Baseball’s early black players faced injustice, humiliation and now a curious … – Los Angeles Times

The project called for patience, perspective and, perhaps most of all, a deep love of baseball. The last part was what made Neftalie Williams’ presence here, next to a baseball complex in Compton, so peculiar.

Williams was there to interview Don Buford, subject No. 5 out of 111 in a quixotic mission: Over the next few years, it’s Williams’ job to interview, record and catalog every living African American player from the turbulent first 25 years of Major League Baseball’s racial integration, from 1947 to 1971.

Already, Williams and Daniel Durbin, the USC professor who created the project, have heard about old injustice and lasting humiliation. Many of the stories had never been told before. Others won’t be told until later, having been tucked away into a “dead file,” which, Durbin explained, consists of stories the researchers have been told “you can only release after I’m dead.”

Many of the recollections are serious in nature, but others are about clubhouse characters, the greatness of Willie Mays and theories on the running game.

You would think it was a job for a baseball fanatic. Except until very recently, Williams admitted, he had never heard of Buford or many of his contemporaries.

When Williams started, Durbin said, “he had no background in baseball whatsoever.”

But what the USC graduate student did have was an academic background, voracious curiosity and gushing enthusiasm.

Williams grew up not with a glove but with a skateboard, and he typically zips around on his longboard, dreadlocks flapping in the breeze. This semester, he is teaching a class at USC that’s likely the first of its kind — on skateboarding and diplomacy.

He has long known about ollies — a boarding trick — but knew nothing of “Downtown” Ollie Brown, who played for six major league teams in the 1960s and ’70s and who was interviewed not long before he died in April of this year.

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