At 90 years young, Porter Reed is still quite the ambassador of baseball, be it on the road encouraging black kids to embrace the game or in his living room on Seventh Street with any guest that drops by.
The stories told by the state’s oldest living Negro League player never get old either.
In another week, the Muskogeean will be telling some when his name goes on a wall at a Milwaukee, Wisc., church known as Yesterday’s Negro League Wall of Fame. It’ll be part of a weekend of ceremonies which will also include a Negro Leagues Tribute recognition at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Reed is one of two scheduled to be added to the wall this year. The other? Mamie Johnson, one of three female players to have played in the Negro Leagues (Indianapolis Clowns, 1953-55).
It’s a game that grabbed him by the seat of the pants —literally, one summer day in 1937.
“We had a local team (Muskogee Hustlers) and a picnic going on next to Douglass School,” he said. “We had barbecue and whiskey everywhere and the older guys played ‘til they were drunk and came up short of players.
“My daddy wanted me to get a glove and go out in the field. I told him no. Instead of running away I ran across the field. He caught me about second base and I got the whipping of my life in front of 500 people.”
He “ran a mile” to track down one fly ball, he recalled, much like he did those balls a man named Dick Bonner used to hit over trees and houses while on Sixth Street, paying kids a nickel per catch. “I’d get 25, 30 cents a time, which was pretty good money back then,” he said.
Reed’s prowess became notable. He got out of Manual Training, where he was a star halfback on the 1940 and 1941 state championship teams and at 17, hooked up with a team that made a trip to New Orleans. The coach used him as a pinch-hitter in an exhibition game played during as part of some festivities surrounding a beauty contest in the area.
The pitcher he faced? Satchel Paige.
“Coach looked at me and said, ‘just get up there and take your cuts,’” Reed said. “I went up there scared and the first ball was right under my chin because I saw the catcher stick his glove up there. After that I wasn’t afraid any more.
“The next two balls he threw at me, I didn’t hit them, but just as the coach told me, I took my cuts. I think that got the crowd behind me and I remember it made Satchel mad. The next pitch was a strike down the middle and I bet it was 120 mph.”
He’d catch on with the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League, an equivalent of a Double-A team in the major leagues, playing in 1948. He and a pitcher, Ladd White, were invited to camp with the Leavenworth, Kan., team of the Western Association, a farm team of the Boston Braves.
“Ladd always seemed to have money doing this or that and he told me he got $1,000 signing bonus. They didn’t give me anything. So I went to the office and asked about that. I was told I didn’t get anything because outfielders were a dime a dozen and to top it off, they were only paying me $50 a month. Detroit was giving me $250.
“So I took off to Kansas City and met up with the Houston Eagles who were playing the Monarchs. The man gave me $400 and before we left, some of the Leavenworth boys came up to see us play. They saw me and told me ‘we haven’t released you yet.’ I told them it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going back, not for $50 a month.”
After a season with the Negro American League’s Eagles, Reed played two years in Canada and finished his career in 1953. The last of the Negro League teams shut down by the 1960s.
“The only ones making money after integration were the owners, selling off their top players,” Reed said.
Ultimately, Reed found he made more money selling corn whiskey out of a place he ran of Second Street, a place where some of his playing acquaintances would drop by, whether passing through on barnstorming tours or the like. Games would be played at Athletic Park, home of minor league baseball here from 1905 to 1962 where the Civic Center stands today. He even played with the Monarchs on visits to Muskogee. As a young teen he’d chase down grounders missed by their infielders during a practice.
“I had guys like Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella on my front porch,” he said. “People need to know that Muskogee was not only a stopping place for Negro League teams but a hot bed for players.”
He counted off a dozen or so — William Redus, Robert Dean and Nelson Dean of the St. Louis Stars, Newt Joseph, Henry Williams, Clarence Everett and O.H. Turner of the Kansas City Monarchs, Lloyd Bruce, Joe Sparks, Dan Thomas and Charlie Cornelius of the Chicago American Giants — guys who played from the 1920s on and hailed from here.
Joseph and Redus had perhaps the most impressive resumes — Joseph known as one of the premier third basemen in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and 1930s, hitting .334 and .326 as the Monarchs won back-to-back pennants in 1924 and 1925, and Redus a Negro League All-Star in 1936 and 1937 and a perennial .300 hitter.
The stories are what Dennis Biddle of Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Players Foundation and a member want to preserve.
“Year after year there’s fewer of these players,” he said. “Their stories are part of that untold history.”
Porter Reed will be added to the Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Wall of Fame at the Mother Kathryn Daniels Conference Center at Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ, Milwaukee, on Sunday, July 29.