Catching Dreams: An Interview with Paul Bauer and Winnie Robinson
Dee Perry–Paul, you're a rare book dealer from Ohio, specializing in baseball. So how did you first meet Frazier "Slow" Robinson and get involved in this book project?
Paul Bauer–Well, Winnie called the shop a few years ago looking for "Only the Ball Was White," which was sort of the pioneering, seminal history of the Negro leagues, and we had it. I shipped it off to where they live in North Carolina. She called to thank us when the book arrived and we started talking about the Negro Leagues. She mentioned that her husband had played which got my interest, that is not a large fraternity. She mentioned that he caught Satchel Paige, and that's the marquee player in the Negro Leagues, really the "Paul Bunyanesque" figure. During the course of our conversation, I probably used the past tense because there aren't many of these men left and she quickly corrected me and put me on the phone with Frazier, and it went from there.
DP–Paul, did you know much about the Negro Leagues and the players before you started talking with the Robinsons?
PB–I didn't know as much as I thought I did. I knew of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and some of the other well-known players. I had to do a lot of homework just to go down and interview him.
DP–Winnie, was Frazier a ballplayer when you two met?
Winnie Robinson–He had played in the games but unfortunately I didn't know him before we were married. I met him through his friend Satchel Paige. Anytime there was a game nearby Satchel stayed with us at our home. When I met him, that's when I really found out he played baseball. I always knew he was interested in the sport, but he never said why. He was a very modest man, quiet and well-spoken. He didn't do too much bragging you know.
DP–Winnie, were you then or are you now a baseball fan?
WR–Well, I'm a baseball fan to the extent that knowing he played the game. But I really still don't know too much about baseball. I just know the stories he has told. The birth of that book by Mr. Bauer has really inspired me to listen a little more to the baseball games. And being able to accompany him to the different card shows, I learned a lot about Negro League baseball.
DP–What kind of impression did he make on you, Winnie?
WR–(Chuckles) He was a very immaculate man. He was suave and always well spoken. He just had a way with him... he was charming. So he kind of charmed me really. He was the kind of person that always wanted his women to look good I guess, when they went out in public with him. I never will forget one time... the first time I went out with him. (laughs) He had the nerve to tell me to go and comb my hair.
DP–(Laughs) Oh no, and you thought you were looking good already.
WR–Yes I did.
PB–That was for a date here in Cleveland. They lived in Cleveland and they were going to Luke Easter, who played for the Indians, had a nightclub here in town. That was one of their first dates.
DP–Paul, one of the reasons the Negro Leagues even existed was the racism that kept black and white players separate from the beginnings of the game's history. What were some of the stories Frazier shared with you about the racism he confronted playing the game.
PB–They were certainly aware that they were not going to get their chance to play in the major leagues. On that premise, they sort of moved on and they enjoyed their time playing. The problems they ran into usually were on the road, particularly traveling in the south. There was one story when they were crossing the Mississippi River on a ferry and the black ballplayers had to stay down with the cars and the vehicles. They couldn't travel with the other passengers. Eating was always a problem, finding a restaurant that would take them. In fact, there was one player who could pass, and it was fortunate sometimes to have him, because he could go into a restaurant and bring food out to the other players. It was mainly on the road where they ran into the worst of it.
DP–Winnie, did Frazier and his teammates ever talk about major league baseball and about not being allowed to play in the major leagues?
WR–I learned a lot from the Negro Leagues, just by meeting the legendary Satchel Paige, and listening to what they had to endure. It certainly wasn't pleasant to say the least. They went through this abuse and slander, being called names. They still held steadfast to something they loved, which was baseball. Though they did not get the flattery, they just held on to what they believed in and waited for their chance. He wasn't a bitter man but he told me some things that really wasn't pleasant to listen to. I don't think I could've endured it.
DP–Paul, I have to go back and ask about "Slow," where'd the nickname come from?
PB–Frazier had, it seemed, like a dozen nicknames. "Slow" was probably the best known and that was given to him by Satchel. When I asked him about that, he was very quick to point out that that was not because he ran like a catcher. But because he spoke very slowly.
DP–Let's talk some more about Satchel Paige and his All-Stars. What did Frazier think about Satchel?
PB–He had a great affection for Satchel Paige. Paige was entertaining, he was the life of the party, he was just a party on wheels. Players liked him a lot. They understood that Paige operated under different rules. He would actually leave the team to go barnstorm, play another couple of games and pick up some more money. Satchel was just an animal unto himself. In fact, when Winnie first met him that's how it came up. She met Satchel Paige, didn't know about Frazier's baseball playing and Frazier said, "How do you explain Satchel Paige to your wife? He just sort of comes in and takes over your life."
WR–He was the greatest. He was a lot of fun. He was a down to earth person. He really didn't talk too much baseball, it was all about the fun they used to have together. Maybe after I'd leave out of the room they'd talk their baseball. But Satchel was the type who liked to dance, to crack jokes, he loved to eat, things like that. I would just accommodate him with the food he liked, dancin' or whatever music he'd want to hear. Most of them had a lot to reminisce about. The past meant more to them. It was like lingering, sweet memories to them. Not like the bitter cup they had to take when they were just playing.
DP–Paul, for those of us who aren't familiar with the term, can you talk a bit about what barnstorming meant?
PB–When Frazier first started catching Satchel, it was 1939, Satchel's arm was pretty well shot. Paige really had essentially two Hall of Fame careers. At that point in '39, with his arm being bad he couldn't play with the Kansas City Monarchs, the A Team. So they sort of spun off a traveling B team, a barnstorming team. That's who Frazier caught him with- the Satchel Paige All-Stars. They didn't play other Negro League Teams, they would barnstorm across the west and Midwest, they played often. They played the House of David team which was the religious congregation or cult I guess from Benton Harbor, Michigan. A group of white players that believed in the Book of Revelation and wearing their hair down to their waist. And as you can imagine, when they'd roll into town for a game between the House of David and the Satchel Paige All-Stars, the word got out in a hurry that there were a bunch of black ballplayers in town and they were going to play long-haired white boys. Of course that filled up the seats. And that's who they played, they played the town's nines, there was a game they played the Toledo Mudhens. They would play barnstorming groups of major leaguers, that would put together teams outside of the major league season. They'd pretty much play anyone that'd give them a game.
DP–Do you know anything about their record, did they win more than they lost?
PB–They won much more than they lost. In the case of Paige's arm, not too far into their first barnstorming season, Paige went up to Frazier and said, "You better be ready Slow, I'm ready today." Frazier said something like, "I can catch what you've been throwing with a work glove." And the first pitch came in so hard it knocked his catcher's mitt off. It seemed to be a miracle, but in fact they'd been working on his arm, rubbing it down with Epsom salts. That was the beginning of Paige's sort of second Hall of Fame career. He never had arm problems again, and actually pitched in the major leagues in the early 60's. The title of Paige's autobiography was "Maybe I'll Pitch Forever," and he damn near did.
DP–Winnie, how important was baseball to Frazier, you talked about him reminiscing about it. But was he at all involved after the Negro Leagues came to an end?
WR–Yes, during the time we lived in Cleveland, a lot of times he would go out on the sandlot, along with Napoleon Bruton who was the brother to Billy Bruton who played with Milwaukee Braves and the Detroit Tigers. He would coach those teams out there, but I thought that was just something he wanted to do, he didn't even mention playing baseball. I think that was part of his life, just baseball.
DP–What did he do to support himself after playing was over? What was his career in later life?
WR–Later in life he worked for the school board in Los Angeles. And then we had our own little business, we had parking lot maintenance. He worked for an apparel company in Cleveland. Mostly it was just our own business.
PB–You know that was one of the things that really impressed me about Frazier. When he was with Baltimore in the 50's he loved to go to nightclubs and hear jazz. And one of his nightclub hopping buddies was a young comic performing under the name Redd Foxx. And they'd walk down the streets of Baltimore, the strip there, and he could hear people saying things in his wake, "There goes Robinson, he catches for the Elites" They didn't know who Redd Foxx was. That's the early fifties. You jump ahead 20 years and he's having to do it all on his own. He's got the parking lot business and maintenance and he's no longer a celebrity. And I think that's a very tough transition for someone to make and I've always been impressed that he did it with such dignity and grace.
DP–And he was always charming according to you Winnie...
WR–Yes he was. He'd always tell me that he really didn't look for fortune or fame. He just wanted to be known as a good man. He was great friends with the children, he loved children. And he didn't hesitate one minute to go and talk with them about different sports or whatever. So that kind of impressed me too because still not knowing that he had actually played baseball.
DP–Yeah that modesty, a mark of a great man.
WR–A very modest man. And he always had the little scriptures from the Psalms, the 21st Psalm, the first and the fourth verse. "But to thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. Show me Thy ways O Lord, teach me Thy path." And he would say everyone stamps his own value on himself. He's either made great or small by his own will. That's what he'd say, "I'm not looking for fortune and fame." You know that I really didn't understand what he was talking about, but now looking back, I knew exactly what he meant. He used to tell me, "There's always a source of strength that will spring up if we live close to God, it's in His plan." And he said, "He will never leave us or forsake us because we will get what he has in store for us."
DP–That's beautiful, thank you for sharing that and thank you for being with us today, Winnie and Paul.
PB–Thank you, Dee.