Former Oriole and National Hairston recalls grandfather’s Negro League career

The Orioles drafted Jerry Hairston Jr., in 1997, and when he made his big-league debut at Camden Yards against the Angels on Sept. 11, 1998, the Hairstons became the first African-American family to have three generations play in the major leagues.

Hairston hit 26 home runs with the Orioles from 1998 through 2004 and then played with eight other teams, including the 2011 Nationals.

His grandfather, Sam, played for the Birmingham Barons and won the Negro American League Triple Crown for the 1950 Indianapolis Clowns, hitting .424 with 17 home runs and 71 RBI in 70 games, earning him a contract with the Chicago White Sox in 1951.

Hairston’s father, Jerry Sr., had 14-year career, 13 with the White Sox and one with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Junior, whose brother Scott and uncle Johnny also played in the big leagues, does pre- and post-game analysis on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ television network and works as an agent for minority baseball players.

He answered questions for masnsports.com about Major League Baseball’s honoring the 100th anniversary of the founding on the Negro Leagues:

Question: How important is Sunday’s recognition for the Negro Leagues?

Answer: “It’s a big deal to recognize history. Part of Major League Baseball history is the Negro Leagues and the players that came through to become stars in the game: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige. Players that are in the game today - Mookie Betts, David Price - got an opportunity because of the success and sacrifice that players in Negro Leagues had.’‘

Q: After his Negro League career, Sam Hairston was the first African-American to play for the Chicago White Sox. What has he told you about that experience?

A: “One thing I learned from my grandfather and others that played in the era: They were never bitter. They enjoyed the opportunity. They got their chance to play baseball, and that got them a chance to play Major League Baseball. My grandfather had nothing but good memories.’‘

Q: Negro League players would play during the summer in the U.S. and play outside the country during the winter?

A: “I don’t think we talk about that enough. They played in Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba, when the country was open. They made their money and they were treated like kings in those countries. That’s something so rarely talked about.’‘

Q: Do you have any memorabilia from your grandfather’s Negro League career?

A: “I have clippings, jersey, stuff that he collected and shared with his family. I have an Indianapolis Clowns jersey. It was not numbered.’‘

Q: Talk about the racism your dad and grandfather endured.

A: “It wasn’t easy. My dad grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1950s and ’60s, and my grandfather grew up in Crawford, Miss. Deep south. They grew up around racism. Playing games, there were white fans that would come to the ballgames, and then after the game, they’d have a difficult time finding places to eat, a hotel room. They had to find hotels that allowed blacks. That was the frustrating part.’‘

Q: Has does the racism they faced compare to racism that’s in baseball today?

A: “Let’s be honest, it has gotten better, but there’s racism everywhere. I think everybody sees that. Have we made strides in the game of baseball? Certainly. Are we trying to make better strides? I think so. We need to get better. We need to get more black players playing. Young kids want to play. And, we need to get more former black players into the coaching ranks.’‘

Q: How do we get more black people involved in ownership and the front office?

A: “More conversations bring more awareness.”

Q: What about more black coaches?

A: “There are some coaches in the big leagues that never played in the big leagues. And, yet as a former player, you can learn from anybody, but I always felt more comfortable with coaches that had been through the fire, that played major league baseball, could see big-league movement on a pitch and be in pressure situations. There are so many (minority) guys sitting home that aren’t on a big-league staff. That’s got to change.’‘

Q: What should baseball fans learn from Sunday’s recognition?

A: “They should learn that if they care about the game, they should recognize the players that came before. There wouldn’t be a Ken Griffey Jr., Tim Anderson, Barry Bonds or Frank Thomas if it weren’t for the guys that endured so much in the Negro Leagues. Those guys sacrificed a lot to give us opportunity to play this game.’‘