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Baseball Veterans Paved the Way for Young Negro League Stars

Hank Aaron, Oscar Charleston among those whose footsteps Pedro Sierra followed
Pedro Sierra (far left) began his baseball career at 16 years old with the Indianapolis Clowns. (Photo from Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.)
February 24, 2021

Pedro Sierra’s story of a 22-year baseball career that began in the Negro National League is one of a promise kept. But it’s also filled with anecdotes of Black athletes, some who helped pave his journey and others he idolized.

Pedro Sierra’s story of a 22-year baseball career that began in the Negro National League is one of a promise kept. But it’s also filled with anecdotes of Black athletes, some who helped pave his journey and others he idolized.

“I’m so proud to be part of the [Negro Leagues] legacy,” Sierra said. “I rode the shoulders of those people, from Oscar Charleston to Satchel Paige.”

Before a 16-year-old Sierra moved north to play for the Charleston-led Indianapolis Clowns in 1954, his first stop in the world of organized baseball, he took his talents to a sandlot field 20-some blocks away from his neighborhood of Lawton, near Havana, Cuba.

He grew up around a number of professional baseball players, most of whom played in both the Negro Leagues and the Canadian Provincial League. His father was a boxer, and he knew from a young age that wasn’t the path his career in sports would follow.

Negro Leagues pitcher Isidro Fabré and the first of two Cuban-born athletes to play in the majors, third baseman Rafael Almeida, were regular figures in his early life.

Almeida, with his mind and heart still attached to the baseball world, came around to Sierra’s father’s workplace every other Sunday. With a certain style about him – Sierra described him as “debonaire” – his two cents on baseball and MLB’s whites-only status in the 1940s was often a topic of conversation.

And then, in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

“It was a big thing. [Almeida] came around to my dad and said, ‘I told you that would happen!’” Sierra recalled, after the former Cincinnati Red had said repeatedly that Black ballplayers were good enough to play in the major leagues.

Almeida got his time in the major leagues in the early 1900s due to the perception of his family’s wealthy status in Cuba at the time, according to his Society for American Baseball Research biography. For those who hadn’t yet had their shot in Major League Baseball due to their skin color, the meaning of Jackie Robinson’s debut remains prominent today.

“In essence, those of us of color, who had kids of color, other guys who had played in Canada, had the opportunity… to play organized baseball, as we called it at the time, meaning that we were going through a farm system,” Sierra said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’m thankful not only to Jackie and those who came before him, but to… Branch Rickey, who [was daring enough] to say, ‘I’m going to bring a Black player in here.’”

At the sandlot field where he would walk those 20-something blocks to with other kids from his neighborhood, Sierra met even more former Negro Leaguers. Every Tuesday and Thursday they would play a pick-up game: the brides – those who didn’t have Negro League or Canadian baseball experience – vs. the grooms.

As his skills developed on that field through his teenage years, becoming a baseball player instead of following in his father’s boxing footsteps became a real possibility for Sierra.

“I promised my mom that I was going to be a baseball player, and she passed before that happened,” Sierra said. “I wasn’t going to play anymore, and my dad said, ‘It’s a promise you made to your mom.’”

So, he played. He was referred to a local man near the main baseball field in Havana that had connections to sign players with Negro League teams, and in 1954 made the near 1,200-mile journey from Cuba to Indianapolis.

As an Indianapolis Clown and wearing the uniform that the great Hank Aaron had worn two years before, Sierra received more guidance that helped pave the way for his career in baseball.

Enter Charleston, who today is widely considered the icon of Negro League baseball in Indianapolis.

“Everybody knew [Charleston] because he had played baseball in Cuba,” Sierra said. “He was very impactful because it was a nurturing feeling that we young rookies – if you want to call it that – the older guys were always making sure that we didn’t do anything wrong.

“But the one thing that I remember a lot is that when he came to the mound to talk to me. Knowing a little broken Spanish, he would say, ‘Chico, hombre no gusta curva’ – the guy doesn’t like the curveball.”

Now out of Cuba and off the sandlot, Sierra was in unfamiliar and sometimes rocky territory. His Negro League career was beginning during the dawn of the modern civil rights movement with the decision of Brown v. Board of Education and just one year before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.

Sierra’s ability to speak English aided him greatly in the move from Cuba to the United States, but his Spanish is what helped him avoid serious conflict when confronted about race.

“I knew English, but I wasn’t familiar with the N-word,” Sierra said. “When they started saying all the insults and all that… I’d say to them, ‘No hablo inglés’ [I don’t speak English] and they’d say, ‘What the heck is he talking about?’

“It wasn’t easy because when I went back home and I shared those experiences… in Cuba there was prejudice and racism, but my dad called it ‘deaf-mute.’ You don’t hear about it, you don’t talk about it – not until you experience that harsh thing, and then what do you want to do? I wanted to play ball.”

That’s one of the many ways the older, more experienced players and team personnel came into play in making sure Sierra and the rookies were on the right path. Having been through it before, talking about it helped guide Sierra through those times.

“[They said], ‘You have to ignore it and show them that you can play this game,’” Sierra said. “With that in mind, there was a drive that I [was going] to show these people that I can play. Other players used to say through the years… the Negro Leagues was the major leagues. The desire [was] just to show that we belong and that we could play this game as well or better than anyone else.”

After one year with the Indianapolis Clowns, Sierra’s career took him to the Detroit Stars and finally onto the minor leagues with the Washington Senators. The Vietnam War, however, derailed that dream in 1959 – the same year he signed with Washington.

When he returned to baseball from his Army duties, he latched back on with the Senators organization, which relocated to Minnesota as the Twins in 1961. He then found his way back to Washington D.C. with the expansion-team Senators in 1970 – two years before they relocated and became the Texas Rangers. After three seasons in the Canadian Provincial League and four seasons in the Mexican League, his career as a professional baseball player came to an end.

His association with the Negro Leagues didn’t stop then, however, and neither did his connections with those who played.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) Legacy 2000 Players’ Reunion and Awards Banquet was where he first met Hank Aaron. Sierra introduced himself and mentioned the Clowns were something the two had in common, just two years apart, and the exchange sparked a camaraderie between them.

“Years later, many years after my baseball career and coaching career was over, I was doing signings with the MLB All-Star Game Fan Fest,” Sierra said. “I think it might have been 2014 in Minnesota, I ran into him. I said to him, ‘Hey Mr. Clown,’ and he said, ‘Hey Clown.’

“So then on, a few of the times we ran into each other… it was, ‘Hey Mr. Clown,’ ‘Hey Clown.’”

From the connections he made playing baseball on that sandlot in Cuba, from Charleston to Aaron and all those that came in between, the Negro Leagues were family to Sierra. Hundreds of miles away from home, being part of something special with a group he could depend on to lead him in the right direction is something he remembers fondly.

And now, 101 years after the Negro National League was established, the NLBM stands to remind people all it did for baseball and the history it holds, and that’s something Sierra is thankful for.

“The Negro Leagues, in my opinion, were the most important chapter of baseball in the United States because of what transcended after the barrier was broken and what transcended for not only Black Americans, but Black Latinos and players from all over the world of Black skin,” he said. “That was the opening because the Negro Leagues made that impact.”