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Charles: 'Blacks had to be twice as good'
02/01/2006 10:20 AM ET
It was 1952, five years after Jackie Robinson made history by breaking baseball's color barrier. That year Ed Charles, a self-proclaimed disciple of Robinson, entered the Minor Leagues as a 19-year-old. Signed by the Boston Braves straight out of high school, Charles played professional baseball during one of the nation's most turbulent eras. Over nine years, he played for four Minor League teams in the South, where racism remained prevalent.

"You couldn't be on par with white players, you had to be better," said Charles. "In high school, I was drilled with the idea that blacks had to be twice as good as whites in anything if they wanted to make it anywhere."

Charles took that mind-set to places like Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Louisville, Ky., Jacksonville and Corpus Christi, Texas, where he and his black teammates experienced the same discrimination on and off the field. He calls himself a Robinson disciple because he was one of the players who helped integrate baseball in the South.

There were no Major League teams located south of St. Louis at the time, but most farm teams were sprinkled through the Southern United States.

"Jackie would be down there for Spring Training, but then he'd go back to New York, where things may not have been as bad. We had no choice, we had to stay and bear the racism," Charles recalled.

Playing at a time when he couldn't eat in the same restaurants as his white teammates or stay in the same hotels, Charles said he developed a thick skin. He watched as countless talented black players left because the harsh reality of segregation was too much to handle.

Charles regrets those players not being able to live out their dreams due to the color of their skin and said even though they left, the psychological damage lasted much longer. For "The Glider," his most vivid memory involves playing in the Southern Atlantic League for Jacksonville. During a game in Knoxville, Tenn., Charles endured continuous verbal abuse from a particular white fan seated right above the dugout.

"His voice was the kind you could hear all over the park, just loud and booming," Charles said. "He called me every derogatory name in the book, all game long."

Ignoring the distraction, Charles went on to have one of his finest Minor League games. After the final out, he walked toward the clubhouse and saw the man waiting for him. Wondering what insult he'd be subjected to this time, Charles swallowed his anger and told himself not to strike back because it would be the end of his career as he knew it. As he approached the gate, however, the man stuck his hand out and told Charles he was one heck of a ballplayer. His statement came after he addressed Charles using a racial epithet.

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Those words both haunt and encourage Charles to this day. He saw the man come a long way in trying to acknowledge a black man's equality on the baseball field. But he also saw deep-rooted racial hatred.

Like many black players at the time, Charles later found himself questioning whether he had made the right decision by entering baseball. His own breaking point came in 1957, when he watched one of his teammates take unacceptable abuse.

Juan Pizarro was a Puerto Rican left-handed pitcher. One day, Pizarro's leg was bothering him and he told his coaches he did not want to run during practice. Charles listened as one coach told Pizarro, "If you don't want to run, then go back to Africa."

Charles called Milwaukee -- where the Braves had relocated -- and expressed his concern that such treatment was not expected from management. The same day, Pizarro was promoted to the Majors; Charles stayed put.

"I called my grandfather, he could sense how upset I was, and I told him I wanted to come home," said Charles. "He told me to sleep on it and call him in the morning if I felt the same way."

Charles couldn't sleep at all that night. He kept reminding himself that Robinson had to take a lot and he couldn't go home a failure. That was the night, Charles said, that his Baptist minister grandfather saved his career.

A few years later, Charles found his emotional outlet through poetry. In high school, he was fascinated by the poetic form. The way words were arranged gave them more profound meaning, and Charles fell in love with the medium. He could not indulge his love for poetry because the focus was on baseball. But in 1960, while playing winter ball in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Charles found himself in an alien culture to which he could not relate, so he turned to writing.

Charles read books, newspapers, magazines, anything that could help him understand the written form. One of his biggest goals was to write a legible meaningful poem. In 1962, his first year in the Major Leagues with the Kansas City Athletics, Charles accomplished that goal. Fans nicknamed him "The Poet" and assured him he could touch people through his writing.

Charles concluded his career with a World Series championship as a member of the 1969 New York Mets.

"I'm proud of the era I played in, I got to play against some of the game's greats," he said. "It made me stronger, smarter, and even though it was one of the worst times in our history, I wouldn't change a thing." Charles continues to write poems about anything that moves or inspires him, including his early playing days.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.