BLEACHER SEAT PERSPECTIVES ON BLACK BASEBALL
Here is a favorite photo of Matthew Mack Davis and me from 2019 at a Juneteenth event involving former players from Virginia’s black baseball teams. To my listening pleasure Mack was revealing the secret to his pitching success and longevity, proficiency with throwing the curveball. We had known each other twenty years but this was a new piece of privileged information. Turns out that while he was known for his fastball, he developed a vaunted curve and change up with technique passed down from another black baseball legend. Mack died yesterday at age 88. Was it what he meant to black baseball in Virginia or what it meant to him? Knowing him and his enthusiasm for the game and the respect and admiration from fellow players I can say both apply.
Mack made the games and the games made him. He was a leader on the Giants ball team and a leader in his community. When league play finally came to fruition in the 1960s Mack and Barboursville were all in, greatly influencing other longtime area teams to follow suit. In his heyday of the 50s and 60s players loved competing against him boasting of the few hits they got off of Mack but in latter days long after the ball games were no more, former players loved to visit with the tall elder all-star, entertained by his long memory for baseball stories that only got better as time passed.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Harrisonburg AC's traveled nearly all of Virginia and welcomed allcomers in Bridgewater and Harrisonburg City. There were many memorable matchups close to home but a random opportunity to test their diamond skills occured outside of the Commonwealth. The late Roscoe Burgess Sr. recalled the summer contest in 1999.
I’ll never forget that one game we played down there in South Carolina. We had em 3 to 2. And in the last inning we had two outs with the bases loaded, and they stopped the game when some guy come up in a car. And a guy took his uniform and gave it to him. Boy! And when he came there everybody started hollering. “Here he comes the game’s over now!” Big guy! So, my first cousin was pitching—Don Burgess, everybody called him “turkey neck” or “Stove Pipe.”
I went to the mound; I was the catcher, and I said look this guy must be good with all this carrying on! Guys in the stands started betting, saying ok I’ll bet you on the game now! And I said, I don’t know about this guy…what do you think cuz? And he said, you call it and I’ll throw it. Guy came to bat, looked at me and said, “goodnight turkey!” I said, we’re waiting on a guy like you anyway, we want you up here! Don did his windup and I gave him the signal to just fire it hard down there. It didn’t have to be a strike, just fire it down there. Ah! That’s what I want! And he jumped back and patted his shoes.
And he (Don) fired down there again, and he swung and missed. And it was a ball and a strike! And he threw again…and he swung and missed. I said this guy can’t hit! I said, I don’t know why all these people are up there hollering? This turkey’s already out of here! I used to talk a lot back there trying to get your concentration off the game. I said, what do you want? You can’t hit a fastball, what do you want? You want him to throw you a curve, can you hit a curve?
He said, anything you throw down here, I can hit! I thought to myself; he already saw two fastballs, so I’m sure he’s looking for another fastball…My cousin could throw a knuckle pretty good. I didn’t want to throw it because he was liable to kill it, but I went ahead and called it, and this guy’s still swinging—didn’t touch nothing! Guys were up in the stands chasing each other trying to get their money! Afterwards I was told that was the first time they’d known him to strike out in a long time because that guy could hit a ball. And later he told me, he said, “I would have never believed that I wouldn’t have touched the ball…I didn’t even touch the ball!