Macon’s Jackies: The forgotten story of Samuel Drake and Ernest Johnson

charvey@macon.comMay 10, 2009 

There was a chill in the air that night.

The winds, stagnant for much of the hot, high-mercury day, were finally building to a calming crescendo that brought a peaceful cool to a city transitioning to nightfall.

At last, the scorching 82-degree heat that filled Macon’s daytime hours was giving way to a more comfortable evening that — for several thousand Maconites — was capped by a hard-fought, well-earned trip to the ballpark.

But unlike all those other springtime nights the throng was used to spending at the stately baseball park by the railroad tracks, this one was different. Although it felt, looked and seemed like another ordinary April night, April 12, 1955 was far from anything any spectator at Luther Williams Field had ever seen.

For the first time in the 26-year history of Macon’s professional baseball franchise, the Macon Peaches, the infield dirt wasn’t the only thing darker than the ball.

That night, black ballplayers donned the same uniforms countless white athletes had worn for a quarter-century. For the first time, members of the two races finally stood along the first base line, side-by-side and singing the national anthem as they kicked off a game, and started a season.

The winds of change had finally shifted in Macon; black ballplayers could now run, dive and slide down the same forlorn base paths whose trails had long been littered by the blood, sweat and tears of their white counterparts.

And as they stood and watched then-Macon Mayor B.F. Merritt toss out the first pitch from the grandstand, little did a 20-year-old Samuel Drake and a 24-year-old Ernest “Schoolboy” Johnson know that they were set to make a long-lasting impact on the community that surrounded them.

Trendsetters embarking on an emotional, never-before-seen journey in Middle Georgia, they were Macon’s Jackie Robinsons.

CALLED OUT OF NAME

As tiny rain pellets fell from the dark-gray blob of clouds that descended upon the ballpark, Johnson dug in the batter’s box.

Rapping a hard ground ball in the infield, the left fielder sprinted out of his stance and glided safely across first base, leading off the home half of the first inning with an infield single. A former barnstorming pitcher, Johnson’s legs and sharp batter’s eye kept him from seeing too much of the pitcher’s mound.

“I was always a better hitter than I was a pitcher,” Johnson said recently, fondly recalling his knack for finding base hits.

While playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, Robinson made it his own routine to beat out those kinds of infield singles, electrifying every game he played.

Although he’s now heralded as a modern-day American hero, the tough, gritty second baseman was not always held in high esteem. Despised in the 1950s by many, Robinson burst on the scene in 1947 to capture the league’s inaugural Rookie of the Year Award, as well as the nation’s consciousness.

A black man born in South Georgia and raised in California, he set foot on Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field one April day in 1947 to become the first black to play Major League Baseball in the sport’s modern era. Just eight seasons ahead of Drake and Johnson, Robinson’s dramatic opening day appearance struck a longstanding, unwritten rule from the game.

Effectively barred from the sport, blacks were the subject of an 1887 “gentleman’s agreement” major league owners and managers reached to keep baseball reserved for the play of white players.

That pronouncement struck a similar chord to an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that called on limited interactions between the races, and asked for the creation of “separate, but equal” institutions in the country. That included the creation of separate school, job and housing structures for white and black Americans, as well as the enforcement of laws that forced the races to maintain separate water fountain and dining facilities.

In Macon, in 1955, they still existed.

With segregationist Jim Crow laws pervading the South, Drake and Johnson found their options for entertainment and food to be far less plentiful than what their white teammates enjoyed. Sure, Macon’s black community reached out to the pair and was very supportive of them, Drake recalled, but that didn’t stop the simple fact that neither player could not even sit down briefly in white-owned establishments at home and on the road.

“There was a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant there they had for us (blacks),” the now 78-year-old Drake said, pausing as he recalled his yearlong stint with the Peaches. “But I didn’t have any choice. That was it. And then when we traveled, I had to stay on the bus while they would go and bring my food to me. That was very degrading.

“It hurt, man. It really did.”

As a result, Drake’s and Johnson’s interactions with the rest of the team were very limited, former Peaches outfielder Travis Eckert recalled.

“If we were at home, we were playing ball every day, and then you did what you needed to do. You’d hang out until it was time to go to batting practice or whatever,” said Eckert, now 77. “They were with us during the games and on the road trips, but the rest of the time, they spent to themselves.”

The time away from his white teammates gave Drake ample opportunities to reflect on the painful parts of his baseball experience, as he rhetorically asked, both to himself and to Johnson, “Why? Why did people have to be so hard on them just because of how they looked?”

On the field, the pair was subjected to similar jeers and hate-laced slurs that Robinson faced when he first took the field eight years before.

“It was the fans and the city itself where I had the problem,” Drake said. “It was the same way they treated Jackie Robinson. They threw black cats on the field, called me all out of my name and everything else. They called me the ‘N’-word, OK. They called me burr head. Or ‘black this, black that.’ And these are my home fans. I’m not talking about when I would be traveling to Savannah and all these other Southern cities.”

A second baseman brought to the Class-A affiliate after impressing Peaches manager John “Pepper” Martin and general manager Tom Gordon in spring training, Drake was a speedy infielder — “God had blessed me with so much speed,” Drake said, proudly. “I ran the 100-yard dash in 9.7 seconds. It’s on my baseball card.” — with a strong arm.

A native of Little Rock, Ark., Drake attended college at Philander Smith, and was one of the few players on the team with a post-secondary education.

“We were the only two players who had a college education, so we always had something to talk about when we were together,” Eckert said.

An All-American at Texas, Eckert came to the Cubs organization with high hopes for his burgeoning career. But since he wasn’t the same highly-valued prospect as players like Drake, his career did not pan out as he hoped, and the following year, he was out of baseball and in real estate.

HITS TO KEEP BLEACHER BUMS AWAY

The words directed at Johnson were just as harsh, but in his mind, the treatment, had far less impact.

A retiree from Armstrong Tire and Rubber in Des Moines, Iowa, Johnson is 80 now, and still as mobile as he ever was before.

Between visiting family in Georgia, taking trips to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and speaking to little leaguers in Iowa about his circuitous baseball path, the former Peaches outfielder is still well-traveled.

Along with the same youthful smile and laugh that helped give him the nickname “Schoolboy,” Johnson continues to talk with a quiet ease in his voice. Speaking in calm, relaxed tones, he still sees the world with the same patience that guided his smooth left-handed swing to the .291 batting average he maintained during his brief stint in Macon.

“Oh yeah, I could hit now,” Johnson said with a laugh.

At times during the 30-game appearance, the hits came in bunches. They had no choice, he said. It was either hit, or be hit between the ears with stinging insults about his race.

“They would say some things to me, and I would just try to prove … well, I felt that, if you called me a name, I’ll go up there and try to get me a base hit,” Johnson said with defiance, as if he could hear the taunts again. “That’s the way I felt. The more names you call me, the better I’m going to play.”

During his monthlong stay, Johnson played well, coming away with 32 hits and six doubles.

Drake, who played the entire season in Macon, enjoyed a good year himself, batting .251, while amassing a pair of triples, and at times during the season, leading the South Atlantic League in stolen bases. But regardless his on-field exploits, he had a much harder time managing the hatred directed toward him.

“It’s kind of a hard environment to come out at night and do your best with all that stuff hanging over you,” Drake said.

Living in the segregated South after spending a year away from his Arkansas home to play in Canada, Drake had a difficult time adjusting on the field.

Some days, while playing second base, his anger boiled on the inside as home fans chanted for Martin to replace him. They’d rather watch less talented, backup utility infielder Chico Fernandez than Drake, they shouted. A player of Cuban decent, Fernandez starred at second the previous season.

“The thing I can remember (about Drake) is how Mr. Drake was sometimes upset,” Johnson said. “Pepper, he loved Sammy Drake because Sammy could really run. And that was Pepper’s type of baseball, and that was one of the reasons why we went to Macon (from spring training): because Pepper fell in love with Sammy.

“But the guys in the bleachers would yell at Sammy and say like, ‘We want Chico, We want Chico Fernandez back at second base, get that N----r out of there!’ This would totally upset anyone.”

Although it took several agonizing weeks, the hostilities eventually quieted down as the season wore on.

Just before the end of May, those aggressions ended for Johnson, as he was shipped off to Twin Falls, Idaho, cut from the Peaches along with Eckert because the team had too many outfielders, and not enough genuine interest in either of the two.

“I could play circles around those other guys, but they had zero dollars invested in me; they weren’t interested in my benefit, they were more interested in the ones they had money in,” Eckert said. “It’s not like it is today where (teams) have gillions of dollars from advertising and things like that, and can pay as many players as they want.”

With Johnson out of the picture, Drake was by himself as the Peaches’ lone black player.

“It was very difficult being alone,” Drake said. “I really didn’t have anybody to reach out to from that perspective expect the manager, and the manager was one of the nicest white persons I had ever met, Pepper Martin.”

THE YEAR THAT ALMOST WASN’T

On May 20, Macon News sports editor Wallace Reid invited Drake into his office to interview him for a pair of stories.

The day before, the middle infielder was the victim of a hard slide that drew the ire of the Peaches and caused Reid to question the umpires’ judgment.

It took place in the top of the sixth inning of a 2-1 Peaches win at Luther Williams, when Augusta Tigers center fielder Keith Jones headed into second base late, sliding high and well after Drake had stepped on the bag for the front-end of a double play.

“The day we asked (Drake) to stop by the office for a talk was the day after the big center fielder from Augusta had slashed Drake’s thigh with a ripping pair of spikes,” Reid wrote May 26, “and needless to say, the young ballplayer was still sporting a sore leg from the incident.”

According to the News’ game story from the May 19 spiking, Drake was left with a four-inch long gash on his thigh that required stitches.

It was Reid who later gave Drake a venue to talk to the city’s readership, as he informed Peaches fans that no matter how high the pressure was for him to succeed his first weeks in Macon, he would continue to play the best baseball for them he could muster.

“I have settled down and will be doing all right as soon as I bring my batting back up to par,” Drake explained in a late-May Reid column.

The reason for a less-than-stellar opening month for Drake, the sports writer ascertained, was the treatment the ballplayer had been getting from fans. But even that, he acknowledged, had improved as the season progressed.

“Although there have been a few local fans who objected to the move (of bringing in Drake and Johnson), vocally and otherwise, most of them have indicated that they would judge the situation on how well the players perform,” Reid wrote. “Which is the measurement applied to any player by most of the fans.”

Reid and Macon Telegraph counterpart Sam Glassman played a critical role in telling the stories of the players from the 1955 season and helping give spectators a team for which to cheer.

Halfway through the 1954 season, team owners Sanders Walker and William A. Fickling announced they were going to drop the club at the end of that season, heralding the potential demise of the Macon franchise.

Without a potential financier, private citizens — fueled by the public support of Reid, Glassman and Mayor Merritt — formed a fund-raising coalition to come up with funds that would allow the team to operate the following year.

Organized through agreements with various social and civic groups in Macon, the appropriate monies were raised by the beginning of March 1955, clearing the path for baseball to be played.

One factor that made it more enticing for donors to give was the news out of spring training that Martin would take over as manager. Nicknamed the “Wild Horse of Osage,” Martin was a scrappy, speedy ballplayer for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s who brought that same fire to the bench.

Watching Drake play in much the same way at spring training camp in Lafayette, La., Martin knew 1955 had to be the year baseball was integrated in Macon.

“Pepper told me,” Peaches general manager Tom Gordon said to Glassman in a column written the week before opening day, “that no other player in camp could catch (Drake). If we could get him, he would not only set our club, but would make it great instead of good.”

Despite Martin’s support for Drake, his fiery demeanor was still too much for a team full of early-to-mid 20 year olds. By the middle of July, with his team slipping in the standings, Martin was no longer the manager, and former Peaches skipper Ivy Griffin took over.

“He didn’t bother me because things were so much different then than they are now,” former Peaches outfielder Lee Bohlender said of Martin’s aggressive, in-your-face managerial style. “If you wanted to get any place, you had to hustle, and you had to play the game hard, and he always did play the game hard, I’ll give him credit for that.

“He was always after you, which was a good thing, but some players, that don’t work. Some players, you’ve got to encourage them instead of raising the devil with them like that all the time. Baseball knowledge-wise, he knew the game, there’s no problem on that. But he was kind of lacking on handling different types of men. In other words, if you get 20 or 25 ballplayers together, you’re going to have different dispositions, and as a manager, you’ve got to sit down and work these things out.”

AN ENDURING LEGACY

Standing in a replica red-and-white striped Kansas City Monarchs hat, Johnson leans on a cage fence, and grins.

Unmistakably his, it was the same grin he often displayed as a clean-shaven 19-year-old while barnstorming with the House of David baseball team. The group, comprised of bearded men who practiced vegetarianism and lived communally, was a stark contrast to Johnson’s boyish, teenage looks. He stood out.

“I was so much younger than everybody else, so naturally, I never had to shave,” Johnson said.

But on an overcast day in 2008, that famous grin returned, the product of what was happening on the field in front of him.

Hunched over in anticipation of the pitcher’s pitch, a group of Racoon Valley (Iowa) Little Leaguers played defense in brand new uniforms.

A special guest, Johnson was on hand to talk to the players about what it was like to play in the Negro Leagues. Just before he joining the Cubs’ organization, Johnson played four seasons with the Monarchs and even appeared in the 1953 East-West All-Star Game in Chicago.

Part of what later became an award-winning feature segment for WHO-TV Des Moines, Johnson was captured on camera the afternoon he spent at Racoon Valley and thanked the players — black, white and Asian in background — for wanting to learn his history.

For the rest of that season, and others to follow, plastered across the front of the players’ shirts and hats were contemporary logos of several prominent Negro League teams.

From the Baltimore Elite Giants, to the Monarchs to the Homestead Grays, black baseball’s legacy was being continued through these fresh faces.

“The kids were great kids, and I was able to get them the following week or so to Kansas City to the Negro League museum,” Johnson told The Telegraph. “Every year, the Kansas City Royals have a tribute to the Negro League, and they have guys come in and sign autographs and introduce them to the fans. It was a great few weekends for us.”

Two time zones away, Drake has been working promote Negro League baseball along with Major League Baseball.

Following his stay in Macon, the second baseman was called up to the Cubs in 1960 and served as a utility infielder, playing with friend and future Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks.

Johnson jokes, if it weren’t for him, Banks may never have had the illustrious career he went on to enjoy.

According to the former Macon outfielder, Banks popped up on Chicago’s radar screen one night in Columbus in 1953, when Cubs scout and Peaches general manager Tom Gordon saw him play for the Monarchs.

Gordon originally made the two-hour drive west because he was interested in watching an outfielder named Ernie Johnson. As it turns out, he left Columbus seeking Ernie Banks’ signature instead.

“And that’s how they started scouting Ernie (Banks). They forgot all about Ernest Johnson,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We always knew, everybody knew Ernie was great. All he needed was a shot and he would make it.”

Following Drake’s two seasons in Chicago, the infielder was selected by the New York Mets in the 1962 expansion draft. He started 25 games that season and mustered just 10 hits. After New York’s infamous 40-120 record that year, he never returned to Major League Baseball. He played another two seasons in Triple-A, but an injury forced him into early retirement from the sport.

Now living in Los Angeles, Drake serves as a Sunday School teacher in his older brother Solly Drake’s 5,000-member Greater Ebenzer Missionary Baptist Church. A former major leaguer himself, Solly Drake played for the Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. When Samuel Drake was called up in 1960, it marked the first time modern era history that two black siblings had played Major League Baseball.

“Of course we grew up in church, and I’m sure you’ve heard of some churches where back in the old days, they went to church all day? Well we were one of those, Church of God in Christ, at that time,” Samuel Drake said. “We were in church all day long.”

Their lives have taken them far from the baseball diamond, but these days, Drake and Johnson’s legacies continue on; whether they know it or not.

“I talk to my daughter and my wife, and they always say, ‘You’re a part of history,’ and I don’t know if I really feel that,” Johnson said. “I don’t know, I just feel that I played baseball, and that’s what I loved to do. That’s the way things went for me. I was a baseball player. But hey, I guess in a sense, we are a part of history. It just doesn’t hit me as it should.”

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