“Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship
with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players”
with Nick Chiles
Forward by Hank Aaron
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website
At The LastBook Store in L.A.
The review in 90 feet or less
Good for Cam Perron.
Perhaps you’re already aware of him and his story – one of those feel-good pieces that has had a decent shelf-life the last 15-plus years.
The shortstop version: In 2007, here’s Perron, this white teenager from a Boston suburb who somehow forges a friendship with hundreds of former Negro League players simply by reaching out to them. First, it’s via letters, to see if he might get their autograph. Then by phone, wanting to hear their stories. Now it’s all sorts of platforms to help give them exposure, reunite those still alive, and see if there’s financial compensated due.
Here’s the lineup if you haven’t been invested in the journey thus far:
- In 2011, when Perron was 16, the Boston Globe caught up with him as “local teen does good” angle.
- A year later, MLB.com makes the connection.
- That draw the attention of HBO’s Real Sports and Bryant Gumbel:
- In 2013, he gets his own TED talk:
- More room for his story in Huffington Post. That leads to a 2017 HBO followup, as well as the Baseball Reliquary giving him its Hilda Award for distinguished service to the game.
- Wait, we almost forgot: In 2015, Perron was part of the book: “2 Billion Under 20: How Millennials Are Breaking Down Age Barriers and Changing the World” edited by Stacey Ferriera and Jared Kleinert. Perron’s chapter, “Stepping Into the Big Leagues,” was under the section of the book covering “Success.”
- Last year, Deadspin gets a pretty cool update along with info about a book he’s writing.
- The book arrives, with a dugout photo of the old Newark Eagles on the cover. Now 26 and having moved from the East Coast to Hollywood with a bolstered LinkedIn account, Perron still runs his own e-commerce collectables business. But for all the many ways this story has been presented, this book is where he takes the reins with inserted commentary from family and associates, and an assist from Nick Chiles, an American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of 15 books.
The book, which seems to be best geared for Young Adult readers based on its larger typeface and breeze style, has a title comes from Perron’s explanation in Chapter 14 that as more Negro League players pass away — more than a third are now gone from those who joined the first reunion Perron helped organize in 2010 — “that makes me even more intent on trying to ensure that these guys not only get their due right now, but that they have a great time in the process. I want them to experience every sort of comeback that they possibly can, while they can, no matter how late it is in the season of their lives — to know for a fact that their stories matter, their memories will be preserved and to get whatever money is owed to them by MLB. It’s really been hitting me hard in the last few years because family members of players have started asking me to write eulogies for these men, my friends. … It makes me feel right about the work we’ve been doing.”
Since he joined the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, more than 1,500 living players have been identified.
One was Irvin Castille, a shortstop and third baseman from the Birmingham Black Barons from 1951-to-’53, and part off the esteemed East-West All-Star Game in ’53. Castille lived in Whittier and “was an incredibly gracious person and always made me feel good about myself,” Perron wrote and also produced a letter of correspondence from the two in 2008. “Now we were trading signed photographs of each other. … This type of connection only fueled my desire to locate and contact more players.”
Castille, who died at age 89 in 2015 and is interred in Rose Hills, was one who told Perron he should write a book.
Another former player that caught our eye was Charlie Dees.
Perron talks about the one-time California Angels first baseman on page 124 who “put me through the paces” to get him to commit to a Negro League reunion in Birmingham, Alabama. With the Angels from 1963-to-’65, Dees played 98 games over three seasons from age 28-to-30. If you get a chance to check out his Wikipedia page, you’ll see the roller coaster ride he took. But before that, he was with the Negro League’s Louisville Clippers in 1954.
As a high school sophomore, Perron was up for a challenge to get Dees’ autograph, one very tough to land, and even called his home phone on Thanksgiving. Dees told him it would cost him $50 because “Whitey Ford charges fifth dollars.” Instead of making a counter offer, Perron responded: “Is it true you played in the Negro Leagues?” Before long, the price went down to $30, and Perron told collectors about his player “find” at SportsCollectors.Net. Perron turned one of those autographed cards around and sold it to another collector for $150.
And he then realized:
“I’ll admit, my relationship with Charlie had started with some crass commercialism and the excitement of doing something others hadn’t been able to do, but Charlie and I soon became friends. He was one of the guys I would check in with regularly to chat. He was happy that I had put him in touch with old teammates, with whom he enjoyed talking about the old days.”
From there, Perron helped Dees make public appearances at reunion and get paid more for his autographs.
The story isn’t over. Where do we go from here? Where does it keep going?
The author Q&A
Let’s have Cam, a Tulane graduate, explain where he is at this point in our generated Q&A:
Q: What’s been the reaction to the book since its release last week?
A: I think it’s going alright. I’ve done a bunch of interviews and appearances through various outlets. I hope to participate in in-person events and interviews alongside former players in the future as their stories are more important than mine and I do not know how much longer we will have to hear from the legends themselves. As Covid-19 subsides, I hope to meet many of my longtime buddies in their hometowns and participate in events with them.
Q: Considering all the ways your story has been told, what’s the push behind telling it this way in a book?
A: My story has been covered in newspaper articles and television segments, but those were short pieces that don’t come close to chronicling the depth of my own story and the stories of the many Negro Leagues players whom I have grown close with over the years. After researching the Negro Leagues for over a decade and befriending so many former players, a book feels like best way to detail the experiences of where my research has taken me, and allow the former players to share their career and life stories, as well.
I am extremely proud to be involved in helping players secure pensions with documentation of their playing days, but tracking down and interviewing former players to learn and share their stories has always been my main focus. In recent years, acquiring pensions has become much more difficult due to the passing of many of the players who had lengthier careers. But I can still research and preserve their experiences, which feels more important than ever.
Q: You’ve mentioned in the book that since once working at William Morris Endeavor, screenwriter Gene Hong saw the original “Real Sports” piece and was trying to effort a movie about your journey. Is there is talk of a movie being made about this whole experience. Does having the book help in that process?
A: I was first contacted by someone in the film world in 2013. It’s been eight years, and I don’t know for certain if a movie of my story will be made or not. I’ve continued my research since and I continue to absorb the experiences that former Negro Leagues players generously share with me and the work that has come alongside it all. Maybe it will someday be depicted in a film, maybe not; in any case, I’ll keep sharing the players’ stories however I can.
Q: Are there Negro Leagues players in Southern California that you can personally keep in contact with easier than those in other parts of the country?
A: There are several players in the SoCal area, many of whom I do keep in contact with. Nate Dancy of the 1959-1960 Kansas City Monarchs is a close friend of mine, who I often visited at his home in Inglewood until he recently moved several hours outside of L.A. I have been corresponding with Nate since I was 13, so when I moved to Los Angeles at the age of 21, it was great to catch up and spend time with him in person after many years of long distance communication.
Another local player is Hal Jones, who played a season with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1956 before going on to play in the MLB with the Cleveland Indians. I typically see Hal every six to nine months, grabbing food or just chatting at his place.
There are other players scattered throughout SoCal who I speak to on occasion, but for the most part there aren’t many remaining in the Los Angeles area. When I first began reaching out to players 10-plus years ago, there were over a dozen living in and around San Diego and Los Angeles. Sadly, many had passed away by the time I moved out here.
The Negro Leagues were primarily located in the South and the Midwest, so the majority of former players aren’t located out west. The guys who are located in L.A. are definitely easier to see. As for the others, I always look forward to seeing them at our yearly reunions or when I’m able to make a trip to a different city like Chicago or New York, where I can schedule a visit.
Q: What does it mean to have Hank Aaron do the introduction/foreword considering how recently he passed away?
A: It was a great honor. Having idolized him since I began playing baseball at the age of 8, it was a pinnacle moment in my life to have him agree to join the project and share his story of his early years in baseball – growing up in Mobile, Alabama and eventually joining the Indianapolis Clowns, where he signed his first professional baseball contract. While most remember Hank for his monumental Major League career, I think having him discuss his early years and time with the Indianapolis Clowns helps bring attention to the lesser known and often forgotten beginnings of his career, and additionally helps serve as a platform to showcase the talents and stories of the many other Negro Leagues players who the typical baseball fan may not be familiar with.
Q: The decision by MLB to include Negro Leagues stats into the overall data base – Is that something you think helps raise their profile and legitimizes their existence? Are there issues in sorting out truth from fiction with Negro Leagues stats as you’ve discovered in your newspaper archive research?
A: I do believe that MLB’s recognition of the Negro Leagues and the incorporation of their statistics into the overall database has raised the profile of the Negro Leagues and its players, bringing a significant increase in general awareness of the league, its players, its history, and the accomplishments of the above. As a result, I do believe it helps legitimize their existence to more of a mainstream audience. In terms of statistics, I do not believe sorting out truth from fiction is an issue; I believe the importance lies in understanding that the Negro Leagues operated in a different fashion than the Major League. Negro Leagues teams and players played many more exhibition, non-league/barnstorming, and foreign games that are not included in their now-MLB-recognized statistics. It should be highlighted and taken into account that the “league game” statistics incorporated into the MLB record books represent just a portion of these players’ overall on-field accomplishments.
Q: I vaguely remember Charlie Dees, the former Angels first baseman, was I was a kid growing up in the ‘60s. What’s the update on him? You give him some good run in your book. Does he talk about his Angels’ experiences to you?
A: Charlie still lives in the greater Atlanta area. For the most part, he speaks of his time with the Angels and their minor league affiliates, as his time in the Negro Leagues was relatively brief and only made up a small portion of his career. Charlie entered the record business after his baseball career, retired early, and enjoys watching his favorite shows – the “Judge shows” daily.
Q: What are your favorite memories with the players you’ve gotten know over the years? Or some of the things that fascinated you most about their stories from their playing days?
A: One of my favorite and earliest memories occurred in 2010. I was in the Charlotte, North Carolina airport, about to board a connecting flight to the first reunion in Birmingham, Alabama, when I learned that a colleague of mine had just made contact with Roosevelt Jackson, a former Negro Leagues player located in Georgia. I got a hold of Roosevelt several minutes before my flight and informed him of the reunion I was heading to. He said he would get on the next bus. Sure enough, near the stroke of midnight, Roosevelt showed up at the Redmont Hotel, our reunion headquarters in Birmingham, accompanied by his granddaughter. He really did get on that first bus! Blind and in his early 90s, Roosevelt never thought he’d be attending an event dedicated to the league he joined as a young man in the 1930s. He was still sharp as a tack and, over the coming days, shared many stories from his lengthy career with me and the other attendees. While much older than most of the former players in attendance, it turns out his impressively long career in baseball meant he had played against many of the younger players in attendance over the years. He signed autographs for the first time in his life, danced during ceremonies at Rickwood Field, and even drank a couple beers. Roosevelt became a reunion regular and attended nearly every event we held in Birmingham until his passing in 2018 at the age of 100.
One of the most fascinating stories that I encountered over the years, and isn’t in the book, was the story of Jose “Potato” Piloto. Jose was a Cuban ball player who played all over South America, Cuba, and in the Negro Leagues with the Memphis Red Sox throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s.
To researchers, Piloto was assumed to be long deceased — until a metro DC area Verizon employee struck up a conversation while conducting an outdoor repair. The man he spoke with was Piloto — still alive, but homeless. At the time, he would often sell some of his old baseball equipment and photographs on the street to get by. As a young researcher, I saw the article and tracked down the man who had found Piloto. Having become quite close with Jose since meeting him, this man had figured out a living situation for Jose and helped him off the streets. He put me in touch with Jose, and we would often speak over the phone, sometimes using a translator app to communicate. Jose was whip-smart and rich with stories from his lengthy career across numerous countries and leagues. I wish I could remember what he called me – he made up a nickname for me being a young baseball researcher. Before he passed away, I found an extremely rare 1940s baseball card from his playing days in Cuba being sold online. I quickly scooped it up and mailed it to him to have it autographed. He had never seen it, so I made up a bunch of cardstock copies for him to have. To this day, it remains one of the highlights of my collection.
Q: What’s next with your involvement in the history and legacy of the Negro Leagues and the players? Is there more work to be done in restoring earned recognition, legacy and compensation?
A: Given MLB’s recent recognition of the Negro Leagues, I hope that this is just the beginning of additional future recognition that will give more attention to the history of the leagues and its players, and acknowledge the quality of baseball played.
We are planning a small event in Alabama for the end of the summer, and I hope to put together a large event with as many former living players as possible once Covid-19 related shutdowns slow; players are leaving us faster than ever and we may not have much more time left for a large-scale event to be held.
With former players unfortunately passing away quite often in recent years, the days of obtaining pensions for living players has significantly slowed. We seem to be entering an era of more of a focus on recognition and legacy, which is very new for me since the majority of my efforts over the years have been dedicated to the many living players who we are now losing. A goal of mine in coming months is to begin a project to record professionally filmed interviews of as many living players as we can to help preserve the history of the leagues, its players, and their experiences, which can be used to tell the story of the Negro Leagues after these men pass on.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: I hope young readers can be inspired to pursue their interests – regardless of how unique they may be. You never know where they may be lead and if you are passionate about an interest, cause, or topic: please pursue it. There are endless possibilities of interests for young people to gravitate towards, but I think group-think and the push back kids receive for non-conforming interests at a young age often result in them feeling like they cannot pursue something of interest to them because of the views of others around them.
Additionally, I hope readers will walk away further educated on the history of the Negro Leagues, its players, their stories, and experiences, and will continue to educate themselves and others on the leagues. While the players did not have the chance to play in the MLB due to segregation, the Negro Leagues was its own Major League. It was the third largest Black business in America, and a place for thousands of young men to pursue their dreams of playing professional baseball. But the history of the league and its many players never received the recognition or spotlight that they were entitled to due to the climate of America at the time. As a result, I hope long after the players of baseball’s Negro Leagues are gone, this story can serve as an additional resource to help shine light on a history that should, and will, forever be remembered.
How it goes in the scorebook
C’mon, there’s got to be a movie in this. If only Shia LaBeouf was a few years younger.
When it happens, you’ve got the book now as the ultimate reference point.
Another point of reference: Last October, University of Nebraska Press re-released Donn Rogosin’s 1983 book (originally published by Atheneum) called “Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues,” with a new introduction. Monte Irvin did the forward.
Rogonsin writes: “As one privileged to occasionally speak to young people, frequently young African American students, I am invariably asked why and how these men coped with the indignities and worst of America’s tainted, segregated past. My answer is that they experienced segregation as a deeply felt pain, injustice and source of enormous resentment and anger. They knew they could play with anybody. But they also know the joy of hitting a clutch hit or making a spectacular play and receiving the accolades of their peers and their people as young men. … They had confidence and pride in their chosen, God-given skill and profession … Baseball gave them pleasure as they aged. There was always sun shining someplace for them.”
More to cover
== The Negro Southern League Museum tells the story of African-American baseball in America through the eyes of Birmingham, Alabama. The museum features the largest collection of original Negro League baseball artifacts in the country. NSLM also features an on-site research center that is supported by a research team made up of seven of the top researchers in Negro League and Southern League baseball history. More information here.
== An award given in 2010 to Perron by Dr. Layton Revel and Chef Clayton Sherrod of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research.