Sometimes life paths come as a surprise even to those who are on them. One day a door slams shut in your face and you are crushed. The next day the whisper of opportunity blows in on a gentle breeze. For Charley Pride, the famous country singer, making his fortune with his voice was not part of his game plan. It was his sturdy arm that was supposed to carry him out of the Mississippi cotton fields.
Baseball was his game and was going to provide him with fame. Only it didn’t work out that way because he suffered from that greatest killer of pitcher hopes and dreams that ever afflicted potential–the sore arm.
Born into poverty in Sledge, Mississippi in 1938, one of 11 children belonging to sharecroppers, baseball was Pride’s salvation. One of his brothers, Mack, was an exceptional catcher and they formed a solid battery.
“Here’s my way out of the cotton fields,” Pride said of the way he thought during a recent interview. “That’s the first thing that clicked in my head.”
Pride did not receive much encouragement in that environment, often being derided as someone going nowhere. If he told people he was going to be a baseball player, they laughed. Although Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Pride’s first professional chance came through the Negro Leagues and he retains an allegiance to the defunct organization by affiliating with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where he appeared during the Major League All-Star break.
Pride hooked on with the Memphis Red Sox in 1952, but he was determined to become a big leaguer. One of his best memories was throwing four shutout innings against a team with Hank Aaron in the lineup.
“I thought I was good enough, yeah,” Pride said. “And I was good. I had three pitches, the hummer, the hook and the change and I could get you out with all three.”
At least until he popped his elbow in 1956 during a game in Missouri. There went the fastball and the curve didn’t break as sharply as it used to. So Pride developed a knuckleball. As a substitute it provided optimism. By then Pride was property of the New York Yankees. He played in Class C for Boise and Class D for Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
Then he switched back to the Negro Leagues’ Louisville Clippers during the final days of segregated ball. Bizarrely, as teams were folding and finances were dwindling, Pride was traded to the Birmingham Black Barons for a team bus. That did not end Pride’s baseball career. He kept up his journey through the minors hoping that his arm would be renewed and that he might yet find a way to the majors. He played for a variety of minor league teams and also had tryouts with the California Angels and New York Mets in the early 1960s, but nothing panned out because he never regained his speed.
“I wanted to be the first Chicago Cub,” Pride said. “There were only 16 clubs in the major leagues. Some of them had only two colored players on any given team. That was their quota. In the minors, they had only two. There were certain things that kept you boondoggled where you couldn’t move up like the average person. You learn how to try to work around those things, just try to be the best you can be and still make it anyways.”
Pride’s conviction that he was destined to be a major leaguer began fading when he passed 25.
“They just marked you off,” Pride said.
Friends told him what a good voice he had, but he hated giving up on his baseball dream.
“They would say, ‘Why don’t you go and make more money singing?’ Pride said. “I said, ‘No, I want to go to the major leagues and break all the records and set new ones by the time I’m 35 or 36, and then I’ll go to singing.’”
Pride’s life didn’t turn out that way, and he’s the first to admit life takes different turns.
“It sure does,” he said. “I’d like to be in Cooperstown, New York in the baseball hall of fame. Now I’m in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
And perhaps just as remarkably for a one-time poor boy from Mississippi, Pride is a minority owner of the Texas Rangers. He got to the big leagues after all.
Topics: All-Star Game, Birmingham Black Barons, Boise Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, California Angels, Charley Pride, Chicago Cubs, Class C, Class D, Cooperstown, Country Music Hall Of Fame, Country Singing, Fond Du Lac, Hank Aaron, Louisville Clippers, Major League, Memphis Red Sox, Mississippi, Negro Leagues, Negrol Leagues Baesball Museum, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Sledge, Texas Rangers, Wisconsin