An elderly pastor, dressed in a long purple robe, walked up the steps to the pulpit. “God has always had a plan and purpose for each of us in life,” says Rev. said William H. Grison in a slow, gentle voice. From the benches came the affirmations “Amen!” and good!”
For more than 50 years at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Grison has been a constant presence in the lives of his parishioners. He performed their weddings, baptized their children, and lifted their spirits after their loss. His parishioners say his influence has been extraordinary.
However, long before he became a preacher, Grison had a completely different life. In his dark, quiet office further down the hallway at Bethel Baptist, on a shelf cluttered with old theological books, is a photograph of a 1948 pennant celebration in honor of the Birmingham black barons of baseball’s Negro leagues. The young Grison shines in the center.
Grison, 98, is one of baseball’s “forgotten heroes” according to the Negro League Baseball Research Center. Seventy-five years ago, he shut out the Kansas City Monarchs in the American Negro League Championship Series and then earned the Black Barons’ only victory in the final Negro World Series, which the Black Barons lost to the Homestead Grays.
At the time, Greeson was a lanky right-handed pitcher whose top-notch fastball and crushing curve dazzled the crowds at Rickwood Field, Birmingham’s glamorous stadium where the greats of the first half of the 20th century played, including Satchel Page, Josh Gibson. Barefoot Joe Jackson and Babe Ruth once played.
Today, he is the oldest living player who can tell the tales of the rise of the Negro leagues, which are finally recognized as major league in 2020, many decades after their passing.
On a recent afternoon at his church, Grison, who was also the first black pitcher at the St. Louis Cardinals talks about his playing days, how he became a minister and why he doesn’t watch baseball anymore.
But, as Grison’s story shows, the love of the game is not so easily extinguished.
Born into poverty in segregated Atlanta, Grison learned to pitch in the early 1930s by emulating older baseball players on the sand courts. As a teenager, he played semi-professional baseball for the Pencil Factory team. According to him, he liked to use his wits and talent to fool hitters.
In 1943, as World War II raged, Grison was called up for service. He showed up at Montford Point, an isolated camp in North Carolina, becoming one of the first black Marines. He served on Iwo Jima, where he saw many of his fellow Marines die, and witnessed the hoisting of the flag, made famous by the photo of Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.
Convinced that he, too, would perish on the island, Grison promised to do whatever God asked of him if he survived.
After the war, Grison returned to baseball. He moved quickly through the Negro minor leagues, and in the spring of 1948 his contract was bought by the Black Barons.
Black barons were loved in Birmingham, a deeply isolated manufacturing city in the southern foothills of the Appalachians. Joining a talented veteran roster, the 23-year-old Grison won his first three starts. The newspaper called him “Wunderkind”.
He spoke to the celebratory crowd at Rickwood Field, he says, and on bus rides in Jim Crow South and beyond, the quiet, unassuming Grison became “like brothers” with his teammates.
One teammate was a 17-year-old center fielder who was still finding his way into the game: Willie Mays.
Grison “seemed to understand me quite well,” Mace wrote years later. “He was always careful to help me whenever he could without drawing attention to what he was doing. He respected me and, in turn, helped me grow up.”
The Black Barons dominated the Negro American League in 1948 and led the Monarchs in the league championship series. Grison has performed brilliantly throughout the series and when manager Lorenzo Davis, known as Piper, needed someone to shut him down, he knew who to turn to.
“Give me that damn ball,” Grison said before dropping three hitters in the entire game.
The Black Barons’ luck ran out in the Negro World Series – the last of its kind – the Grays won in five games.
Since the integration brought most of the best Negro league players into the American and National Leagues, Grison made it his goal to join them. It took him until 1952 to catch on in Class AA Oklahoma City, but according to The Pittsburgh Courier, with batsmen “dizzy trying to hit his set of fields,” Greeson was targeted by the Yankees and Red Sox. has fielded a black player by this point.
Oklahoma City refused to give up Grison, holding on to him until the end of 1953 when St. Petersburg. Louis bought it.
He finally made his debut for the Cardinals at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Memorial Day 1954, when he was 29 years old. With the wind blowing into the outfield, he gave up three home runs to left field in three innings. He made two more short appearances before being demoted. This will be his last chance in the big leagues.
He continued to play in his junior year and played for the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rico Winter League. His Santurce teammates included Mays and future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.
On the phone, Cepeda vividly recalled Grison, who wielded power at the plate in addition to his exploits, hitting “the longest home run I’ve ever seen in Puerto Rico.”
Life after baseball
After completing his professional career in 1959 in the AAA Rochester class, Grison returned to Birmingham and became a department store delivery truck driver.
He and his wife, Willie, whom he met while playing, attended the 16th Street Baptist Church. On that terrible Sunday in 1963, when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four girls, Grison was out playing semi-professional baseball.
One Sunday, Grison recalled, “suddenly the Lord spoke to me from within. He said, “It’s time.”
Grison, fulfilling the promise he had made on Iwo Jima, began to prepare for the ministry and preach at the 16th Street Baptist Church. His sermons taught “the rights of man – the rights of the people and the word of God,” recalled Shelley Stewart, then a disc jockey who was called “the radio voice of the Birmingham civil rights movement.”
Grison became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in 1971. Overseeing a congregation of more than 1,000 members, Grison conducted ceremonies, taught Bible lessons, preached and counseled—”raising a whole generation through childhood,” according to Mike Holt, a Bethel deacon. , Baptist.
Almost everyone who knew Greeson as a baseball player has died in the intervening decades. In addition to a few books in his office, there is an encyclopedia of Negro leagues; a shabby paperback titled The Forgotten Black Heroes of Baseball – few visible clues link him to his former life.
In 2018, after 65 years of marriage, Willy also died.
Even as Grison’s own health began to fail, he continued to preach.
“In his mind, God has anointed him as a shepherd,” Holt said, “and only God can remove him.”
In the small house where he lives alone, Grison watches televangelism and The Kelly Clarkson Show, but not baseball. “It’s not what it used to be,” Grison said.
In particular, Grison said with disapproval, modern players wear long pants and gloves. It was the same tone he uses to describe contemporary church music or young and fiery guest preachers.
Did he know about filing hours? “I worked fast,” he replied.
At that moment, Grison’s eyes flashed with memory.
“Before the games,” he said, “I would go through the entire squad and ask myself, ‘How are you going to serve them? So when I got on the pitch, I knew what I had to do.”
Smiling, Grison said he remembered the packed Rickwood Field on pitching days—and the good, confident feeling. “I believed I could pull anyone out,” he said.
Grison said that Mays, with whom he kept in touch, was the best player in history – better than Ruth and Hank Aaron – because Mays could do it all.
According to Tom Craig, a trusted administrator at Bethel Baptist, in recent years Greeson has increasingly been telling old baseball stories from the pulpit.
As Greeson turns 99 this fall, the two callings of his life—baseball and the gospel—intersect more than ever.
On a clear Sunday morning, about 50 congregants gathered in the high-ceilinged Bethel Baptist sanctuary.
“God didn’t give you the ability to throw a baseball like I did,” announced a Grison standing in front of them in dark-rimmed glasses, to the sounds of an organ, “and he gave you a gift that I cannot do. with nothing!” The congregation nodded passionately and shouted “Amen!”
Grison went to study after the service. He had put his robes away in the closet, and his Black Barons T-shirt hung on a few hooks away from him.
Other artifacts could be seen nearby. There was a glove on the shelf of the cherrywood house, and framed photographs of Grison when he played.
And in the glass on his desk: a baseball with “John 3:16,” a Bible verse promising believers eternal life, written on its surface.