07/23/11 — Legends of the past meet fans of today

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Legends of the past meet fans of today

By Dennis Hill
Published in Sports on July 23, 2011 11:35 PM

Local baseball legends Hubert "Daddy" Wooten of Goldsboro and Carl Long of Kinston, two of the handful of players still living who played in the old Negro Baseball League, were honored this weekend at events in both cities.

The festivities, which included a stop at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and a cookout at Fairview Park, were to culminate Saturday night, with an honors program at Herman Park Center, where fans and admirers could meet and greet the stars who graced the diamond in the days before blacks held an equal rank among professional players.

On Friday night, Wooten, Long and Dennis Biddle, the president of the Yesterday's Negro League Baseball Players Foundation, signed autographs at a Kinston Indians game. As the players talked with fans, signed baseballs, caps and T-shirts and bantered among themselves over who kept losing the pen, they spoke of why they believe it is important for the league to be remembered.

"This is the only way that young people will have to remember a part of United States history that was swept under the rug," said Biddle, who has written a book about the league, "Secrets of the Negro Baseball League."

"It's important for them to know the real history," Biddle said as a crowd of fans lined up in front of the players' table near the gate at Grainger Stadium. He said the group formed the foundation and specifically used the term "Yesterday's" because other people who didn't have a connection with the real players had taken advantage of the name. It was only a few years ago that the group discovered the oversight and decided they should come up with their own formal organization.

Biddle said this weekend's event is one of the few times the old players get together during the year. Another was only a few weeks ago, when the players met for a Hall of Fame celebration in Milwaukee.

As Wooten arrived, a small group of young people stood in line waiting for the gates to open. At age 67 and limping just slightly from a bad left knee, Wooten was recognized as he walked across the parking lot by one of the youngsters, but for the wrong reason.

"It's Mr. Long! It's Mr. Long!" he said excitedly.

Wooten overheard the commotion and smiled ever so slightly as he headed toward the gate. For him, the recognition was welcome, even if they didn't have the right guy.

For these players, keeping their history alive is what is important. Not individual glory.

Wooten still lives in Goldsboro. And Long in Kinston. Their stints playing baseball for a living over, they came home and made careers for themselves, Wooten at O'Berry Center, Long as a lawman in Lenoir County.

But they are still members of an elite group -- men who in many cases had the ability to play in the big leagues, but who instead performed for Birmingham Black Barons, for whom Long played, or the Indianapolis Clowns, known as the "Harlem Globetrotters of baseball."

The Clowns were the team that Wooten played for in the 1960s, along with the legendary Satchel Paige. He was forced to quit the game because of that bad knee. He still played locally for years, even taking up softball for a time but the knee finally wore out.

"I played until the doctor told me I had to stop," Wooten said.

He talked about what it took to make it to the top in a competitive sport and recalled a bit about the days of living on the road, barnstorming from city to city.

Through it all, Wooten's love of the game showed through.

And he spoke of the opportunity that young players have today that were not available when he was young and how much he wants them to understand and appreciate the equipment, the facilities, the coaches that they can take advantage of. The game, he said, needs them.

And a bit of wistfulness showed. Sometimes, Wooten admitted, he looks at the crowds eagerly waiting for autographs and wonders what it would have been like in the big leagues.

"It makes you think about what could have been," he said, "if they'd let everybody play."