Page One

Career stems baseball, military, school services

By Mary Barrett Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday August 16, 2001

Charles Richardson tends his thriving garden of beans, tomatoes, peppers and corn in the side yard of his north Berkeley home. 

“Watching baseball on TV is like watching this corn grow – boring,” he says. “But playing competitive ball, now that’s exciting.” And he’s the man who knows. 

For five years, from 1946 until he was drafted, Charles Richardson played in the Negro Leagues, barnstorming through every state and into Mexico, Cuba and the Philippines. A tall, imposing man in his early 70s, Richardson was a talented southpaw in the 1940s. 

“Baseball was the game when I was a kid, the national sport; we all played it. You had to be good at baseball if you wanted to get any notoriety around here.” 

Richardson said he thought a black idol from Berkeley, Johnny Allen, would be the first African American to play in the major leagues. “Of course Jackie Robinson got that distinction. Johnny Allen was an outstanding athlete, born and raised in Berkeley. He and others from the Negro Leagues played in Bay View Park in Oakland and at San Pablo Park in Berkeley, during their off season. Fifteen hundred to 2,000 people would come out to watch those guys play.” 

Johnny Allen let Charles Richardson know that he was ready, at 16, to play league ball when Richardson, as if overnight, had come into a man’s strength. But his parents were against him leaving high school to go off with the barnstorming teams. 

“I had to vilify my father, made it seem like he never let me do anything, so he got mad and put me on punishment, and then I left. I felt very guilty about that for a long time.” 

Richardson was the oldest of 10 children and always felt needed as a youngster. Any money he made selling papers, shining shoes, delivering mail during World War II, went to help his family. The depression was just over and his parents needed every little bit of money they could get. 

“It’s a wonderful feeling to be needed. I feel sorry for kids today – nobody needs them.” 

Playing with the Ford Taggers, the San Francisco Cubs, the Sea Lions and the Oakland Larks, Richardson made $250 or $300 each month, sometimes more, good money for the times. Half of it he sent home. 

“It was a tough, tough way to earn a living though. Most places did not welcome black people. When we played in states like Wyoming, Montana, Utah, parts of California, we couldn’t get a hotel room, so we slept on the bus. A lot of places restaurants wouldn’t serve us so we made a diet off of lunch meats.” 

Richardson said playing in little towns was entertainment before TV. “We did the circuits, just like big bands and the circus. We played local teams. You had to win, but keep the game close and, at the same time, look good doing it. You had to be a good athlete to do that. We’d invariably win games, but in every little town, there’d be people on those teams who were outstanding. We had respect for those guys who could play.” 

Barnstorming meant playing two games a day, the second perhaps just a few miles down the road from the first, and playing every little town, it seemed, in the country. 

“The parks were like a drive-in movie. People would park their cars around the fences, there’d be just a small bleacher section. Most of the fans were white. Sometimes traveling, we’d not see another black person for six weeks.” 

Richardson played first base usually but, because the teams played nine games each week, and there were only 15 players, nearly everyone had to pitch. 

“I had never pitched as a kid, but I found out I had good stuff on the ball. I was a wild left-handed pitcher and frequently walked people. My arm would get exhausted. The greatest game I ever pitched, I didn’t walk anybody. I think we lost the game, but nobody walked!” 

Right after World War II, Richardson played in the Philippines. His was the first baseball team to go in after the war and they were treated like celebrities. Filipino fans packed the games. They treated the men with adulation, and Richardson, the very youngest player, remembers this experience fondly because he was treated not only like an equal, but like a very special man. 

Richardson had a chance to play with Jackie Robinson’s All Stars in 1948 which, Richardson says, sounds a lot better than it was. Robinson and another Dodger, Roy Campanella, would come out west and pick up local players to do exhibition games locally.  

“You didn’t get to travel all over the country with Robinson, just Oakland, San Francisco, Vallejo, maybe L.A. He had respect for us because we were good players. He was a nice guy who’d pick up the tab at dinner.” 

Everyone had dreams of making it to the major leagues after ‘47 when Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger. Every black person in the United States became a Dodger fan in ‘47, Richardson believes. 

“To be truthful, I thought I was going to the majors, too. I was, we used to call it, ‘chesty.’ Some of the guys I played against, and with, weren’t considered to be as good a ball player as me and they made it. I thought it would be just a matter of time.”  

But, Richardson adds, it was also a matter of luck. 

“I was drafted into the army and went to the Korean War. I was gone for two years and when I came back the Black Leagues were being disbanded. They were playing to empty houses because of television. You could watch the Yankees for free on TV, why go out to see us?” 

Richardson was only 20 and felt sorry for himself. “I had been born in the wrong time,” he said. “But then I realized I’d had a chance to play with and against the best athletes of the time. I got to do exactly what I wanted to do, my dream was always to be a ball player. It was a wonderful thing for me.” 

He and his buddy, Pumpsie Green, the first black man to make the Boston Red Sox and the last team to integrate, worked out every day at the Berkeley YMCA. Richardson says he’s not a big baseball fan anymore, he can’t sit through a game on TV because it moves so slowly and all you see is spitting and scratching, but any time he goes out to a game, usually taking a bunch of kids with him, he’s glad he’s gone. And he has respect for today’s super stars.  

“That ball is this big (he shows a small circle with his hands) and it’s coming at you 96 miles an hour, you still have to hit it. You can take all the steroids in the world, but you still have to hit that damn ball.” 

After his baseball career was over, and his stint in the Korean War, Charles Richardson started working for the Berkeley Unified School District and went back to school part time. He graduated from Cal State Hayward with a degree in sociology. At work, he went from a custodial position to Coordinator of Student Support Services at West Campus and Berkeley High School. He worked 39 years for B.U.S.D., finishing his career as a Child Welfare and Attendance Officer.  

While in Korea, in the face of death, he realized how much he wanted to marry and have children. He and his wife Alice Richardson, who also devoted her work life to the Berkeley schools, have been married for 49 years and have three children. Charles III is a professional photographer living in New York City, Kim is an East Bay resident who works at the Surgery Center in Oakland, and Alison works at the University of San Francisco,as the director of student activities. 

In retirement, Richardson works for the Berkeley Police Department in a job designed to keep kids out of the Criminal Justice System. He’s a man who values the stability a strong community can provide to its youth. 

“I learned, playing ball, how to work hard at something. You work hard you improve. You might not be the best, but you’ll be better than you were.” 

He talks about a young, almost homeless boy he worked with. “I told his mother, send him to school, he’ll get breakfast maybe, and lunch. You’ll be able to look for work without him tagging along with you.”  

Richardson says things have changed since he was growing up and all the neighbors looked after all the kids. “Even Spud Murphy, the old wino, would warn us, ‘I’m a see your dad’ if we were hanging out, cutting school or smoking a cigarette.” 

“I’m like a neighbor,” he says, “looking out for the kids.” 

Charles Richardson is the neighbor we’d all like to have.