I was tied for the league lead in hitting with a fellow who played on the Yankees--white fellow, a left fielder. I can't remember his name now. On the last day of the season he sat out. I played and lost the batting title, wound up second. It still bothers me. Why would he want to sit out? His team was still playing. I felt cheated." He shakes his head.

When he retired from baseball Lockett went to work for Osco, doing heavy lifting in a warehouse. If integration had come along just a few years earlier his name might be mentioned along with other black major-league stars whose careers began in the Negro Leagues: Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays. If integration had happened later, he probably would have played longer. The money wasn't great in the Negro Leagues, but in his prime he made up to $800 a month. He wouldn't have been paid much less as a fading star--more than he made working at Osco anyway. And if the majors had always been integrated, that's where he would have been. Sure they played a shorter season in the Negro Leagues. So maybe he wouldn't have hit .408 in a single season in the majors. Maybe he would have hit .420.

But the fact remains that, playing in a league that was approximately as competitive as the majors if not more, Lockett hit .408 two years after Ted Williams hit .406, in 1941. In Boston they're talking about naming a tunnel after Williams and calling it the .406 in honor of his being the last major-leaguer to break .400.

Few people have come in to ask for autographs, and Hellstern is out walking up and down Belmont, pressing fliers on passersby. It seems to work. By noon there's a crowd in the restaurant lining up for free autographs. The media arrive; the Tribune has sent a reporter, Fox TV has sent a camera. A woman who has a radio talk show asks Lockett and Radcliffe to come on her show some time and kisses Radcliffe to seal the deal.

A Negro Leagues Hall of Fame is opening in Kansas City. Spike Lee is interested in doing a movie. Negro Leagues T-shirts and jerseys will be a hot fashion item this summer, and in the fall rare footage of their games will be part of a mammoth documentary on baseball by Ken Burns. Business has never been better. After all their years in the darkness, the sun is shining everywhere.

Hellstern returns, chatting up the crowd. It's "Duty" this and "Lester" that as she tells people to come on out to the next show. Nothing's scheduled the following week, and Lockett and Radcliffe are going to drive up to Milwaukee in Radcliffe's Caddy just to look around. "Isn't that amazing?" Hellstern says. "Most people their age are afraid to walk to the corner, but if they want to go they go. Lester thinks he's invincible."

The signing's over at three, but Lockett lingers. He orders an early dinner and eats alone in the rear of the restaurant. By the time he orders dessert, he's the only diner in the room.

"Have you tried this?" he asks the waitress, pouring some of his coffee and cream over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. "Man, this is just great. I just love it." He closes his eyes and pretends to swoon. "This is wonderful." He spoons down the ice cream, swigs the last bit of coffee, and says to the waitress, "Now you've got to give me seconds."

"You sure?" she asks.

He laughs. "Oh yes, I'm sure."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Cynthia Howe.

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