By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 2, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ President Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the family of Jackie Robinson this week, in posthumous honor of the man who broke through major league baseball’s racial barrier in 1947. Unmentioned and unmourned was the late Eddie Klep, who crossed baseball’s color line a year earlier _ in the opposite direction.
Klep was the first white man to play Negro League ball.
A short-lived pioneer, he washed out in his first season as a Cleveland Buckeye. A few years later he was wearing the uniform of the Rockview (Pa.) State Prison baseball team. In talent, character and impact, he was no Jackie Robinson.
But Eddie Klep’s exploits, such as they were, serve as a reminder that integration is a two-way street. Beyond the brave tales of celebrated black breakthroughs, the path toward racial progress is also adorned with intriguing stories of white Americans willing to go where others feared to tread, everyday people distinguishing themselves with simple acts of colorblind comradeship.
“Here’s an ordinary guy, an ordinary person, who’s trying to realize his dreams and ambitions, and he gets an opportunity to do something that’s a very significant mark of progress in our society,” said Larry Gerlach, a historian at the University of Utah and former president of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Not the usual stuff of folk ballads and scholarly research, Klep’s story has found its way into both.
In 1996, Gerlach presented a paper on him at a conference on Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball, held at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. The paper was published in the Journal of Sport History and again in the Elysian Fields Quarterly, a literary baseball journal based in Minneapolis, which put Klep on its cover.
Meanwhile, Chuck Brodsky, a North Carolina singer who has carved a niche in the realm of baseball folk music, set out to write a song about Robinson and instead ended up penning “The Ballad of Eddie Klep”: “So while Jackie played for Brooklyn and wore the Dodger blue, Eddie crossed the color line, the one without a queue.”
Clearly, Klep could not compare to Robinson, on the field or off.
“If he had been any good he would have been at least in the (white) minors,” said James A. Riley, director of research for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Riley, who lives outside Atlanta, wrote The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, which includes an entry on Klep.
While Dodgers President Branch Rickey carefully chose Robinson for his personal qualities, Klep, Riley said, “was not a high-class guy, bottom line.”
What Robinson and Klep shared was the wrath visited on them by some whites, and the challenge each posed to Jim Crow. Both men were often unable to sleep at the same hotel or eat at the same restaurant as their teammates. But Klep was more alone.
“He got the same kind of crap Robinson got, but he didn’t have the same backup support group to help him through it,” said his son, Edward Klep Jr., a Northrop Grumman engineer who lives in Shawboro, N.C.
The parallels were sometimes striking.
On March 23, 1946, officials in Jacksonville, Fla., canceled a minor league spring training game to keep Robinson from playing there. The very next day, police in Birmingham, Ala., were dispatched to Rickwood Field to pull Klep from the lineup of the visiting Buckeyes, forcing him to change into civilian clothes and sit in the “white” stands away from his team.
The Birmingham police acted under the direction of Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, who first rose to fame as a baseball announcer, and, 17 years later, secured his place in history by turning police dogs and fire hoses on black children called to protest by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He was right on the edge of everything in the world that was going on,” said Klep’s son. “I don’t know whether he realized it or not.”
Klep grew up playing interracial ball in his hometown of Erie, Pa. A hard-throwing left-handed pitcher, he landed a berth at age 26 on a semipro local all-star team that played the Buckeyes, champions of the Negro American League, in September 1945. Klep threw three strong innings against them. The Buckeyes’ owner, Ernest P. Wright Sr., fashioning himself as a black Branch Rickey, agreed to give Klep a shot the following March.
In the end, Klep would only pitch in three games.
He acquitted himself well in his first two outings, posting two victories and allowing just one earned run.
But in early June, he was brought in against the Indianapolis Clowns in the top of the ninth of an 8-8 game, bases loaded and one out. As recounted in the Post and Call, Cleveland’s black newspaper, “the lad was nicked for two hits and three runs before retiring the side.”
After the game, the Buckeyes released Klep _ he had failed to “measure up,” according to manager Quincy Trouppe.
“Klep appeared very bitter,” the Call and Post reported, his Negro League career over after only seven innings on the mound. According to Gerlach, he returned to Erie, where he played with a black semipro team. But his life was soon marred, as it had been before, by petty crimes and prison time for theft, drunkenness, fornication and adultery.
Edward Klep Jr. didn’t know about his father’s Negro League season until he read about it in a 1987 Sports Illustrated piece timed to the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking in with the Dodgers.
Then again, Klep Jr. didn’t know that was his name or that Eddie Klep was his father until he went into the Army. That is when he learned the woman he thought his mother was really his grandmother, and that his “sister” Ethel was really his mother. Eddie was Ethel’s absent husband, a likable layabout who promised the boy a first baseman’s mitt and never delivered.
“They were on and off for years,” Klep Jr. said of his parents. “She never remarried, though she had boyfriends, black and white.”
The last time he and his mother saw the elder Klep was a few years before his death in 1981. He was in a state home in Los Angeles, long lost to drink, and didn’t seem to know who they were.
His mother would tell him about his father’s baseball career, and before her death in 1999, they sold the rights to the story to Hollywood. First, Dennis Leary was interested in the part, and then, Klep Jr. was told, Adam Sandler, but he has heard nothing of late.
The son gets the occasional call when attention turns to Jackie Robinson. His own 28-year-old _ “the blackest white kid in the world” _ gets a kick out of his heritage. “It’s something he takes a little pride in,” Klep Jr. said.
Fittingly, what may be the best accounting of Klep’s contribution came the day he was released, in the report by Cleveland Jackson, the writer with the Call and Post:
“Braving the taunts, insults and threats of an outraged southern public, Klep showed true blue.
“If Buckeye officials’ reports are true, then Eddie Klep isn’t ready for big league baseball. But in the hearts of every true American sportsman, there is an indelible feeling that little Eddie Klep is ready for the highest award in sportsmanship. He is a great little guy.”