Friday, January 29, 2010

The Pride of Sledge, Mississippi

I bought a used juke box many years ago stocked with a hundred 45 rpm records. I never was a country western music fan, but one of those songs was Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone by Charley Pride. I knew a little bit about Charley Pride because he had a couple of big hits such as Kiss an Angel Good Morning, a dreadful song (sorry Charley).

Charley made it big in C&W despite that fact that he was an African-American from Sledge, Mississippi. A Black making it big in C&W was as special as a White kid being accepted into the Rap music fraternity. Charley went on to score more than thirty top-ten singles.

I replaced most of the juke box records with "my stuff" but I kept the Charley Pride disc. The song seemed familiar and it became one of those tunes that sticks in your brain and surfaces whenever it pleases. After several years I realized that it was originally sung by the Sir Douglas Quintet, a group that sounded British but came from Texas. As a youth I was quite fond of their biggest hit, She's About a Mover, written by group leader, Doug Sahm.

How does this relate to baseball? One day I was leafing through a book about the Negro Leagues. I did a double take when I came across a photo from 1953 of a Memphis Red Sox pitcher named Charley Pride. I thought it must have been a coincidence. Further reading disclosed that Charley Pride the Memphis pitcher had indeed become Charley Pride the country music superstar.

According to the photo caption, an injury derailed his baseball career and pushed him toward his other love, music. The California Angels (1961) and New York Mets (1962) granted him tryouts but he no longer had any "mustard" on his fastball. Failing to make the woeful 1962 Mets, the worst major league team of all time, was a sign that a change of direction was needed.

After the Mets tryout, he passed through Nashville before heading home to Montana. He met a producer who recorded him and managed to put two demos into the hands of Chet Atkins. Atkins helped make it happen for Pride. A single was released and his C&W career was launched.

During the 1950's, major league baseball was slowly opening its doors to the Negro League star players. Blacks athletes dreamed of making the big leagues and becoming stars, maybe even reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In one of life's sweetest ironies, Charley made the Hall in 2000, the Country Music Hall of Fame. One other accolade resonates in the baseball world. In 1967, he performed at the Grand Ole Opry, the first artist of color to appear there in its 70-year history. In 1993, he accepted an invitation to join the permanent ranks of the Opry. Charley Pride was the Jackie Robinson of country music, and the pride of Sledge, Mississippi.

Photo by Ernest C. Withers

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