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The Recall of Duty

'Double Duty' Radcliffe talks as well as he played; at 100, he has a lot of stories.

June 15, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The old man can tell some tales. Flaming baseballs and Fidel Castro at third base. Don't get him started on Ty Cobb.

"Oh boy," he says. "I know what I'm talking about."

Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe -- more commonly known as "Double Duty" -- turned pro in the Roaring '20s. Played his way through four decades in the Negro leagues, on barnstorming trips and in exhibition games in Yankee Stadium.

Now that baseball is settling in for the summer, what better way to spend a few hours than listening to one of the game's oldest survivors reminisce about Satchel Paige and Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell?

"I remember it because I love baseball," he says. "Anything you love, you can keep in your mind."

The stories get rolling, turning faster, in no particular order. What year was that? Which stadium?

Those who know Radcliffe say he loves to spin a yarn. His memory is keen and much of what he tells is gospel truth, but he doesn't mind embellishing.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 16, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Negro League baseball -- Satchel Paige pitched for the Cleveland Indians in 1948. In a Sports graphic and photo caption on Negro League baseball Sunday, it was incorrectly reported that he pitched for the St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals in 1948. It also was incorrectly reported that Paige won a World Series game in 1948. Paige pitched in the 1948 World Series but did not win a game.

A few weeks shy of his 101st birthday, he rears back and cackles.

"You think I'm lying," he says.

A little later, off to the side, his nephew, Keith Hill, whispers not to focus too hard on the facts. Just listen. Listen for a hidden truth beneath the words.

Start in Mobile, Ala., where Radcliffe was born in 1902. He played, he says, because there "wasn't nothing else to do." The neighborhood kids made baseballs out of rags and tape.

"We used to soak the ball in kerosene and light it on fire," he says. "Play night ball."

Seventeen years old, Radcliffe traveled to Chicago and joined a semipro team called the Illinois Giants. In an era when baseball was segregated, he stayed put until breaking into the Negro leagues with the Detroit Stars in 1928.

Thus began the whirlwind career of a player who could pitch and catch with equal aplomb, who thought nothing of switching teams every season, going wherever he could make a few more bucks.

The journey took him through some of the Negro leagues' best teams, from the St. Louis Stars to Pittsburgh's Homestead Grays and, in 1932, to the legendary Pittsburgh Crawfords.

That club featured Gibson and Oscar Charleston, both future Hall of Famers. Radcliffe caught for Paige.

"When Satchel pitched, oh my God," he says. "That sucker could throw it outta sight."

Before games, Radcliffe sometimes stopped and bought a slice of beefsteak to slip inside his glove for padding. His right hand is gnarled, the result of too many broken fingers resulting from foul tips off Paige's fastballs.

Playing for the Crawfords marked him for life in another way. With the team in New York for a doubleheader, he caught a shutout by Paige in the first game, then pitched one of his own.

That day, sportswriter Damon Runyon dubbed him "Double Duty," noting that he was "worth the price of two admissions."

To this day, everyone calls him by a variation of that nickname. Double Duty. Duty. Mr. Duty.

"It made me a drawing card," he says. "Any time you're a success, you can't say nothin' about it."

Ballplayers, especially black players, needed something extra to survive back then.

"They were playing wherever they could, against whomever they could, to make money," says James A. Riley, research director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "What they called 'scuffling.' "

For Radcliffe, that meant leaving the Negro leagues in 1935 to play for wealthy auto dealer Neil Churchill, who owned the semipro Bismarck Churchills in North Dakota. The team -- Paige came along too -- had an integrated lineup a dozen years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors.

During stints with 40-some clubs, Radcliffe played in exhibition games that gave him and other black players opportunities to show they could compete with the likes of Ruth and Cobb.

"Cobb didn't like colored people," he says. "I threw him out at second."

There was also winter ball in Cuba, where he claims to have shared the field with a young Castro: "He couldn't play."

The end came as a player-manager in Winnipeg, Canada.

"I got in my 50s and they didn't want me to quit," he says. "Sometimes, I'd wake up and laugh at myself."

Gauging the man's career is not easy. His biographer, Kyle P. McNary, estimates that Radcliffe had a .303 batting average, 4,000 hits and 400 homers in 36 years in the game.

But with Negro league players, reliable statistics are hard to come by. Teams kept shoddy records and local newspapers rarely printed box scores for every game.

"I was able to get full seasons in between partial seasons," McNary says. "It still wasn't close to complete."

Further clouding the issue are Radcliffe's talents as a raconteur, his penchant for exaggeration. Riley, who has known him for years, puts it this way: "Had he not been a good ballplayer, he could have been a stand-up comedian."

Even now, he can work a room, those watery eyes lighting up, a younger man's smile spreading across his weathered face. Soon, everyone else is smiling.

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