Meet Memphis - Lonnie Harris
“Junior, it’s time to come up,” his Mother called. But the young boy wasn’t ready to go inside the family’s Bronx, NY apartment yet. He was spending time doing two things all young boys do - throwing a ball against a wall and catching it, and dreaming of one day…
One day the boy was a young man at Samuel Gompers Industrial High School for Boys and he played baseball. Some years later, that young man was invited to Spring Training with the New York Giants, but didn’t make the team. Instead, he was signed by the Birmingham Black Barons. Early on, though, his disagreements with the manager - he was fast, so he wanted to steal bases when he felt the time was right - left him looking for another team. He didn’t wait long before being contacted by Memphis Red Sox owner, businessman, and dentist Doc Martin. He paid back that call by winning Negro American League Rookie of the Year honors in 1953.
“It was hell” he told me when I asked about how it was playing in the south in the Negro Leagues. “After the games, we were sweaty and tired and hungry and too often couldn’t find a place to stay, clean up, or eat. We changed on the bus, were told to go through the back door to eat, and couldn’t wait to get back home. ” Still, he loved baseball and continued to play despite these conditions, at Martin Park in Memphis - one of the few home stadiums to a Negro League team - most were shared with a white team, playing on different days - and travelling on that bus/locker room for road games.
When the league disbanded he was 32 (born January 31, 1930) and without a future. But this intelligent man was strengthened by fire and had what he called an epiphany. He stayed in Memphis, graduated from Memphis State University with multiple bachelors (including Special Education) and Master of Arts degrees in Sociology and Psychology . He taught at Humes Junior High, helping students “catch up” in math and English and teaching special education students, teaching more than twice as many years as he played baseball.
What’s on his mind today? The man also served his country in between high school and professional baseball. He played baseball in the Army during the Korean War. He knows that some of his buddies from basic training went Korea during that war and some didn’t come back. It still weighs on him.
We were watching a tight Memphis Redbirds game. When I asked him if he was ready to pinch run if called upon, he said “Yes, in my mind.”
Come to Memphis, meet Lonnie Harris, and ask him how he earned the nickname “Showboat!”