A legacy on the diamond in Columbus

By Seth Putnam/The (Columbus) Commerical Dispatch

COLUMBUS — Jerry Hairston Sr. stood in an empty field in western Lowndes County.

As he stepped into the grass, he lifted his hands to grasp an imaginary bat and took a swing at a baseball only he could see.

With his imposing athletic build, the 58-year-old man knocked the invisible ball out of the park. He watched it sail over the imaginary fences.

He was back at his roots, back where his father’s story began and where it will continue.

Jerry Hairston’s father, Sam Hairston, was born in Crawford in a small house on a meandering 1 1/2-lane street that winds its way through county fields. He came up through the Lowndes school system, and he loved baseball.

These days, the path from playing boyhood ball to earning the big bucks in the majors is much like any other sport: Play well in high school, earn a college scholarship, then catch the eye of a big-league team.

In Sam Hairston’s day, baseball was a sport drawn on the racial lines dividing a country.

Jerry Hairston Sr. said his father played pick-up ball in open fields and lots. Then he moved to Birmingham, Ala., and joined a pipe company’s team in the city’s amateur industrial league. Shortly afterward, he was discovered by the Birmingham Black Barons, a Negro League team. After a year of playing with them, he transferred to the Indianapolis Clowns.

Jerry Hairston Sr., a former left-fielder for the Chicago White Sox, and Columbus officials are making plans for a baseball field and an October celebration in honor of his father.

Recently, Jerry Hairston got his first look at what will be Sam Hairston Field. And he listened to historians and retired ball players remember what the sport was like when his father played.

“There was no money in it unless you made it to the majors,” said John Dickerson, a Columbus native who played in the Negro League for the Chicago American Giants in from 1951 to 1953. “I made $250 a month.”

On top of the meager pay, players were faced with the ever-present scourge of segregation.

“There was no place to sleep,” Dickerson said. “The white hotels were white, so we slept and ate on the bus.”

In Columbus, the historic Queen City Hotel was the only option for players in the Negro League. During a time when Jim Crow ruled the South, famous black musicians like Louis Armstrong, B.B. King and Duke Ellington also stayed at the hotel while in town.

Sam Hairston played at the same time as such eventual major-league greats as Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, but he dominated them in the Negro League with substantially better stats, said Glenn Lautzenhiser, who has thrown himself into planning Hairston’s celebration because of his passion for baseball.

In 1950, Hairston won the Negro League’s triple crown with a .424 batting average, 17 home runs and 71 RBI. Mays even credited Hairston as a mentor, Lautzenhiser said.

After such a banner year, Hairston was noticed by the White Sox and became the first black American to sign with the team. He debuted in 1951 and brought in a run. Though he only had five at-bats in three more games in a White Sox uniform, his career didn’t end there. He played for a few more years in the minors and even won another batting title before becoming a scout for the White Sox.

By the time he died in 1997, his professional career in baseball had spanned 47 years.

He also sired the largest three-generation family in Major League Baseball.

His sons, Jerry Sr. and Johnny, played for the Chicago White Sox and Cubs, respectively. His grandsons, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Scott Hairston, both currently play for the San Diego Padres.

Jerry Hairston Jr. also appeared in last year’s World Series as a Yankee.

With a new crop of great-grandchildren springing up, it looks like the Hairston baseball legacy just might make it to four generations.

From Oct. 14-16, the city will host the Sam Hairston Celebration 2010, the latest in a string of events honoring some of Columbus’ famous native sons. In recent years, the self-proclaimed Celebration Committee has recognized broadcaster Walter “Red” Barber and boxer Henry Armstrong, two of Columbus’ sports icons.

Now, the city plans to build a ballpark in honor of Hairston, who was the first African-American to play for the Chicago White Sox.

“He was a man who touched baseball and the entire community,” said Lautzenhiser.

When Jackie Robinson first broke into the majors in 1947, “the door swung open, but it didn’t swing open that wide,” he said.

By the time Sam Hairston played with the White Sox in 1951, there were still few African-Americans in the league, and the Sox were only the sixth team to sign one.

“We’re hopeful that this facility will allow us to do a major annual tournament as well,” said Lowndes County Supervisor Jeff Smith, in whose district the ballfield will be located.

“This is a rural area with little recreation for young people, and this park gives them that opportunity,” Smith said.

The committee is also in talks with the White Sox regarding the ball club’s potential involvement in October’s festivities. Although it is unlikely the field will be constructed by October, Lautzenhiser said that there’s a full lineup of activities during the memorial event.

During the week leading up to the festival, Larry Lester, a founder of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., will address several area schools about the importance of baseball in the community.

On Oct. 15, the Celebration Committee will dedicate the complex and unveil a historic marker at the site of the field. On Oct. 16, there will be another historic marker unveiled at the Queen City Hotel.

Jerry Hairston Sr. was touched by the recognition of his father.

“I’m humbled by the work that’s being done here. My dad would be proud of the use of baseball for the development of the youth in this community,” he said.

Weyerhaeuser, a pulp and paper company donated 10 acres of land and $15,000 toward the completion of the ballpark. The estimated final cost of the complex is $116,000.