When we first became aware of Herbert Harold Simpson it was too late. What caught our attention was his picture that accompanied an obituary notice in the Jan. 14, 2015 issue of The New Orleans Advocate. The photo was of an elderly man with a kindly looking face. He was dressed in a baseball uniform and holding a bat as though waiting for a pitch.
Simpson’s playing days were no doubt long gone by the time that the undated picture was taken. According to the article, Simpson, a native of Hahnville, Louisiana, was the “last known survivor of the Seattle Steelheads Negro League Baseball Team.” His playing career, all in the “Negro Leagues,” as they were called back then, spanned 30 years. According to Baseball Reference.com, his last season was in 1954 with the Albuquerque Dukes when his batting average was a respectable .296. “Handedness” is most relevant when speaking of baseball. Simpson was a lefty, both hitting and throwing.
Of all the numbers associated with a black baseball player, the most relevant is 1947. That was the year that Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first of his race to make it to the big time. That opened opportunities for the guys of the Negro Leagues, but there was hardly a groundswell. The game became integrated, but the changes came slowly. Not until ’59 did the Boston Red Sox sign their first black ball player, an infielder named Pumpsie Green.
We will never know if Simpson could have made it to the big leagues. He and Robinson were contemporaries, being born in 1919 and ’20 respectively, but the black players too often played in obscurity.
Baseball is sometime criticized for taking too long to integrate at the highest level, but the game was no more than a reflection of America and its attitude. Plus, for the previous years the nation had been preoccupied with a world war. According to his obituary, Simpson was a veteran of that war, adding to the long list of young men whose peak playing years were spent near battlefields.
Baseball would undergo many chances in the years ahead. Black Americans would provide some of the games biggest names, including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. By the 1970s, whenever pitcher Dock Ellis took the mound the Pittsburgh Pirates’ staring lineup would sometimes be all black.
In modern times the game has become whiter, not by policy but by circumstance. Black ball players tend to come most often from Latin America. American-born black males have been drawn more to basketball, which can be played on practically every urban street corner, or football, where the schools in effect act as a developmental system.
Still the game is gifted for having people such as Herbert Harold Simpson as part of its legacy. He, too, faced life’s curveball, but knew that, with persistence and skill, sometimes you can hit them back.