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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Radcliffe Always Able to Pull Double Duty

June 23, 2002|NANCY ARMOUR | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHICAGO — The long, thick fingers of Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe are bent every which way, battered so thoroughly by his 36 years of catching that they're impossible to straighten.

Yet they still reveal the strength that also made him a dominant pitcher.

"I was the only one who could pitch and catch," said Radcliffe, who turns 100 next month--the oldest living Negro leagues player.

"Damon Runyon said I was the best he'd ever seen."

Born in Mobile, Ala., on July 7, 1902, Ted Radcliffe can't remember a time when he didn't play baseball. Satchel Paige was a boyhood friend, and Radcliffe smiles as he recalls catching the greatest pitcher ever when they were still teenagers.

"He could throw it out of sight," Radcliffe said. "He threw it so hard, he could throw it through a wall."

Radcliffe was pretty good himself. A team in Montgomery tried to recruit him when he was 15 or 16, but his father refused, saying he was too young. But at 17, Radcliffe and his brother, Alex, hopped a freight train to Chicago.

Radcliffe didn't waste any time when he got here, finding a pickup game near old Comiskey Park. He soon caught the eye of the owner of the Illinois Giants, a semipro team.

"He said, 'If I give you $25, would you pitch for me today?' " Radcliffe said. "I set the team down 12-0. I haven't looked back since."

Radcliffe had the talent and charisma to be a star in the majors, said James Riley, director of research for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

He was a sharp catcher who called solid games, and he made sure he knew every hitter's strengths and weaknesses. He was a good pitcher, too, though he freely admits his pitches weren't all legal.

"His defensive skills as a catcher would have kept him in the major leagues for 20 years," Riley said.

But it was 1920 when he started playing professional baseball, 27 years before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier, and Radcliffe wasn't welcome in the majors.

"There was a time when black Americans couldn't play in the major leagues, so they started their own, separate leagues," said Riley, author of six books on the Negro leagues.

"Some of the greatest talent in world played there."

And Radcliffe played with almost all of the best. From the time he signed with the Detroit Stars of the National Negro League in 1928 until he retired in the mid-1950s, he played for more than 40 teams.

He followed the money, leaving whenever someone offered him a bigger paycheck. Along the way, he played with everyone from Paige to Josh Gibson to Bobbie Robinson to Oscar Charleston.

"He played whenever, wherever," Riley said. "He has been very helpful in helping salvage the history of the Negro leagues because he was around for a long time and knows the stories."

The best story came in 1932, when Paige and Radcliffe were playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, perhaps the greatest Negro league team ever. They played a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium one day, and Runyon was there to see it.

"In the first game, Satchel Paige pitched a shutout and Ted caught," Riley said. "Then the second game, Ted took the mound and pitched a shutout. Runyon wrote in his column that "it was worth the price of two admissions to see 'Double Duty' Radcliffe play."

The nickname stuck.

"I could pitch and catch all my life," Radcliffe said. "I thank God he gave me the strength to make a good name for myself."

With a vibrant personality that rivaled his athletic skills, Radcliffe was one of the Negro leagues' biggest draws. To this day, nobody calls him "Ted" or "Mr. Radcliffe." It's "Double Duty," or just plain "Duty." He was a six-time All-Star, three times each as a pitcher and catcher. In the 1944 game, he hit the game-winning homer into Comiskey's upper deck. A year earlier, he won the Negro American League MVP--at age 41.

Though the majors slowly integrated after Robinson joined the Dodgers, Radcliffe's chance had passed. He continued playing in the Negro leagues, and ended his career in Canada. By the time he retired, he'd played all over the United States, Canada, Mexico and Latin America.

"He is a living testament to what African-American baseball players endured to play their favorite game," said Raymond Doswell, curator at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

"I would hope that people kind of realize the treasures these men are through the wonderful milestone he's about to cross."

Radcliffe lives in a retirement community about a half-mile from Comiskey Park. His two-bedroom apartment is filled with memorabilia--bats, gloves, plaques, posters--and his easy chair sits next to a window overlooking a sandlot.

When the weather is nice, he puts on a suit, laces up his wingtips, picks out a hat and heads to the ballpark. He has a standing invitation to White Sox games, with a staff member waiting to escort him to his seat when great-niece Debra Richards drops him off.

Everyone greets him by name, stopping to shake his hand and hear one of his many stories. And if he spies a woman, look out. A month shy of 100, he's still a flirt.

He'll visit the clubhouse occasionally, and he's grown close to many of the White Sox players.

Some are fascinated by his stories and the history he represents, others feel indebted to him and the other players of his era.

"One time, Reggie Jackson told him he was grateful to those guys because they paved the way for guys like him to come along," Richards said. "Until you hear people actually say that, it's something you don't think about."

Radcliffe doesn't pay much attention to it. He refuses to dwell on the injustices blacks suffered before the civil rights movement, saying everyone's always treated him well.

"God has been good to me," Radcliffe said. "I don't care if he takes me tomorrow. I'm 100 years old."

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