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02/21/2006 11:24 AM ET
Charley Pride: Country music's Jackie Robinson?
Instead of following his idol's trail, he blazed his own
Pride (second from left) was the Memphis Red Sox's youngest player when he joined the team in the early 1950s. (Charley Pride)

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Charley Pride is the Jackie Robinson of country music. It's an obvious analogy.

Each overcame unspeakable odds and racial injustice to become the first African American to ply his trade in an otherwise white world. Each navigated a sociopolitical minefield with the exact balance of grace and determination necessary to attain his goal. And each, as a result, became the first black inductee into his profession's Hall of Fame.

But what does country music's first and only true African-American star think about the comparison?

"It's not that I don't like it," said Pride, who turns 68 in March, "but I see a slight difference.

"Jackie was hand-picked by Branch Rickey to do a job and he had to be a certain temperament, a certain type of person to do it. I didn't have anyone saying 'here's what you're going to do, when you're going to do it, here's what you're going to endure."

Robinson was, in fact, the key chosen to unlock the gates of Major League baseball for the multitude of black players who followed him. Pride, on the other hand, was alone in his pursuit. He was never intended to be, nor did he ever become, a catalyst for other African-Americans to enter the country music world.

Of course, if all had gone according to Pride's original plan, he never would have been called "the Jackie Robinson of country music," because he would have been one of the many following in Robinson's shoes.

The fourth of 11 siblings raised on a sharecropping farm in Sledge, Miss., Pride was a self-proclaimed dreamer. And the dream that stood out above all others was to play professional baseball.

"When I saw Jackie Robinson break in, I knew that was my way out," he said. "I would have left somehow, but that was my way out."

Pride was just a child when Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but he wouldn't have to wait long before baseball would pave his way out of the Mississippi Delta. The precocious -- but not so studious -- teen dropped out of school and headed to Memphis, where his unsuppressible ambition helped land him a spot as a right-handed pitcher and outfielder with the Red Sox of the Negro American League. By the spring of 1953, Pride had signed a contract with the New York Yankees and was sent to their Class C Pioneer League affiliate in Boise, Idaho.

Interrupted by a 14-month stint in the Army, and often derailed by injury and the racial inequity that prevailed even several years after Robinson's breakthrough, Pride twisted through the Negro Leagues and low-level Minor Leagues until 1960. After being cut loose by the Class C Missoula Timberjacks of the Pioneer League that season, he began pursuing a different dream -- one that would define his life to the point of rendering his original aspiration an obscure bit of trivia.

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Despite the fact that he spent a mere three weeks with the Timberjacks, Pride ingrained an impression on those he met, even down to the batboy.

"A lot of it was his personality," said Jeff Herman, who was 16 years old at the time. "He was very affable and outgoing, very social, and didn't have any enemies. His personality was such that he got along with almost everybody."

Among those charmed was Missoula general manager Nick Mariana.

Mariana arranged for Pride -- who was known for toting his guitar around on road trips -- to perform a few songs at the team's preseason banquet. Herman still recalls a rendition of the theme song to the movie "Timberjack" and a stunning version of Hank Williams' "Kaw-liga," which would later become one of Pride's greatest hits.

But Pride's season didn't extend far beyond the Spring Training banquet, as he allowed six runs on eight hits over six innings in a pair of blowout losses while going 2-for-5 at the plate. Upon releasing his infrequently used pitcher, Mariana helped Pride get a job at an East Helena mining company, where he could also play for the town's semi-pro team, the Smelterites.

It was in East Helena where Pride began performing publicly in bars for the first time and was discovered by country stars Red Sovine and Red Foley, who urged the young crooner to take his talent to Nashville. But baseball was still in his blood, and it wasn't until after failed tryouts with the expansion Angels in 1961 and Mets in 1963 that Pride finally followed up on the Reds' suggestion. He chose Nashville when Mets manager Casey Stengel ordered that he be put on a bus to wherever he wanted to go after showing up uninvited to Spring Training in Clearwater, Fla.

While Pride may not have had anyone saying, "Here's what you're going to do, when you're going to do it," his rise to stardom was certainly not absent of Branch Rickey-like characters.

When his bus arrived in Nashville, Pride walked to Cedarwood Publishing, where Sovine had ties. It was there that he met Jack Johnson, who happened to be looking for a black singer to introduce to the country music world. Three songs later, Johnson sent Pride packing again, this time with the promise of a management contract, which was waiting for him upon his return to Montana.

But even with a manager, a black country musician was a tough sell in the South in the 1960s, and for two years no record company was willing to take the risk. Pride remained in Montana, working as a smelter for $6,500 a year, until he finally decided to take matters into his own hands and returned to Nashville, where he met another advocate -- producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement.

"Categorically, it was, you know, a risky business proposition," Clement said from his office in Nashville. "But the climate was loosening up a bit and Charley was such a nice-looking guy, so very personable, and had this kind of Western drawl from living in Montana for a few years -- he was really all right."

One night, after a few cocktails at the Professional Club on Nashville's Music Row, the two Jacks had retreated to Johnson's office across the street so Clement could listen to the tape Pride had recorded at Cedarwood two years earlier.

"He sounded pretty good," said Clement. "The tape wasn't great quality, but I could tell he could sing. And we'd toyed with the idea of finding a black singer and tried with one guy, but he wasn't very good. But with Charley, I said, 'You don't have to teach him nothin -- he's there!'"

Clement and Johnson sent seven songs for their prospect to record and mail back to them. But Pride, tired of waiting, had other ideas. He learned the songs in just a few days and drove to Nashville to perform them in person. Two days later, he was in an RCA studio -- on Clement's dime -- recording Mel Tillis' "Snakes Crawl at Night" and "Atlantic Coastal Line," along with Clement's "Just Between You and Me."

At this point, one advantage Pride had that Robinson did not came into play. Pride could launch his career without being seen by his audience, but Robinson couldn't play baseball without being in front of several thousand fans.

Clement had promised country music legend and rising RCA executive Chet Atkins that he could hear the audition tapes first. Atkins initially turned them down but later had a change of heart.

"I was on the verge of pressing them up myself," recalled Clement. "But I ran into Chet one day at RCA at the Coke machine, and he said, 'What have you done with that colored boy? I've been thinking about that, and we may be passing up the next Elvis Presley.'"

Atkins took the tape to a meeting with RCA executives in Monterey, Calif., and waited until after he'd wowed them with the songs to disclose the color of the singer's skin. Fortunately for Pride, Atkins' word carried a lot of weight, and the RCA brass agreed to sign him -- with a publicity ploy up their sleeve.

"They decided they wouldn't even mention the racial thing," said Clement. "They just sent out the album without any photos or anything and said, 'Here's our artist, we believe in him.' I still marvel that a corporation could have that much sense back then. And it worked; there were just a few of them that took it off the air [when they learned that Pride was black], but they had to put it back on because it was so popular."

Eventually, though, Pride did have to face the public, and the result was much the same as when Robinson won the respect and admiration of fans in Montreal and around the International League during his only Minor League season in 1946. Robinson had to use a getaway car to escape a throng of adoring fans after the final game of the Royals' championship season, leading Sam Maltin of the Pittsburgh Courier to write, "It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind."

Pride's first three songs were already hits on the radio before his audience had ever seen him. When he made his first big appearance in Detroit, the crowd roared as he was introduced, only to die down to a quiet murmur when it finally saw him.

"At his first personal appearance," Clement rhapsodized, "he came out and said, 'Well, now I do have this permanent suntan,' and he had them in the palm of his hand for the rest of the night. You know, the guy was good, period. He had the goods."

Pride recalled that the crowd was screaming for more after 10 minutes. "After the show," he said in his autobiography, Pride, "I went out in front of the stage and stood behind one of those little rope barriers. People pushed and shoved to get autographs and a lot of them wanted to talk."

Like Robinson, once Pride cleared that first big hurdle, he was on his way -- on his way to 70 million albums sold (second in RCA history to only Elvis Presley), 36 No. 1 hits and enshrinement in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

"To say that [Robinson] was my idol would be an understatement," Pride once said. "As far as I was concerned, Jackie Robinson had rewritten the future."

And it was that rewriting of the future that paved the way for Pride to rewrite country music history.

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