Preview of “A Condition of Freedom”
In the spring of 1948, in Mobile, Alabama, Jackie Robinson played in a preseason exhibition game against the Mobile Bears, Brooklyn’s AA farm club.
Robinson’s Dodgers, defending National League pennant winners, were barnstorming their way north, traveling by train, readying to start the new
season. The Bears had won the 1947 Southern Association crown and had some marquee players of their own in George “Shotgun” Shuba, who’d
been with Robinson for his debut with the organization in Montreal in 1946 and holds a spot in the record books for hitting a World Series home run in his
first major league at bat; Stan Wasiak, who would become the winningest minor league manager in history; and Chuck Connors, future television star. Fans
filled the wooden grandstands and bleachers at Hartwell Field on South Ann Street. The colored bleacher section tucked out by the right field foul pole was
packed. Mobile has a baseball history that goes as far back as that of any other city, and Mobilians eagerly gave up the seventy-five cents admission
charge to see their Bears go up against the likes of Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Ralph Branca, and Al Gionfriddo and their infamous manager, Leo “the
Lip” Durocher. But the biggest draw of the day had to be Jackie Robinson, the first black professional major league player of the century and the
1947 National League rookie of the year.
The fans down along the right field line, for whom seventy-five cents was a little harder to come by, maybe, a little tougher to justify, couldn’t
have been kept away at double or even triple the admission price. Hometown baseball player and big league prospect Aaron Watson says he saved pennies
throughout the weeks leading up to the game in order to attend. It meant that much to see Jackie Robinson. That one game, and Robinson’s subsequent
appearance down on Davis Avenue, electrified Mobile’s black community. The flesh-and-blood Jackie Robinson, the man who changed forever how black
people thought of themselves, embodied opportunity and possibility, something unknown, unthinkable in that community as little as twelve months prior to
that day. For so many young boys and men in the area, that one game proved that opportunity existed. For someone like the teenaged Henry Aaron, it meant
everything. It changed his life.
Jesse Norwood was not in attendance at Hartwell Field that afternoon. A married man, father of a baby boy, and not too long out of the Merchant Marine,
Jesse would have been at work, though he probably listened in on the radio broadcast. He was a laborer, and his concerns were more immediate, as they had
been for much of his life already—a decent day’s pay, food on the table, for his wife, his first-born son, himself. But, Norwood, like
Robinson, would change the lives of a generation of men, change the way a whole community thought about itself, through the game of baseball.
The correspondence of these two lives, men born less than a year apart in the Velvet Corridor of south Georgia, separated by fifty miles of dirt road whose
trajectories would take them on significantly different though curiously parallel paths, is the story of A Condition of Freedom. Two lives, fifty
miles of highway, one game.
Baseball, they say, at the heart of it all, is a game of statistics, to the delight of some and consternation of others. Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce
Catton, founding editor of American Heritage, wrote in those pages forty-five years ago that “[baseball] is the only pastime on earth that
leans heavily on the accumulation of page upon page of inherently dry statistics.”1 But those dry statistics, laws of opposing averages,
probabilities, vectors of speed, acceleration, the wind, recurring and shifting counts, lend the game a concurrence that is accomplished in other sports
only with a clock. Statistics locate the game of baseball, it’s true, though they never tell the whole story, and some of the game’s best and
most revered writers caution against an unguarded reliance on them. In his foreword to the latest, posthumous edition of Leonard Koppett’s The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball, Pat Gillick tells us, “Statistics have become very important in the modern era, but the industry
remains a people business. No one understood that better than Leonard. He was a pioneer in employing statistical analysis as a tool. However, as he said,
if not used sparingly and correctly, the tool can do more harm than good.”2
Later, in that same book, Koppett wrote, “Pitching is 75 percent of baseball—or 70 percent, or 90, or any other high number that pops into the
mind of the speaker. The more popular current phrase, ‘pitching is the name of the game,’ reflects the fact that it is again more fashionable
to speak in metaphors since high-powered computers have usurped the illusion of accuracy baseball statistics used to supply.”3 He has
provided a necessary distinction between utility and comprehension, points on a scale and depth of measurement, between raw data and baseball statistics.
What Koppett seems to have been urging, through that distinction, is a constant wariness against imparting too much importance to mere numbers, when it
comes to baseball, particularly. But that caution is just as warranted in the consideration of other aspects that swirl about this story, aspects like race
relations and equality, and in any “business” of “people,” really, where human endeavor and human nature are folded into the mix.
Equality, for one, is meaningless, statistically, in any application other than mathematics, because it is, despite being such a lofty and worthy ideal,
unquantifiable. As an ideal, it can never be about balancing one tally of numbers or another. Baseball, too, suffers from any similar impulse toward purely
objective comparison. There are too many undocumented statistics to factor in, for starters. As an example, there’s that other sacrifice,
which doesn’t show up on any player’s stat sheet: With a runner on second base and nobody out, a prime objective of the batter is to hit the
ball to the right side of the field, even if that means forgoing that batter’s principal strengths, even if it means grounding out, something that
does a batter’s personal stats no good at all, though it does provide the team—by moving the runner to third with less than two
outs—a higher-percentage opportunity to score. It’s an “uncredited sacrifice,” Koppett wrote, one that “doesn’t show in
the statistics,” but one that “managers remember and appreciate,” as should fans.4
All of which is to say that beyond the numbers there is an interminable amount of interdependent statistics (documented or not) and hunches and patterns
and mystery that course through the beating heart of baseball. And it’s the same as any other beating heart. If one absolutely must, the story can be
reduced to numbers, of beats per second, diastolic and systolic pressures, and ejection fractions, but that can’t speak at all to what it feels like
to be alive, alive and breathing. A Nolan Ryan no-hitter pitching line, which includes six walks along with the eleven strikeouts, doesn’t speak at
all to the defensive drama that must have occurred. In game four of the 1947 World Series, Bill Bevens pitched “the most strangely beautiful game
ever seen in a World Series,”5 but lost. Of the game, Roger Kahn says, “Nobody who saw that game or played in that game can forget
it.” Bevens’s pitching line of eight and two-thirds innings, one hit and ten walks—two of the three Series records he set that
day—is certainly curious. What’s unforgettable about it is the story behind the numbers, dubbed “Cookie Lavagetto’s triumph.”
For eight and two-thirds innings, the game—almost the first modern World Series no-hitter—belonged to Bevens. Then Lavagetto took it
away with one swing of the bat. That’s the front story. Behind that story there’s a web of debate and disagreement and opinion about Al
Gionfriddo’s stolen base, Bucky Harris’s defiance of “conventional” wisdom, Yogi Berra’s pitch selection—the backstory,
It is the folklore of baseball—the legends and stories spun from a single statistical locus at times—that illuminates the game across eras in
its otherwise time-lessness. Statistics and stories: When there isn’t a particular number, of home runs or games played or innings pitched, at the
core of any given legendary Aaron, Ripkin, or Ryan, there is an annotative tale explicating the number, sometimes referenced only by an asterisk in the
record books, but there is almost always a story.
An undocumented but acknowledged statistic holds that during the middle of the last century, across a generation from the mid-1940s to the
mid-1960s—which wouldn’t include the granddaddy of Mobile baseball, Satchel Paige, or the great “Double Duty” Radcliffe,
who’s still telling stories at 103 years old—more and better major league baseball talent came out of Mobile, Alabama, than has ever come out
of any other area before or since. It is debatable, of course—and it has been debated, another of those baseball underpinnings, debating relative
statistical merit: just last year Mobile’s Press Register published comparative lists of players from the country’s most prolific
baseball towns, Chicago, L.A., New York, and of course Mobile’s came out on top; it may have taken a little gerrymandering, though, this is baseball,
after all, and not politics—but the list of luminaries from that time is replete with Hall of Famers, all-stars, and champions. Hank Aaron leads the
parade, followed by Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, Frank and Milt Bolling, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, Tommie Aaron, Amos Otis, and others. For part of the
season, at least, the entire starting outfield of the 1969 Miracle Mets were native Mobilians. Starting National League all-star teams of the era fielded
more than half their players from Mobile. Years later, as a commentator, Frank Bolling would broadcast a challenge to anyone willing, that he could put
together a team of only Mobile players and beat any team from anywhere else. At last check, no one has ever taken him up on that. Dizzy Dean, on his radio
show, once asked Aaron, “What y’all got going in Mobile [to account for all that talent]?” Hank’s famous answer, “Guess
it’s in the water,” might be more intuitive, legendary, than dismissive. Hemmed in by water to the east and south, Mobile is wedged against a
permanent backstop. The population distribution and growth pattern, from the waterfront downtown toward the west and north, looks a lot like a baseball
diamond, in fact. There is the tropical climate—not unlike Cuba or the Dominican Republic, baseball breeding grounds that could rival Mobile 6—where water hangs in the air, heavy and moist, year round, so there’s never really any off-season. If you consider another Hall of
Fame inductee, Ozzie Smith, who was born in Mobile and spent his first five years exposed to or ingesting the local waters, that puts Mobile at the top of
that particular statistical list, raising the possibility that there must have been something magical going on. Aaron’s answer is as good as any
other, at the very least.
There is more to the story behind that statistic, though, more impulse to Dean’s question. Any discussion with any of those baseball notables, or
with the men who managed or coached them or played alongside them, doesn’t proceed too far before an insistence that for every Aaron or McCovey or
Williams who went from the sandlots of Mobile to Cooperstown, there were at least three or four other players with just as much talent and ability who
never made it out for one reason or another. Aaron says so in his book. James Harris, godfather of Mobile baseball, who managed all three of those
inductees at some point in their ascension, swears it’s true, swears Billy Williams had brothers better than he was, swears that Moose Andrews was
the best player he ever saw, period. Statistic? Or the inflated tale from an old man, a story that’s gotten oversized from half a century of
telling and retelling?
There are plenty of others who will nod in tacit agreement with Aaron and Harris, and then hint that it was the whole baseball scene that was so nurturing,
rather than an explosion of isolated individual talent. Baseball, they will simply say, was the thing to do, was being played everywhere there was flat
ground or a cleared street.
While the baseball frenzy may have been all-pervading, it was also often transient and without much structure. Teams formed, men allying themselves
sometimes for just a weekend’s worth of games, and then dissolved. Different semiprofessional leagues composed of teams spread all along the Gulf
coast came together, fell apart. That satisfied the immediate desire to play but left the long-term development of some of those players unattended.
Someone like Moose Andrews, who could always find a game around Mobile, suffered, ultimately, from that nomadic, hired-gun approach. At one time he was
said to have been as good as or better than the legendary Josh Gibson and was signed to a professional contract, but he couldn’t function within the
rigors of a major league organization and quit.
And that is the point in the story where the most knowledgeable baseball people of the time will say that though there was an abundance of raw baseball
talent in the area, especially in the black neighborhoods, there was also a dearth of structured support, in those same communities in particular. And then
they’ll go on to mention the exceptions to that rule, exceptional baseball men like Jesse Thomas, who single-handedly held together the Gulf Coast
League, and James Richardson; exceptional teams like the Prichard Athletics and, especially, the Prichard Mohawks. Founded in the mid-1950s of neighborhood
kids more than baseball men, lasting throughout the baseball heyday, the Mohawks would become the organizational model as well as the competitive measuring
stick for other teams playing throughout the region. The man responsible for the organization, Jesse Norwood, formed the team without any known baseball
experience or knowledge. He was simply looking for some way to help the kids who would congregate beyond his stoop. He managed the team until the day he
died, too early, of heart complications, not too long before Jackie did. This is a story of their parallel lives, some of their statistics, but mostly the
measure of the men, which can only really be gleaned from the legacy they left behind.
Unlike Jackie Robinson, the story of Jesse Norwood exists mostly in the minds of the men whose lives he changed: his son, Jesse Norwood Jr., the
thirty-five or forty former Mohawks, and a host of other baseball men who credit Jesse for forcing them to elevate their game or their organization if they
were going to play his. The team, like most black teams of the era, did not receive a lot of press in its time, and the records of their games,
scrupulously annotated in score books, have long since fallen into ruin and been discarded. The pictures, informal snapshots taken by family and
friends—because none of the national sports publications, the Sporting News or the brand-new Sports Illustrated, thought to
document the team’s exploits—are fuzzy, unprofessional, and have mostly slipped through the gaps of hard lives lived, family, and
responsibility. But the memory of Mr. Norwood, coursing strong and true and vital in the lifeblood of these men, is very much alive, even if it has to be
supplemented by unverifiable data, even if it is at times, clearly, the ethereal stuff of legend. The salient fact of the matter is that the
otherwise unavailable influence Norwood wielded over these men changed their lives, and in some instances, saved their lives, which could just as easily
have fallen through the cracks of a divided and divisive society and disappeared. And they now want to tell their story; they want to tell it, embellish
it, exaggerate, probably, because they believe that even if baseball is not the preeminent pastime that it once was in Mobile, the story itself has value,
redeeming value, for a new generation of black youths falling through those same cracks.
Their story, then, has certain, undeniable mythological proportions, for which I will not apologize. To me, the game of baseball itself has those same
mythical qualities. It is a game of shifting and variable borders that exists out of time, in the best oral traditions of antiquity, where the historical
data provide merely a framework. It is the story that matters. Here is the story, then, of two men, separated at birth by fifty miles of South Georgia
plantation road, about one game. A Condition of Freedom.
Mobile city councilman Fred Richardson, in a dark suit, over a maroon dress shirt open at the collar, stands before a crowd gathered inside the brand-new
Trinity Gardens Recreation Center. The complex, with its green, expansive grounds and activity center, is still under construction, with ball fields and a
swimming pool and even a gymnasium, still only sketches in the ultimate plan. It has taken the councilman some years to convince the city of Mobile to
commit to the idea. The three acres of property occupy land straddling the limit between Prichard and Mobile, Alabama. It is in the heart of the Trinity
Gardens community, an area of Mobile County that has seen its share of hard times. On a hill rising above all that stands a mortared brick and glass
building, its tubular façade yawning over the high entry doors, fronted by a concrete basin in which one day a water fountain will gurgle in
perpetuity. This is the recreation center, a testament to perseverance and persistence. The complex, not far from the intersection of First Avenue and Ruth
Street, borders the remnants of the baseball field that was the home of the Prichard Mohawks.
Mr. Richardson, in his opening remarks to the gathering, speaks to that perseverance, addressing former Mohawks brought together as a unit again fifty
years after the beginning of their story, some reunited for the first time in many years. “Too many years,” they murmur to one
another, exchanging affectionate embraces as they file into the assembly room. “Too many years.”
“You men,” Mr. Richardson says, “represent the legend that was the Mohawks. We’re here in this beautiful facility, a facility that would not have been possible without Jesse Norwood and you Mohawks, to talk about how we can all carry on the legacy of Mr. Norwood and your
Those men, former Mohawks, some of them showing the effects of aging, of a harsher passage of time, more than others, nod their assurance as if they were
still playing ball, imbued with the memories they planted in that ground so many years ago: standing in the batter’s box, acknowledging the strategic
sign delivered by hand signals from their third base coach or their manager, Jesse Norwood. They are forever baseball men, scattered about the room,
covering the alleys, guarding the lines, according to their positions on the team or their responsibility within the organization.
Off the left end of the long front table Lyonel Pugh sits slouched in a metal folding chair. His legs, too long and lanky to fit comfortably underneath the
table, sprawl out into the aisle. Arms hanging loose at his sides, hands open and relaxed, resting on his thighs, he is ready, nonetheless, to react with
the reflex of muscle memory, the way a third baseman has to if he is to avoid being knocked unconscious by a screaming line drive or eaten up by a sizzling
ground ball defending the hot corner. At the opposite end of the table Bennie Harris appears cautious, maybe even a little subdued. It’s hard to tell
if that’s the result of the regimented lifestyle he’s been forced to adopt in the five years since his multiple bypass surgery, or if the
second baseman is just missing his double-play partner, John Lee Cowan, who could not make the trip from South Carolina.
Sitting left of center at the next table, the Reverend Robert Emanuel Jr., secretary, center fielder, and field captain, has his elbows vigilantly braced
on the tabletop. Four seats to his left, dapper Sam Madison, sporting a black leather fedora and a neat mustache, leans back in his chair, with his legs
crossed, smiling. Another outfielder, he was known for his batting skills and his ability to clout tape-measure home runs on demand. Bill Dillard, a
journeyman infielder, sits by himself in the back. Standing in the rear right corner of the room, James “Popcorn” Campbell, “the man with
the golden arm,” waits. Trim, still muscular under his business suit, nearly sixty, he’ll say he’s ready to pitch again, just get up the
game. The teams star left-handed pitcher, Willie “Shoe” Lomax, stands at the front of the room along with Jesse Norwood Jr., the man
responsible for this gathering, who had conceived the plan they were there to hear about, as well as other dignitaries, such as county commissioner Sam
Jones, Jesse’s cousin. Modest and quiet, the Reverend Lomax was up front to deliver the invocation.
There are even opposing teams represented in the crowd. Dr. Jimmy Knight, a Mobile County school board member, is ready to testify that the Mohawks forced
everyone else to elevate their game. Jimmy played on the Hillsdale Heights team but tells of travels within the Kansas City and San Francisco organizations
where he would run into players or teams who wanted to join the Mohawks or wanted Jimmy to arrange a game against them. And rival manager Earnest Hines, of
the old Trinity Garden Blue Devils, sits smiling, cane on one side, great-grandson on the other, smiling back on those days of baseball with a pure love of
Presiding over all this, at the center of the front table, sits Ellis May who was there from the beginning—“the foundation,” as he says.
He wears a navy blue Mobile City Maintenance uniform, having just come from work. “Ellis” is stenciled onto the oval, white name patch over the
left breast pocket of his shirt, but everyone in the room, the other Mohawks, their families and friends, the assembled dignitaries, know him as
“Cause I had them sweet, skinny legs,” he explains, “that the ladies loved.”
Candyman lays his hands flat against the tabletop. The ring finger of his left hand, his glove hand, crooks at an angle, and the basal thumb joint of his
right hand is permanently swollen after so many dislocations. Whatever the ladies might have thought of his legs, Ellis May has baseball hands.
With that right hand he reaches into the pocket of his shirt, pulls out a bottle cap he brought along for the occasion, and sets it on the table. Bent
slightly when it was pried off its bottle, the cap at the crease is lined with rust.
“This is how it all started,” he says, pushing the cap across the table. It says “Coke” in loopy, red script letters. It’s an
old cap, the kind that used to be lined with cork, though that’s dried up, shriveled and all but chipped away from the underside of this cap.
“I’ll never forget, Mr. Jesse Norwood told us, ‘Gentlemen,’ he said—he always called us
‘gentlemen’—‘you’re going to be as famous as Coke-Cola.’”
“That’s right,” Madison echoes from behind.
“And we were,” May says. “Almost.”
“Started in nine-teen fifty-four,” the Candyman says. He settles back in his chair, rubs at his chin a little, summoning the memories. He was
the bookkeeper of the team, ultimately, both on the field, and off, compiling statistics, tallying them up for the presentation of year-end awards. So he
is the repository of much of the Mohawk folklore. Many of the other players defer to the Candyman for an answer to a question, the fullest version of any
“He’s the talking man,” Pugh had said, preferring not to do too much talking himself.
Nineteen fifty-four: These men were boys, ten, eleven, twelve years old; boys who all grew up in the same neighborhood, all lived within a mile of each
other. May lists some of the names: Willie Ankum, Robert Brown, Howard Jasper, Bennie Harris, Selma Miles, Leroy Bennett, Theodore Sellers.
“Oh, there must a been fifteen, twenty of us out there in the street, every night, ev-ery night,” he says, relishing the memories, adding extra
syllables to his words, to make them last longer.
They played corkball out on Bullshead Avenue, every spring evening after school. Corkball, so named because of the corked bottle cap, was the local version
of stickball, the street form of baseball played all across the eastern United States, as well as all over Mobile County, not just the back streets of
Prichard. In some neighborhoods the families could afford to supply their children with real, store-bought sticks and red rubber Spalding balls, like the
ones borough kids bounced off the manhole covers in the paved streets of Brooklyn and Queens. But it was the same game, the same game Frank Boiling says
taught him how to stay with a pitch and Hank Aaron credits for his hammering style, attacking the ball. It was the same game Duke Snider could
never—not even in the year he hit .341 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1954—master in his summer neighborhood of Bay Ridge. “I
couldn’t hit the damn thing,” Roger Kahn records him as saying. The same game, played everywhere, another of what poet Donald Hall calls the
“million apparitions of sticks and crickets and rounders.”7
There were no teams in the Bullshead version of stickball. There was the pitcher, the batter, and everyone else, twelve, fifteen scrawny black boys still
in their school pants, patched, and repatched, ripping new tears, smudging the knees and backsides with the red Alabama clay of the street. They were
otherwise stripped down to white sleeveless undershirts and bare feet. The pitcher sidearmed a soda bottle cap, a Coca-Cola cap. It dipped and juked,
fluttered like the best of knuckleballs. The batter held a lopped-off broom handle at the ready, high off his back shoulder, wrists loose and poised. Then
he swung, a bat no thicker than one of his long bones, his humerus or femur, no bigger than the circumference of a quarter or the quarter-inch-thick bottle
cap dancing before him. If he hit it, though only in the air, he could run forward to the one base. If he made it back home before being tagged, he scored
a run. Everything else was an out. Three outs and the next batter’s up—boys calling out in eager, adolescent voices, “I’m
next,” or, “Me! I’m next!”
They congregated beneath the stout limbs of a mighty oak tree that anchored the corner of Bullshead and Rich Avenues. Randolph’s store sat back
behind the tree, where they could buy a Coca-Cola, for a nickel, gently pry off the top using the metal claw attached to the front of the big box
dispenser, and pass the soda around among the early arrivals. When someone showed up with a broomstick or mop handle, they had a game.
May batted first. He stood over a flattened cereal box used for home plate, windmilling the chipped yellow broomstick in his hands, kicking back his feet
like a bull ready to charge, stirring up clouds of fine red dust.
Young Howard Jasper pitched. He leaned over to his right and snaked that arm around, looking like a shiny, black leather bullwhip, before releasing the cap
with a snap of his wrist.
The release point made it look to May like the cap would go sailing behind his back, freezing him in his stance as he watched it jitterbug into his
wheelhouse, where he could offer only a halfhearted swing.
“I’m next,” Ankum called out, after the Candyman wiffed on two more floaters, never making contact.
“Never could hit the deuce,” May says.
“Candyman likes the heat,” Pugh says.
“Dead red,” the Candyman admits. Turns out that’s the way he likes most everything in life: dead red.
One evening in 1954, Jesse Norwood returned from work, first dropping off Albert Lomax over on Dickerson, then easing the big Buick, one of the few cars in
the neighborhood, alongside 1609 Bullshead. Weary from a ten-hour day supervising the Brookley warehouses, Mr. Jesse clomped up the three steps onto the
small porch and pulled open the creaking screen door. Inside, he called out to his wife, Hattie, “I’m home, baby,” set his lunch pail on
the kitchen table, and moved toward the back of the shotgun house, asking after his boys, Melvin and Jesse Jr., their baby sister. He stripped off his
soiled uniform top and dropped it into the laundry basket. In the kitchen again he poured himself a glass of tea and then went back out onto the porch and
sat on the top step, in his undershirt, relaxing, watching the scrum of boys in the street.
The sun was still high enough in the spring evening sky, the air stagnant and warm. The boys, sweaty and dusty, swarmed after the cap popped up by Harris,
converging beneath it, bodies colliding, knocking Ankum to the ground, thin arms stretched over their heads, fingers reaching to make the out.
Almost thirty-six years old at the time, Jesse Norwood had been working since he was not much older than these boys out there in the street before him,
whose only concern in life at the moment was the twirling Coke cap falling from the sky. He quit the sixth grade and went to work pulling coal door-to-door
in a wooden wagon through the streets of Albany, Georgia, in 1930, after the depression found its way to the Deep South, after his mother followed a
railroad man for Mobile in search of work. Jesse had a younger sister, Rose Marie, to support, so he had no time for school, no time for street games.
Their father had died some years earlier, from grief, its said, after their baby brother passed.
“That’s a story not many people know,” Commissioner Jones says when talking about the impact Uncle Jesse had on his life. He tells the
story of the elder Norwood returning to their kerosene-lamplighted hut after a full day in the cotton fields, his arms and back aching, his hands all but
ruined. Near blind from fatigue, he sat down heavily in the ladder-back chair where his baby boy was napping while the mother cooked up some cornbread on
the stove nearby, so injuring the infant that he died. Norwood was inconsolable. He disappeared into the fields surrounding their shack one night and cried
himself to death. “Died of grief,” Jones says.
The game of corkball ended when the cap was lost in the azalea bushes across Bullshead in the deepening shadows of dusk. The boys searched for a while,
never willing to give up the game easily, and then disbanded when no one could produce another nickel.
Two days later Mr. Jesse returned from work with a hard rubber ball he had bought at the Kress Five-and-Dime in downtown Mobile. He gave it to the boys.
While that elevated the game, it wasn’t long before the impact of the ball snapped off the broom handle in the young boys’ hands. Jesse bought
them a bat to replace it. By that time, Mr. Jesse had migrated from his perch on the stoop into position to umpire the ragged game. And then, after
witnessing another argument over the batting order nearly coming to fisticuffs, Mr. Jesse Norwood stood and called the boys to gather around him.
“Gentlemen,” he said, when he had them all assembled, “You want to play baseball?”
They nodded, said, “Yes sir, Mr. Norwood.”
“Then let’s organize us a team. I’ll get some equipment, find us a place to play. You boys meet me over there,” he said, pointing
toward the small porch at the front of number 1609. “All right?”
“Yes sir,” May says. “That’s how it started.”
Pugh pushes himself into a more upright position in his chair, stretches out his left hand, points, and says, “I thought you said it started with
that soda cap.”
Others, Madison, Emanuel, chuckle softly.
“Mr. Secretary,” Candyman says to Emanuel without turning around, “make a note that Lyonel is fined five dollars for his
“Oh, Sweet,” Madison says, pulling down on the brim of his hat. “Why you want to do that?”
Pugh just throws up his large hands in surrender, slouches back in his chair.
Their first playing field was a vacant lot four doors down from the Norwood homestead, next to Emanuel’s. Norwood arrived home to find the boys
milling about his front yard, wrestling, playing tag. They walked down the street to the lot and cleared it of rocks, broken glass, stray timber. They
stretched chicken coop wire across the back end of the lot facing busy St. Stephens Road for a backstop. Jesse bought a set of bases, more bats, real
baseballs, and enough gloves to get started. Their initial games, played on Sunday afternoon after the churches let out, were intrasquad matchups of six
against six, half a dozen players more than enough to defensively cover the 40-by-150-foot lot. Then more boys showed up, and along with them, spectators,
something that surprised the boys, even scared them a little. Neighbors and mothers, still in their church finery, their hats and costume jewelry, dragged
kitchen chairs and stools out into the street to watch the nascent games.
One weeknight after practice Mr. Jesse spoke to the players gathered back at 1609 Bullshead for water and iced tea. “Gentlemen, we need us a
name,” he said. They needed a name those mothers and neighbors and other spectators could associate with, even whisper throughout the other
neighborhoods of Prichard and Mobile. At a time when people still sat out on their porches of a spring or summer evening, exchanging pleasantries with
passersby, when they still walked to work, or to the store, to school or church, they needed a name that could be passed along that network as easily as
comments about the weather or reports of a relatives health or the birth of a new baby.
The boys bandied about some possibilities, mostly variations on names of the other teams they knew about in the area, the Prichard Athletics, the Blue
Devils, the Hillsdale Cardinals. Until May piped up and said, “We’re playing on Bullshead. Why don’t we call ourselves the Bullshead Giants.”
It may have been that moment when Jesse Norwood recognized the true utility Ellis May possessed, that he would become the spokesman of the team, that even
as a young boy he could speak to the figurative purpose of the whole endeavor, he could pronounce these boys giants. It was then that Jesse set
the democratic tone that would shape the organization throughout the next decade and a half. “It’s your team,” he told them. “What
do y’all think?”
“We became the Giants,” May says.
“The Giants?” Emanuel asks. “When was that?”
“In the beginning,” Candyman tells him. “In the beginning.”
Emanuel, like Pugh and Madison, actually came to the team later, after they changed the name. Even though he lived in the neighborhood, he was playing for
his father on the Paradise Park Cubs, along with Pugh, who grew up “on the other side of the tracks,” he says, and chuckles.
Mr. Jesse convinced the elder Emanuel, his neighbor and friend, to join him that first summer. And when he did, young Emanuel followed, of his own choice,
as did Pugh, after several years with the Cubs. Those two recruited Madison from the Blue Devils a year later.
“That’s right,” Sam says.
May raises his hands and says, “We’re getting ahead of ourselves, gentlemen.” As close as he is to these men, as much as they all openly
express their love for one another, May doesn’t really want to talk about the recruitment of Pugh, and then Madison. Not yet. The room quiets again.
“Lets go back to the beginning,” he says.
The Giants overran their space on Bullshead in a matter of weeks, with the burgeoning Sunday crowds and the advancement of their baseball skills, hitting
balls onto neighboring property, even breaking a window or two. Mr. Jesse found available land across St. Stephens behind the Lincoln Funeral Home on
Victor Avenue, an open field on a tract of land known as Dozier’s Alley. Here, the boys had to pull grass clumps and rake smooth the dirt and red
clay, mix in sand poured from hundred-pound bags, where the bases, a pitcher’s mound, home plate, and batter’s boxes would go. They hacked away
at the perimeter woods, sculpting an outfield nearly symmetrical in its dimensions. They pounded four-by-four posts into the ground behind home, strung
more chicken wire for the backstop.
The field, accessible only after a lengthy walk across St. Stephens, through the surrounding woods, wasn’t exactly level. Rainwater from frequent
summer thunderstorms would flood the infield of the lowlying parcel, but that wouldn’t stop the baseball. They layered gasoline over the wet grass
and dirt, burned off the moisture. Play ball.
The boys worked their park, practiced their skills every day during the week, and played their simulated Sunday games, with enough players now to field
full lineups against each other. And still, the fans came. They trekked across St. Stephens, through the woods, carrying chairs, sacks of fried chicken and
biscuits, to watch their boys play.
The earliest games at Dozier’s were often just a series of drills Mr. Jesse would guide them through as he came to understand more and more about
baseball. They weren’t playing against visiting opponents just yet.
“Let’s do that again,” he’d call out from his seat on a church pew behind the wiring that served as a dugout. On a line drive hit
to right-center field, with a runner on first, he noticed some of his fielders hadn’t rotated correctly.
“You got to be in the right place, gentlemen.”
Emanuel Senior came in from his third base coach’s position and took up the bat. He hit another rope into the outfield, with Mr. Jesse calling out to
his players in his raspy voice, “Who covers second?” He asked, “What about the cutoff?” He moved the boys around like chess pieces.
“Everybody’s got a job,” Mr. Jesse called out over the field. “Everybody’s got a job.”
He instructed Selma Miles to come down the left field line to back up Ellis should the throw come to third, “in case we got a rabbit on the bases
running with the pitch,” he explained.
Jesse then walked up the first base line, motioning Brown, the runner, over, telling him to do just that, calling out, “Go,” as soon as the
ball was tossed into the air. Emanuel stroked it toward the outfield. Leroy Bennett charged over from center, scooping up the ball as Brown was rounding
second. The players rotated. Jesse told his catcher, George Ankum, to call the throw.
Brown was out by five paces.
“Howard,” Coach Norwood called to Brooks in right, who hadn’t moved much, “What if that ball gets by Leroy?”
“I’ve got to back him up, Mr. Norwood,” the answer came. Howard nodding understanding, rehearsing his steps, trotted to his right to show
“That’s right,” Jesse said, returning behind the screen, repeating, “Everybody’s got a job,” taking up his
seat on the pew once again. “Let’s play ball.”
“Everybody’s got a job,” May says.
“You just got to be in the right place,” Madison adds, these men freely repeating the maxims called out to them over and over throughout the
hours upon hours spent on the ball field. There’s a wistfulness that creeps into their voices from time to time, a sense that even with the memories
of Mr. Jesse’s method, and his messages, even the approximate sound of his voice, which many of them can believably replicate, it’s
the man they miss, who they wish, thirty-some years after his death, could be in that room with them, could witness this moment.
To the parents and neighbors and friends watching those drills, sitting in their chairs, fanning themselves against the Alabama summer heat with postcards
or change purses, porkpie hats, anything, they could see the team, their preteen boys, most of them still awkward in their adolescence, arms and legs
akimbo when they tried to move through the scripted paces, gel into a cohesive and unified unit right before their eyes.
The pews, two each set up along either flank of home plate, had come from an old church recently torn down. Mr. Jesse bought the pews and all the
salvageable timber from the wood-frame building for a hundred dollars. With the planking, he built a clubhouse for the team behind his residence at 1609
Bullshead. Here the boys came every Saturday night for team meetings, to discuss the week’s progress, the next day’s lineups, their assignments
for the coming week. They studied baseball and more. The hour-long meetings were, the Candyman says, “fifteen minutes of baseball and forty-five
minutes of life.”
Jesse Norwood, with less than a sixth-grade education, who’d never played organized sports himself, learned what he did of baseball, and most
everything else, from books. And he imparted both his knowledge and his methodology to his team. He encouraged the boys to read and study, prodding their
young minds even as he was molding their baseball skills, changing their lives. He was a second father to some, and the only father figure in the lives of
many of them, including Ellis May.
“He was the only father I ever knew,” Candyman says. His father had left when Ellis was still a baby. His mother worked as a domestic in
Mobile. The only pair of shoes Ellis owned before he became a Mohawk was cast off from the white family his mother worked for, the soles wired on, with
cardboard lasts. “The only father.”
Madison puts it more directly: “I wouldn’t be alive today if not for Mr. Jesse Norwood.”
Then Emanuel ups the ante some more. “Jesse Norwood was God.” A man of the cloth himself, Emanuel doesn’t make such statements lightly.
There’s an awkward silence in the room, until Candyman says, “Dead red, Reverend Emanuel, dead red,” which brings a smile to their faces
and breaks the trance.
May turns around in his seat and reaches to clasp Emanuel’s hand. “But first,” he says, steering the discussion back to baseball,
“we changed the name of the team.”
From a book first published in 1851, called League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, Mr. Jesse learned about the Mohawks. He was first struck
by the loose translation of the name Iroquois, “people of the longhouse,” which, from the pictures, looked a lot like one of the
shotgun houses along Bullshead Avenue and throughout Prichard. He learned that the longhouses were ceremonial buildings as well as communal dwellings, that
the Mohawks, already a sovereign people for several hundred years, taught the earliest European settlers how to survive America’s northern climate.
He learned that, as one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Mohawks practiced one of the world’s first true democracies, that Thomas
Jefferson studied the values and beliefs of the Iroquois, and it was their political system that became the model for the original thirteen colonies.
It was the same model Jesse Norwood employed one Saturday evening in the summer of 1954 when he suggested the name change and offered it to the floor of
their clubhouse for a vote. The decision was unanimous, and the former Bullshead Giants became the Prichard Mohawks.