Editor's note: Elijah D. Miller turned 103 on Sept. 14 in West Mifflin. In the 1930s and '40s, he was a backup batboy for the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues. This article was compiled from a series of interviews over the past three years.
Call me Lucky. Everybody else does. They called me Elijah Daniel Miller -- same as my father -- til the day I scooped up a balled-up handkerchief by the road. What do you suppose fell out? A $5 bill!
"I'm gonna call you Lucky from now on!" my brother said.
Josh Gibson, the best hitter in the Negro Leagues, said I brought him luck when I lugged his big bats for the Homestead Grays. The boys in my hometown of Chester, Va., called me Lucky, too, 'specially when I knocked a single through the infield (I was a better fielder than hitter).
We played baseball every chance we got. The Lord didn't bless me with the fastest bat or the strongest arm, but I'm a pretty good rememberer. When I was little, I taught myself to say the ABCs backward as fast as you can say 'em forward. I still practice every night before I fall asleep.
The older folks used to yell at us for playing ball on Sunday, the Lord's day. But we were so good they started coming out to watch us.
When I was a teenager, I set up ball games against teams in other towns. One day, a couple white boys asked if they could play for us. Blacks and whites didn't usually play together in Virginia in the 1920s, but I said "Sure!" I'd drive everybody to games in a Model T I called Betsy (I called all my cars Betsy). I started driving when I was about 14 -- no one worried about drivers' licenses then.
When I was 16, I took my cousin to see the famous Homestead Grays play in Richmond. The Grays were the best ballplayers I'd ever seen. Sure, I heard stories about Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and other white players. But blacks weren't allowed to play in the major leagues, so black folks started the Negro Leagues.
In 1926, I moved to Homestead and got work with U.S. Steel. My job was to use a [pneumatic] chipping hammer to knock pieces off of steel beams when they came out of the molds. I started driving a truck at the mill after a doctor told me that chipping was ruining my ear drums. (He retired in 1969 after 43 years.)
U.S. Steel sponsored separate black and white baseball teams, but I didn't play for them. I helped put together my own team -- the Homestead Red Legs. I started working night-turn, from midnight to 8 in the morning, so I could play evenings and weekends.
"I think you'd rather play ball than eat," my wife Mary Jane said to me once. (He married the former Mary Jane Kane in 1937.)
At our games, we'd pass a hat in the fifth inning and the teams would split the take. We had a hat that was too big to wear, but it could hold a lotta money! Sometimes, when we needed to buy bats and balls we'd tell the other team, "We're keepin' the hat!"
I quit playing when I was in my 30s. I was playing second base one Sunday when a line drive hit me in the face and just about killed me. I gave up playing but couldn't stay away from baseball. I just couldn't.
I went to Grays games whenever I could. Some were exhibition games against local teams in places like Butler and Dormont. Others were Negro League games at Greenlee Field or Forbes Field, where the Grays played when the Pirates were out of town. At a Grays game one day, I met Dave "Spade" Sloan, the main batboy. He asked how much I'd charge to help him carry the bats from the bus.
"I won't charge you nothin'," I said.
"Then you're the man I been looking for!" he said.
For 19 years, I was the Grays' backup batboy. I couldn't go to faraway games because of my job, but I went to lots of games around here and into Ohio. I got to sit on the bench and talk to Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and the others.
Josh had three favorite bats -- No. 7, 8 and 9 (37, 38 and 39 inches). I don't remember which one he had when he hit the longest homer I ever saw, in Monessen. Standing by the side of the Monongahela River, he walloped it into Pages mill behind the left field fence. Monessen's mayor stopped the game to measure it -- 512 feet!
Josh died three months before Jackie Robinson broke into the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The best young Negro Leaguers -- guys like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron -- went, too. I quit helping Spade a year or so before the Grays disbanded in 1950.
Mary Jane and I had three kids [Annie Jane Reeves of Union, N.J.; Ruth Hines of Freedom; and Daniel E. Miller of West Mifflin]. I used to take them to see Pirates games at Forbes Field. I still go to a couple games every year at PNC Park with my family. (He has 10 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.)
If kids today coulda seen how Josh, Buck and Cool Papa played the game, maybe more of 'em would play baseball instead of football, basketball or video games.
I turned 103 years old on Sept. 14, 2009. I'm still a pretty good rememberer, don't ya think? No wonder they call me Lucky!
This article contains excerpts from "Lucky Bats," a book by Elijah Miller and Kevin Kirkland, PG Magazine editor, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. First Published October 12, 2009 4:00 AM