“Discover Greatness,” has been the theme for the traveling exhibit of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., for the past 20 years that has showcased the history of African-Americans in baseball. An increasingly rare opportunity to witness one of the legends who played in the Negro Leagues tell their story live and in-person came to Mt. Calvary Baptist Church on Saturday in Mullica Hill, N.J. Eighty-eight-year-old Rev. William “Bill” Greason, former pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons and St. Louis Cardinals, delivered an impressive sermon for their “Take the Mystery out of Black History,” event in which baseball, race, and spirituality were effortlessly intertwined.
Greason, a Montford Point Marine who served in World War II, has been the pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., for more than 30 thirty years. He found his calling during his time in the military.
“In February 1945 on a little island called Iwo Jima, people were dying all around me. I took a little bible with me,” he said. “Two of my best friends were killed on that island. I prayed and I said, ‘Lord, if you get me off this island, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.’ It’s strange. A calling is strange. It’s a burden on you. You can’t shake it if you’re really called, no matter what you do or where you go. That’s what happened to me. I just threw up my hands and said, ‘Here I am, use me.’”
He delayed his start in the ministry to pursue a career in baseball upon his return from World War II. His started in the Negro Leagues in 1947, when he was picked up from the sandlots of Atlanta, Ga.
“In 1947, the Nashville Black Vols heard about me and invited me to come and start to play with them. I played pretty good, I won 12 games and lost four,” he said. Within a year, his fine pitching caught the interest of the Birmingham Black Barons. “In spring training, I was in Asheville, North Carolina, and the Black Barons came through. Our pitcher started against them and they bombed him. They put me in and I shut them out for seven innings. That was on a Monday night; Saturday morning, I was in Birmingham. I don’t know how they got me, they bought me or whatever, but in 1948 I was with the Barons.”
His expertise on the mound helped guide the Black Barons to the final Negro World Series. They squared off against the Homestead Grays who were led by future Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard. Greason’s team fell to the mighty Grays, but did win the only game for the Black Barons in the 1948 series.
“To have an opportunity to pitch in that environment, it was something exceptional.”
On that club, patrolling center field was a 17-year-old budding superstar in Willie Mays. Greason became close with the teenage sensation.
“Piper [Davis] brought him in and we became roommates on the road. We’re still good friends,” he said. “He was the greatest young player [I ever saw]. He had unusual gifts. He could catch it and throw it; he did it all. He was what they called a phenom. I knew he was going to do well as a ballplayer, and he did.”
Their friendship has persisted more than 65 years.
“Willie and I are real close now. I’ve been going to his birthday parties for the last five-to-six years. I said to him, ‘I’ve gotta have proof that I’ve been here.’ I’ve got about three of those San Francisco jackets, balls, and shirts.”
He later made his way into the minor leagues by way of Mexico after serving with the Marines during the Korean War. He was signed in 1952 by the Oklahoma City Redbirds of the Texas League, where he was second black player in the history of the league. Greason shared how he converted even the toughest of fans with his artistry on the mound.
“I had one in Beaumont, a lady. Boy! It looked like every time we played in Beaumont, it was my time to pitch and she’d sit right behind our dugout,” he said. “The more she talked, the stronger I became. It was just a challenge. If you know who you are, you don’t worry about what people say. They call you all kinds of names and say whatever they want to, but you have to stay focused. That’s what happened and I kept my mind on whatever I had to do. After the season was over, she came to me and said, ‘Bill, I tried to get you, but you did well. I’m proud of you.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’”
He compiled a record of 25-14 during his two seasons in Oklahoma City, prompting the Cardinals to trade for his services just prior to the 1954 season. Greason was called up to the Cardinals in May of that year. Not only did he take a pay cut from his salary in the minor leagues to go to the majors, but he was used sparingly by manager Eddie Stanky. He appeared in only three games during the month he was with the club. He was given a short rope on the mound by the ill-tempered Stanky.
“He came out to the mound. I’m out there trying to get the ball over the ball over the plate and he walked right up in front of me. ‘Get the damn ball over the plate!’ I said, “What in the hell do you think I’m trying to do? Do you think I’ve got a string on this damn ball?’ He turned and left. I knew I wouldn’t be there long.”
Despite his short career in the major leagues, Greason beamed with pride this weekend to be able to uphold the traditions of the Negro Leagues.
“A lot of our young people don’t know anything about the Negro Leagues. … It had a great influence on our people, baseball; this was all we had in Birmingham. On Sundays, after the game, people would leave worship service, come to the ballpark dressed like I am right now and this was all that we had at that time. Baseball was very important to a lot of people and they loved the ballplayers. And we did our best to be respectful, treat people nice and help people where we could.”
His focus now with whatever time he has left is to foster a deeper sense of connectedness with the younger generation.
“Baseball had its time. The Marines had its time. I’m trying to help young people. I’m at a Bible college trying to help young ministers to really take the calling seriously and not worry about the money. It’s about people. If we can get God in the hearts of people, we could change things. If not, it’s going to remain the same.”