“I miss my daddy,” Faye Davis said as we stepped into her office at the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I miss my daddy.”
Faye had just attended a Negro League Conference presentation on her father, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis. He played seven years in the Negro Leagues (1942-48), mostly for the Birmingham Black Barons. As player-manager in 1948, he guided the Black Barons to the Negro American League title. The centerfielder was Willie Mays, a 16-year-old at the time. “He was a warm man, fatherly, and all the players respected him,” the Hall of Famer wrote in his autobiography, Say Hey.
Photos of Piper as well as his Negro League baseball card were on a table in the corner of her office. Nearby was a copy of Willie’s Boys, the excellent book about Piper and the 1948 Black Barons. The screensaver on Faye’s computer showed a distinguished-looking Piper in a suit and tie. And on the wall in a large picture frame above Faye’s desk was the Birmingham News article, Born too soon, published on Piper’s death in 1997 at the age of 79. “Lorenzo “Piper” Davis “came along too late for the major leagues, but just in time to become one of Birmingham’s most respected names in baseball,” the story began.
Piper was the only black player on the 1956 Los Angeles Angels team. Some of the veterans such as Gene Mauch and Dwight “Red” Adams, knew of his exploits in the Negro Leagues and with the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League prior to joining the Angels in 1955. A few of the players had heard Piper talk about playing basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters. But, for the most part, they had no idea their teammate was a legend in the making.
In December 1999 he was selected one of Alabama’s 50 Greatest Sports Performers of the Century along with some of the greatest athletes of our times — Jesse Owens, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe Louis, Bo Jackson, Joe Namath, Henry Aaron, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey and Mays. Displays at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, in which he was inducted in 1993, pay tribute to Piper. Birmingham’s Piper Davis Youth Baseball League is named in his honor.
At Hoover Stadium where the current Barons played until moving to a new downtown ballpark in 2013, a life-sized photo of a young Piper graces one of the breezeways leading into the stands. Go to Rickwood Field, the well-preserved ballpark that was home to both the Black Barons and the all-white Barons team in the Southern Association, and images of him are everywhere.
“I have yet to be able to walk into Rickwood without crying,” Faye said.
When Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Piper was nearly 30 – about 17 months older than Robinson. This was too old for the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox who flirted with bringing him up to the Big Show.
Piper was 39 when he played for the ’56 Angels. He was a pinch-hitter deluxe, batting .448, and a super sub, playing every position in the field except shortstop, centerfield and pitcher. Overall, he hit .316.
Mauch likened the 6-foot-3, 188-pound Piper to George Hendrick, a similarly built outfielder who hit 267 homers in the majors during the 1970s and 1980s. “With a bat, he was just like George Hendrick. The day didn’t come that they could throw a fastball that Piper couldn’t get around on.”
Two of Piper’s six home runs in ‘56 came as a pinch-hitter.
“Oh, man, he could crank up on a fastball,” recalled pitcher Gene Fodge. “He was strong – even at 38-39, whatever he was at that time.”
Piper’s contributions as a player went far beyond what he did with a bat.
“Piper Davis was the most consummate professional player that I ever played with,” said Mauch. “I’m not saying that he was the best player. Hell, I played with Ted Williams, Stan Musial – a bunch of great players. I’m talking about consummate professionalism. He said all the right things at the right time. He was very, very astute.”
“The biggest catalyst on the ball club was Piper Davis,” said Bob Speake, the Angels’ left-fielder. “He spent most of his time in the bullpen, warming up the pitchers. He helped the young pitchers, sharing all of his wisdom gathered when he was in the Negro Leagues.”
Before the Angels released Buzz Clarkson in ‘56, manager Bob Scheffing checked with Piper to make sure he was all right with being the lone black on the team.
“It won’t bother me at all,” Piper said.
“Dad was a pretty solitary type,” Faye explained. “If you didn’t mention baseball, you wouldn’t get 15 words out of him. But if you ever got him started…”
One story Piper liked to tell was the time he was catching for the Oaks and called for three straight fastballs to strike out the batter, Mauch. When they became teammates in L.A., Mauch asked Piper why he had the pitcher throw three successive fastballs, defying all baseball logic.
Piper grinned and said proudly, “Element of surprise, my dear brother!”
Piper was a man of few, carefully selected words.
Asked about the segregation that kept baseball white, Piper said, “Wasn’t the game’s fault.” On playing in the Negro Leagues with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson: “Hit everywhere from .275 up. Be a million-dollar ball player today.”
He verbally flagged something important by saying “put it in the computer” long before there were computers. Piper referred to a hard-hit ball as “tattooed” or “buggy whipped.”
“Daddy liked to say, ‘Hold your point.’ And then he’d say, ‘Come back to your point.’”
Davis was known as “Piper Colina” when he moved in with relatives in Birmingham so he could attend Fairfield High and stay out of the coal mines near Colina and Piper, Alabama, where he grew up. “Somewhere along the line they dropped the Colina and it just got to be Piper,” Faye said.
“Dad gets here and they’ve got their starting five at basketball. They kind of kept him out.”
During one particularly close game, Fairfield students started chanting, “We want Piper Colina! We want Piper Colina! We want Piper Colina!”
Fairfield’s coach leaned over to the equipment manager and asked, “Spates, is that Piper Colina boy any good?”
“Yes, sir, he can play.”
Piper Colina entered the game, Fairfield won and the legend of Piper Davis was born.
“I’ll tell you one of the most interesting experiences I ever had,” Faye said. “When my grandmother died, all of the old guys from Piper came to the house one evening. And their visit went on through the night. It was the best history anybody could’ve had in the life of a coal mine –racial relationships in a coal mine – and how daddy was deadly with a slingshot.”
Faye was reminded of the time a plumber came to their house in Birmingham. On seeing Piper, he exclaimed, “Knocks?”
“Yeah,” Piper said, confirming the nickname he picked up as a kid in Piper because of his ability to “knock your eyes out” with a slingshot.
The plumber pointed to a spot on his head and said to Faye, “Look, I got the biggest hickey on my head from your daddy’s slingshot.”
Faye was browsing through photographs from her father’s playing days. Piper was “all-everything” for the Oakland Oaks from 1952-55. When Oaks manager Mel Ott proposed playing Piper at all nine positions during a single nine-inning game, someone suggested, “Let’s make it a ten-inning game – and have Piper sell beer in the tenth.”
“There was a guy in our neighborhood who called daddy Mr. Piker,” Faye said. “’How ya doin’, Mr. Piker?’ So daddy called mom Mrs. Piker.”
“Mom was going to pick up Dad in front of the ballpark at Emeryville in Oakland. She wanted to surprise him. Now don’t ask me how she got that car across the intersection and flooded it. Traffic is stopped. My brother and I are on the floor in the back of the car so nobody could see us. People are all around.”
Piper showed up. “Dad just stood there, hands on hips: ‘Mrs. Piker, what are you trying to do?’”
Faye was asked what she missed most about her daddy.
“The smell of his pipe – smelled like bourbon. The seeds popped. He always yelled when he was driving and he couldn’t get to it right away. He had little holes in his shirt from when the tobacco popped.
“I called him Sugar Sharp,” Faye added. “He was a nice dresser. After he finished playing, we bought his clothes for him. Every Sunday he’d get dressed and he’d come in and say, ‘Do I meet your approval?’”
Faye looks just like her daddy.
“There was no mistake whose child we were,” she said, also referring to her brother, Lorenzo.
“The older I get, the more people tell me that I look like my dad. I walk down 4th Avenue and 17th Street, ‘How ya doin’, Little Piper? How ya doin’, Little Piper? How ya doin’, Little Piper?”
Faye leaned back in her office chair to demonstrate how her daddy napped while watching television. She described what happened when television became popular in the early 1950s.
“We wanted a TV. Daddy said: ‘Wait until they get the bugs out. Let them get the bugs out.’ When they announced the World Series was going to be televised, we got a TV the same day. All he watched was baseball games until momma got him hooked on a soap opera.”
“Does your wife watch Edge of Night?” people would ask.
“Yeah,” Piper said, “and her husband, too.”
“That was typical dad: ‘Yeah, and her husband, too.’”
Faye turned to her computer to pull up comments she made saluting Negro League players at Rickwood Field to commemorate Birmingham’s 125th anniversary in October 1997.
“They played the game so well,” Faye told the crowd. “Many of the men whose names have echoed during this event and are synonymous with the glory days of the Negro League are no longer in our midst. But they left us with unmatched memories – memories of baseball brilliance, of unparalleled talent and savvy. Most never played in the major leagues but most major leaguers would have a hard time carrying their gloves to the ballpark….”
One of the stories Faye tells is when her father gave his glove to Mauch near the end of the ’56 season when Gene was leaving the Angels to join the Boston Red Sox. “Take that glove with you,” Piper said. “That’s the only way it’s getting to the big leagues.”
Faye concluded her tribute to Negro League players by saying:
“They rode the bus all night, laced spikes on swollen feet, entered the field of play and proceeded to tattoo and buggy whip the ball while stopping the opponent with dazzling defense. And when their playing days were over each went on his way, making it hard, at times, to know who was still around. Yes, many have gone on – so in the name of many we call but a few who played the game so well: Winfield Welch; Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett; Mr. Rudd, the bus driver; Nathaniel Pollard; Alonzo Perry; Ed Steele; Wiley Griggs; Harry Barnes; Johnny Cowan; Roosevelt Atkins; “Cap” Brown; and Lorenzo “Piper” Davis.”*
* Davis, Faye J, They Played the Game So Well! Copyright 1997.
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.
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