When the average baseball fan in Mobile thinks about the Negro Leagues — those African-American teams, leagues and institutions that ran parallel to so-called “organized baseball” in the era of segregation in America’s pastime — they might conjure up images of the city’s most famous, and most accomplished, Negro League player, pitcher extraordinaire Leroy “Satchel” Paige.
That would certainly be understandable. Paige was one for the ages, an outsized personality, the first Negro Leaguer in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the guy some consider the greatest hurler in the history of the sport, regardless of color or era.
But Mobile produced another Negro League legend, one whose multi-faceted baseball aptitudes were matched only by a personality with a penchant for braggadocio, enraptured story-telling and skirt-chasing.
Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe also had a powerful, crystal-clear memory that never faded during his 103 years of life, which arguably proved much more valuable to the chronicling of the history of segregation-era African-American baseball than Paige’s tall tales ever did.
Not only was Radcliffe capable of playing catcher for one end of a doubleheader, then taking the mound to pitch the nightcap — a skill set put to use in the 1932 Negro League World Series that earned him his famous nickname — but he possessed a magnetic personality and presence that just drew people, both baseball die-hards and hardball neophytes alike, to him.
By the time Double Duty passed away Aug. 11, 2005 — a decade ago this week — he had spun his own mythos that brought him out of the shadows of fellow Mobile native Paige’s looming legend and earned him a treasured place in Negro League history.
“He was just so fun to be around,” Radcliffe biographer Kyle McNary said. “He was always ‘on.’ If you went to a party with Duty, you felt like you were cheated if he wasn’t on. But he knew he had to be on. He could fill a room at a party pretty quickly. He could command a room.
“You always hear about meeting a larger-than-life personality. Well, Duty was surely larger than life.”
Negro League stats have always been notoriously hard to compile, which was one of the main arguments against admitting segregation-era black players into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
In the Negro Leagues, the number of actual “league” games was much smaller than those of the Major Leagues and organized baseball. Most top-shelf black teams supplemented their revenue by constant barnstorming against teams outside of the organized structures of the Negro Leagues proper — the Negro National League, the Negro American League, the Eastern Colored League, etc. — clouding the statistics of black players.
So when Michael Bamberger wrote in Sports Illustrated shortly after Ted Radcliffe died that “[O]ne of the game’s great injustices would be made right if Mr. Duty met up with Paige and [Ty] Cobb again, in Cooperstown,” laying out a quantifiable, numerical argument for Radcliffe’s inclusion in those hallowed confines of the Hall of Fame is an extremely difficult task.
But according to one historical chronicler, over his several decades of playing for at least 30 — 30! — teams, Double Duty collected more than 4,000 hits at the plate to go along with 400-plus home runs. As a pitcher, by some counts Radcliffe amassed at least 400 wins and whiffed roughly 4,000 batters.
But again, a great number of those hits, home runs, victories and strikeouts came outside of proper “league” games, making judging those stats a tricky proposition. But what can be quantified, McNary pointed out, is that Double Duty swatted a batting average of more than .400 in exhibitions against aggregations of white Major League all-stars.
Beyond that, there are the stories, tales of exploits and accomplishments so varied and utilitarian that conjuring up a more multi-talented — and, indeed, more flamboyant and trash-talking — competitor in baseball history than Theodore Roosevelt “Double Duty” Radcliffe isn’t easy.
Underneath the boasting and bragging and womanizing was a player extraordinaire — and, after his career on the field was over, a deft, capable manager — who could doubtlessly deliver the goods on the plate, a man who garnered extensive praise from contemporaries and journalists while he was playing, as well as from Negro League historians.
A March 1941 wire service dispatch, for example, dubbed Radcliffe “the man whose presence is like a shot of insulin in the arm of a ‘sinking’ Radcliffe-managed club … ”
In June of the same year, Homestead Grays owner and Negro League kingpin Cum Posey, in a column for the Pittsburgh Courier, described Radcliffe’s fast and loose lifestyle as well as his hardball acumen.
“We wonder at the guile of Double Duty Radcliffe,” Posey penned, “who did everything wrong except play baseball.”
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Duty was also very adept at winning people over with his charm and sheer passion for his sport. After settling on Chicago’s South Side in retirement, Radcliffe became a fixture at White Sox games and Comiskey Park, where he became a beloved member of the family, so much so that the entire team mourned his passing a decade ago.
“Double Duty shared such a love for baseball and a passion for life,” White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf told the media. “We all loved to see him at the ballpark, listen to his stories and share in his laughter. He leaves such a great legacy after experiencing so much change and history during his long life.”
Back in the day, the flames of Radcliffe’s stardom were stoked by his famed catcher’s chest protector, which advertised Duty’s proficiency at throwing out would-be base thieves with the adornment, “THOU SHALL NOT STEAL.” He wore that protective gear when he nailed baseball legend Ty Cobb — one of the all-time greats at stealing bases — not once but twice during an exhibition contest when Cobb tried to swipe second base.
Radcliffe began his paid baseball career with scrub, semipro, barnstorming squads before hooking on briefly with the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League. From there, he hopped from one legendary team to another — the Homestead Grays, the Newark Eagles, the Memphis Red Sox, the Birmingham Black Barons, the Chicago American Giants, the Kansas City Monarchs — a phenomenon common in the Negro Leagues, where star players constantly sought out larger paychecks and better working conditions.
Along the way, Radcliffe pitched and caught his way to stardom, earning bids to several all-star contests and playing against and alongside Hall of Famers. But he considered the 1931 Homestead Grays his best — and the greatest squad of all time, one loaded with Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, “Cyclone” Joe Williams, Oscar Charleston and Jud Wilson.
Flash forward to 1994, when authoritative Negro League historian James Riley published his comprehensive tome, “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues.”
“[Radcliffe] was truly unique and never received the full credit due him for his contributions to baseball,” Riley wrote. “There have been better pitchers, better catchers and better hitters, and there may have been a more colorful player, but there has never been another single player imbued with the diverse talents he manifested during his baseball career. ‘Double Duty’ was unique in baseball annals.”
But Radcliffe’s vast importance to the chronicling of Negro League history extends far beyond that of other segregation-era African-American players. That’s because Double Duty outlived just about all of his peers.
In doing so, Radcliffe gave numerous interviews and took advantage of other opportunities to display his talents as a raconteur supreme, all of which allowed historians to fill in immeasurable gaps in the popular knowledge of Negro League history.
“He had a tremendous memory,” McNary said. “Most of the stuff he said, I would look it up and he usually had it right. Duty could do it, and he’d be pretty damn accurate.”
Simply put, Double Duty became a crucial, almost indispensable cog in the chronicling of segregation-era black baseball. That plus, of course, Radcliffe’s savvy knack for self-promotion via tall tales and shameless bragging and needling of contemporaries, even long after their retirement from the game.
“He was a Muhammad Ali or Deion Sanders type,” said McNary, whose biography of the Mobile native, “Ted ‘Double Duty’ Radcliffe: 36 Years of Pitching & Catching in Baseball’s Negro Leagues,” was published in 1994.
“Number one, he was a great player,” McNary added. “But number two, unlike other Negro Leaguers, he figured out self-promotion … He was very early to that game.”
Duty’s parents, James and Mary Ratcliff (with a T instead of a D), were married circa 1890. The couple moved to Mobile, presumably in search of better work opportunities and to escape the debt-driven rural sharecropping economy in Wilcox County.
In Mobile, James established himself as a carpenter, and by the time the 1900 Census rolled around, the couple had produced four offspring — Olga, Mamie, Ernest and Ferney. The family lived on the surprisingly integrated South Jefferson Street.
But something else peculiar occurred with the 1900 Census — the family had added an “e” to the end of its surname, which was now spelled Radcliffe.
On July 7, 1902, along came Ted Radcliffe — the family had changed the name again. The 1910 Census report for the family listed young Theodore by his middle name, Roosevelt, and pegged his age at 7.
By that time, Ted had five siblings, and the household, now situated on St. Aledar Street, included three other residents — Mary’s brother, H.W. Marsh; James’ mother, Elizabeth Bennett; and his grandmother, Nancy Stuart. One of Ted’s brothers was Alexander, or Alec, who would go on to a very successful career in the Negro Leagues as well.
By 1920, 17-year-old Ted, still named Roosevelt in the Census reports, was a laborer in Mobile, and his father still toiled as a carpenter; the family was living on Owen Street.
In addition to the voluminous interviews and information culled by McNary from his two weeks spent shadowing the aging Double Duty, the former Negro League star gave an extremely illuminating interview in June 2001 — roughly four years before his death at the age of 103 — for “The HistoryMakers” project.
In the recorded discussion, it appears as if Radcliffe is somewhat reticent to reveal his thoughts and recollections about his youth in Mobile. But eventually the interview gently draws some genuine gold nuggets of information about the time he spent in his hometown before he amscrayed to Chicago and baseball glory. Says the future Double Duty early in the interview: “… I started playing baseball when I was 8 or 9 years old. And I didn’t look back.”
Duty also early on developed a deep appreciation for his father: “He was a good man. He brought us up. He brought us up here. He was a good man.”
James also gave his young whippersnapper some advice that stuck with the latter for life.
“When we started to playing ball he told us be the best or nothing,” Radcliffe tells the interviewer. “And I tried to be the best.”
Ted schooled himself in the finer points of the American pastime on neighborhood sandlots, congregating with local boys playing the game long into the night by soaking a ball in kerosene and setting it on fire “[s]o we could see it at night. … we’d light it and play with it. We had gloves on to catch it. And we’d play too … Throw it and catch it …”
Ted also discusses growing up with Leroy “Satchel” Paige — who would long overshadow him. Young Leroy was a troubled lad with a penchant for getting into fights, a recurring transgression that landed him in reform school for four years.
“Satchel Paige was in the school for bad kids when I first started,” Radcliffe says. “But when he come out I started to catching him. And I caught him 15 years down there.”
Radcliffe saya Paige had the knack for pitching inborn from the very start.
“I didn’t have to teach him. He had the ability. He learned how to pitch himself. And he was a kid. When he and I came up together I was 14 [or 13] years old and he was a bitch. He was something then. He could throw that ball so hard it would act like lightning. [Laughs.] I’d catch them easy.”
Thus began a kinship and keen rivalry between the two that continued throughout their careers and their lives, with Double Duty often lavishing praise on Paige while at the same time bragging about his own aptitudes for both pitching and catching.
“The HistoryMakers” interview continued with Radcliffe revealing why he abandoned his hometown at the age of 17 — to avoid the physical toil that came with eking out a living as a black man in the Deep South.
“I never worked on no boats,” Ted says frankly. “I never worked in Mobile. I used to hustle ‘round the railroad station … A friend of mine was working down there and they carried me down there to make … two or three dollars a day. Which was good money then. But I ain’t never had a job in my life. I don’t know what work is.”
After that, Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe, followed by several family members, departed Mobile for better times ahead, part of the Great Migration of Southern African-Americans away from the menial sharecropping system and humiliating odd jobs of the oppressive, and at times deadly, system of Jim Crow for brighter opportunities in the more egalitarian and industrialized North.
But throughout his storied baseball career, and despite his mixed feelings about his roots in Mobile, Double Duty Radcliffe deeply loved his parents and held a great respect and appreciation for what James and Mary gave him, and the gift he bestowed upon them in return. As Ted tells “The HistoryMakers” interviewer:
“Because there’s nobody like good parents. And my parents were good to me when I was young. And I wasn’t gonna let them down. I took care of my mother. Me and my brother took care of my mother until she died. My father died in ’31 and my mother died in ’49. Took care of both of them.”
Finally, Ted tells the interviewer how the former baseball great viewed being black in a world dominated by whites with an incisiveness that came from a lifetime, and a baseball career, often bathed in segregation:
“Now listen, if God had wanted me to be white, I’d been white. He put me here as I am and I appreciate it. And I played teams in South America and everywhere. Wasn’t no colored there at all. But they took care of me … When I went to South America, me and Satchel — wasn’t nobody there but me. But … they loved me — and the white gal used to bring it to me … That’s life ain’t it? Huh? Anywhere you live and be happy you’re living good. Ain’t that right? Ain’t that right?”
That’s a wonderfully sublime philosophical expression by a man who, in his long life, saw a lot of both sides of humanity, good and bad. But that expression also contains a catch — sometimes you can’t live where you are and be happy, especially for Negro Leaguers after they retired.
And that was the case for Double Duty Radcliffe. After his retirement from the game — following almost five decades of playing, managing and even scouting for Major League teams — he and his wife, Alberta, spent 23 long years living (if you could call it living) in a South Side Chicago housing project infested by gangs and drug traffickers.
But when Radcliffe was signing cards at a memorabilia show in the late 1980s, a nurse, community volunteer and baseball fan named Claire Hellstern met Duty and became enraptured by both his plight and his sheer charisma.
Hellstern launched a vigorous effort to change the Radcliffes’ deplorable situation, and by early 1990, the elderly couple was living in a church-sponsored high-rise just a block from their previous hellhole.
“They’re finally safe,” Hellstern told the Associated Press, alluding to Radcliffe’s involvement in both managing and playing for integrated teams. “You won’t be reading about Chicago’s version of Jackie Robinson getting shot in a break-in.”
But, McNary says, that was simply the effect the magnetic Radcliffe had on people. And, funny enough, one of McNary’s own fondest memories came at a sports card show as well.
While Double Duty was sitting in a room with other former Negro League players inking their autographs at the memorabilia show, throngs of fans and admirers lined up to get the players’ signatures. The whole time, Duty was talking playful trash with his former colleagues about how many more times he was signing his name than they were.
“I’m the guy you want,” Radcliffe would exclaim to the autograph-seekers. “Look at all the cards I’ve signed.”
Duty would then turn to his peers and poke ’em with a little braggadocio.
“Looks like my stack [of signed cards] is bigger than yours,” Radcliffe would boast with a giddy laugh.
“He was just a fun guy,” McNary says today. “I was just excited to be near him.”