An elderly minister in long purple robes climbed the steps to the pulpit. “God always has a plan and purpose in each of us’ lives,” said the Reverend William H. Gleason in a slow, gentle voice. Affirmative voices of “Amen!” could be heard from the congregation. And then, “Okay!”
For more than 50 years at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Gleason has been a constant presence in the lives of his congregation. He officiated their weddings, baptized their children, and lifted their spirits through their loss. His parishioners say his influence was extraordinary.
But long before he became a preacher, Gleason lived a very different life. In his dark and silent study in the Bethel Baptist hallway, on a shelf jam-packed with old theology books, is the 1948 pennant celebration of the Birmingham Black Barons of baseball’s black league. photo is placed. Young Gleason shines in the center.
Gleason, 98, is one of baseball’s “forgotten heroes,” according to the Negro League Baseball Research Center. 75 years ago, he shut out the Kansas City Monarchs in the Black American League Championship Series, then scored the only win for the Black Barons in the final game of the Black World Series, which the Black Barons lost to the Homestead Grays. rice field.
Back then, Gleason was a limp right-hander, whose top-notch fastball and devastating curve was once played by Satchel Page, Josh Gibson, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Babe Ruth.
Now he’s the oldest living player to speak of the black league’s heyday, but the black league was finally recognized as a major league in 2020, decades after it disappeared.
At a church on a recent afternoon, Gleason, who was also the St. Louis Cardinals’ first black pitcher, spoke about his playing days, how he became a pastor, and why he stopped watching baseball.
But as Greason’s story shows, the love of gaming doesn’t die so easily.
Born into a poor family in segregated Atlanta, Gleason learned to pitch in the early 1930s by imitating older ball players in the sandbox. In his teens he played semi-professional baseball for the Pencil Factory team. He liked to use his wit and talent to trick hitters, he said.
In 1943, as World War II raged, Gleason was drafted. He served at Monford Point, a quarantine camp in North Carolina, where he was one of the first black Marines. He served on Iwo Jima, witnessed the deaths of many of his fellow Marines, and was a witness to the raising of the flag made famous by a photograph by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.
Convinced that he too would die on the island, Gleason promised to do whatever God asked of him if he survived.
After the war, Gleason returned to baseball. He quickly made it through the black minor leagues and was bought out by the Black Barons in the spring of 1948.
The Black Barons were loved in Birmingham, a deeply isolated manufacturing city in the southern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Joining a roster of talented veterans, the 23-year-old Gleason started in his first three games. The newspaper called him “The Wiz Kid”.
Between pitching in front of festive crowds at Rickwood Field and taking the bus across Jim Crow South and beyond, the quiet and reserved Gleason became “like a brother” with his teammates, he said. said.
One of his teammates was Willie Mays, a 17-year-old center fielder still finding his way in the game.
Gleason “seemed to understand me very well,” Mays wrote years later. “He was always on the lookout to help me in any way he could without paying attention to what he was doing. He respected me and helped me grow.” I did.”
The Black Barons won the Negro American League in 1948, defeating the Monarchs in the league championship series. Gleason had pitched brilliantly throughout the series, and when manager Lorenzo Davis, better known as Piper, needed someone to close out the game, he knew where to turn.
“Give me the ball,” Gleason said before pitching a three-hitter complete game victory.
The Black Barons’ fortunes ran out in the last Negro World Series of its kind, with the Grays winning five games.
With consolidation moving most of the black league’s best players to the American and National Leagues, Gleason’s goal was to join them. It wasn’t until 1952 that Gleason made a name for himself in Oklahoma City’s AA division, but according to the Pittsburgh Courier, hitters “getted dizzy trying to hit his assortment of pitches,” and Gleason became a Yankee. and became a target for the Red Sox. Until then, he used black players.
Oklahoma City refused to let Gleason go and held on to him until St. Louis acquired him in late 1953.
He finally made his Cardinals debut on Memorial Day 1954 at Wrigley Field in Chicago at the age of 29. With the wind howling toward the outfield, he hit three homers to left field in three innings. He made two other short appearances before being relegated. That would be his last chance in the major leagues.
He continued to play in the senior minors, starring in the Santurce Cangrejeros of Puerto Rico’s Winter League. Santurce’s teammates included Mays and future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.
On the phone, Cepeda vividly recalled Gleason, who was as strong at bat as he was in pitching, hitting “the longest home run I’ve ever seen in Puerto Rico.”
life after baseball
After completing his professional career with Class AAA Rochester in 1959, Gleason returned to Birmingham and drove a delivery truck for a department store.
He and his wife, Willie, met while serving and attended 16th Street Baptist Church. On a dreaded Sunday in 1963, Gleason was out playing semi-professional baseball when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed a church, killing four girls.
Then one Sunday, Gleason recalled: “Suddenly the Lord spoke to me from within. He said, ‘It’s about time’.”
Gleason kept his promise on Iwo Jima, studied for the ministry, and began preaching at 16th Street Baptist Church. His sermons taught “human rights, the rights of the people and the word of God,” recalled Sherry Stewart, then a disc jockey and “the radio spokesperson for the Birmingham civil rights movement”.
Gleason became the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in 1971. He oversaw a congregation of more than 1,000 members, conducted ceremonies, led Bible classes, preached and counseled. According to Bethel butler Mike Holt, he “brought up an entire generation right up to his childhood.” Baptist.
Decades later, nearly everyone who knew Gleason as a baseball player is dead. His library contained a Negro League encyclopedia, as well as several books. A well-worn paperback titled Baseball’s Forgotten Black Hero — few visible clues linking him to a previous life.
Willie died in 2018 after 65 years of marriage.
He continued preaching even though Gleason’s own health began to deteriorate.
“In his heart, God anointed him as a pastor,” Holt said. “And only God can bring him down.”
Living alone in a small house, Gleason watches TV shows with televangelists and The Kelly Clarkson Show, but not baseball. “It’s not what it used to be,” Griesen said.
Specifically, Gleason complained that modern players wear long pants and batting gloves. It was the same tone he used when describing the church’s contemporary music and young, impassioned guest preachers.
Did he know about the pitch clock? “I worked early,” he replied.
At that point, Gleason’s eyes lit up with memories.
“Before the game,” he said, “I would go through the entire lineup and ask myself, ‘How are you going to pitch?’ I knew I had to.”
Gleason smiled and said he was feeling confident and good, remembering a packed Rickwood Field on pitch day. “He believed he could rescue anyone,” he said.
Gleason said he has been in contact with Mays and said he is the greatest player of all time, better than Ruth and Hank Aaron because Mays can do it all.
Bethel Baptist Trustee Tom Craig said Mr. Gleason has been talking more about old baseball from the pulpit in recent years.
As Gleeson approaches his 99th birthday in the fall, the two missions in his life — baseball and the gospel — are intersecting more than ever.
On a bright Sunday morning, about 50 parishioners gathered in the high-ceilinged sanctuary of Bethel Baptist.
“God didn’t give you the ability to throw a baseball like he did me,” Gleason announced, standing in front of them in black-rimmed glasses, to organ music. There is nothing! Participants enthusiastically nodded and shouted, “Amen!”
Gleason returned to his study after his service. He stowed his robe in his closet and hung his Black Barons jersey on several hooks.
Other relics may also be found nearby. On the shelf in the cherry tree hut were mitts and framed photographs of Gleason’s career.
On his desk was a glass-encased baseball with a Bible verse written on it, John 3:16, which promises believers eternal life.