Jim Freeman was a real gem of a guy. He had a big, broad, infectious smile and an almost magical laugh, just a wonderful way about him. I remember my last conversation with Jim like it was yesterday. I was at his home in Decatur’s Mueller Park neighborhood – the inner city, the ‘hood. Decatur is an old Midwest factory town with a lot of economic challenge.
Jim was telling story after story, firsthand accounts of Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil and other legendary players of the Negro League days. I was completely enthralled, as I always was when Jim shared his recollections on so many occasions. My favorite story went something like this:
I was on first base. I was fairly fast in my day. I took a good lead off the base. I took off on the pitch and the batter ripped one into the outfield. I rounded second and headed for third base at full speed. Now Old Satch was coachin’ third base. Satch is wavin’ me in and I didn’t hesitate. I cut the corner of that base and raced for home. Well (laughing), next thing I know the catcher is holding the ball and tags me out (more laughing). I slides but he gets me. I get up and dust myself off and head to the dugout. Buck, that’s Buck O’Neil, our manager, is goin’ crazy. I said, “Well, Satch told me to go.” Buck gets this look on his face and says, “Come on, Jim. You know Satch can’t coach third base.” (a lot more laughing).
Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line in the spring of 1947 when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was a landmark event, a breakthrough for Civil Rights in America. However, it is important to remember that television coverage was very limited in those days. The Dodgers did make it to the World Series that year with Jackie Robinson. While television did cover that World Series (the first series ever to be on television), the transmission was limited to the New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. corridor. The point is that, even after Jackie Robinson in 1947, the baseball color line remained on baseball fields all across America. Each and every one of those baseball color lines had to be broken by courageous individuals. Jim Freeman was one of those and his story is important. This is the account of a wonderful man, a fine ballplayer and one glorious season.
Jim’s good friend was the hard-hitting Andy Smith. The close friendship on and off the field of one African American player and one white player helped to show Decatur that integration was possible. Smith was a promising ballplayer, seemingly headed to the major leagues when World War Two broke out. He served in the Philippines with the elite Alamo Scouts. Among their daring accomplishments was the Cabanatuan POW Raid behind Japanese lines near the end of the war (the story made into the movie THE GREAT RAID). Andy Smith was wounded during the war and never again re-gained his throwing arm. He took the setback in stride and dazzled Midwest League fans with his abilities and hustle.
THE 1953 DECATUR COMMODORES
(following the 1952 season covered in the article)
Jim Freeman is front row, center