American baseball player Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe (1902–2005) excelled as a pitcher and catcher for numerous Negro League baseball teams. Radcliffe played ball professionally for 32 years, managing teams as well for 22 of them. He later was a scout for the Cleveland Indians. When he died at age 103 on August 11, 2005, he was the oldest known living professional baseball player in the United States.
Radcliffe was born on July 7, 1902, in Mobile, Alabama. His father was a house builder and he had eight siblings, including a brother, Alex, who also played in the Negro Leagues. Radcliffe took an early interest in baseball and grew up playing with legendary pitcher and sometime teammate Satchel Paige. He learned to control his pitches by tossing a ball into a bucket. Other big names from Mobile include Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, Cleon Jones and home-run king Hank Aaron.
A team in Montgomery, Alabama, tried to recruit Radcliffe when he was 15 or 16, but his father rejected the potential deal, saying his son was too young. When he was 17, Radcliffe and one of his brothers hopped a freight train to Chicago, Illinois, where they joined with a third brother who had relocated to the Midwest after serving in the U.S. Army. The rest of the family joined them there. For a while, Radcliffe made a living laboring at brickyards and other sites throughout the Midwest, and shooting dice on the side. At that time, African-American players were not permitted to play in the major leagues. The Radcliffe family lived just four blocks from the field where the Negro League American Giants played, and Radcliffe also had an aunt who lived next door to the ballpark. He and his brothers snuck into the park regularly to watch games and eventually the team asked him to pitch batting practice, rewarding him with a soft drink or lemonade.
Radcliffe often played baseball at a nearby playground, where one day he pitched against the semi-professional Illinois Giants. He struck out so many pro players, the manager invited him to join the team. "We'd go out every year and make $50 for every fifteen games," Radcliffe recalled in John Holoway's 1975 book, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues. "[The manager] would pay all our expenses, which wasn't bad in those days." The team toured throughout the United States and Canada playing semipro white teams. "Traveled in a bus like those school buses," Radcliffe recalled in Voices. "You had fourteen ballplayers, all we carried. Seven on that side, seven on this side, luggage in the back. And the owner drove the bus. Sometimes one of us would help him. They taught me how to drive because I didn't need sleep much, and so I had to drive most of the time. He would give me big money—$10 a week—to help him drive. Ten dollars was a lot of money in those days. You could get ham and eggs for a quarter."
Radcliffe stayed with the Giants through 1927 and made his Negro League debut with the Detroit Stars in 1928, serving as both pitcher and catcher. His first year with the team, the Stars played the major league all-stars. He left the team in 1929 after the manager refused his request for a raise and he returned to another Chicago team, the Union Giants. In 1930, the St. Louis Stars traded three players for Radcliffe. He stayed with the team one year, during which they won the pennant. Radcliffe next played for the Home-stead Grays in Pittsburgh. In 1931, he hit the longest home run of his career. "I don't know how far the ball went," he recalled in Voices. "There was a playground for kids in back of the fence, and the left fielder didn't even bother to go get it. That was the most terrific ball I ever hit in my life."
Radcliffe joined hometown friend, Paige, on the better-paying Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932, along with Grays teammates Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Ted Page. That year, the team played a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. While writer Damon Runyon came to see Paige, he left impressed with Radcliffe's ability to pitch and catch—he caught while Paige pitched a shutout in the first game, then pitched his own shutout in the second. "It was worth the price of two admissions to see 'Double Duty' Radcliffe play," Runyon wrote in his newspaper column the next day. The nickname stuck with Radcliffe. In his later years, Radcliffe made no secret of his illegal pitching methods. Although he was never caught, he was known for his "emery ball" in which he scratched one side of the ball with an emery board. Radcliffe' methods behind the plate were unorthodox as well. He had the words "Thou Shalt Not Steal" emblazoned across his chest protector and in the latter part of his career wrapped a steak in a handkerchief inside his mitt for extra padding against Paige's fastballs.
Combined Player and Manager
In 1934, Radcliffe moved to Jamestown, North Dakota, to manage a white team that traveled throughout Canada playing major league all-stars. The tour was canceled after player Jimmy Foxx was hit in the head with a pitch during a game in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The next year, Radcliffe and Paige played for a predominantly white team in Bismarck, North Dakota. The team won a semipro tournament in Wichita, Kansas, with Paige pitching five games and Radcliffe pitching two and catching two. In Voices, Radcliffe recalled that when the Bismarck team arrived in Wichita, he and Paige—the only African American players on the team—were barred from the hotel where the team had reservations. Although the team manager threatened to sue the hotel, Radcliffe and Paige settled the matter quietly by staying instead at a rooming house.
In 1936, Radcliffe managed the Claybrook Tigers of Memphis, Tennessee. They drew more fans than the city's white team. Radcliffe then managed the Memphis Red Sox from 1937 to 1942. Beginning in 1941, after the regular season, he and Paige played with a team that challenged the major league all-stars in a series of games. From 1941 to 1945 they did not lose a single game in which Paige pitched. Radcliffe returned to Chicago in 1943 to manage the pennant-winning American Giants. That year, he was named the Most Valuable Player in the Negro American League. Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team and an entrepreneur in the Negro Baseball League, recruited Radcliffe to the pennant-winning Black Barons in Birmingham, Alabama, where he played in 1944 and 1945. Radcliffe also managed the Globetrotters baseball team briefly in 1945. He played for a year in Mexico after that, and was recruited back to the Homestead Grays in 1947. That team also won the pennant.
Radcliffe joined back up with the Globetrotters for a series of "barnstorming" games across the United States against the House of David team, associated with a religious colony based in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The Globetrotters won 105 games and lost 10. Radcliffe returned again to Chicago as manager of the American Giants in 1950, his last year in the Negro Leagues. In 1951 he managed a pennant-winning white team in Winnipeg and, at the end of that season, Radcliffe retired. By the end of his baseball career, he had played in six East-West all-star games, three times as a pitcher and three as a catcher. In the 1944 all-star game at Chicago's Comiskey Park, he hit a game-winning home run. He exited the Negro Leagues with a .282 batting average and a 53-33 pitching record. He batted .407 in eight recorded games against white major league teams.
In a 1992 interview with Shelley Smith for Sports Illustrated, Radcliffe recalled his many exhausting but exciting days during his 32 years as a baseball player: "We loved it most when we were playing doubleheaders. One time we played four games in one day. At 9:45 a.m. we played an exhibition against Stan Musial's high school team in Pennsylvania. At 1 p.m. we played the Ethiopian Clowns in a doubleheader. Then at 8:30 p.m. in Wheeling, West Virginia, we played an American Legion team. I went back to the house at 4:30 a.m., and my landlord wanted to know if I was hungry and did I want a steak. I said yes. I woke up later that day with me on the bed still in my wet uniform and the steak still on the dresser."
Retired but Active
After retiring, Radcliffe served as the Globetrotters' secretary for two years. From 1962 to 1966, he worked as a scout for the Cleveland Indians, a job he secured through Saperstein. Later, he ran a bar in Chicago and toward the end of his life was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Chicago White Sox each year on his birthday. Radcliffe faced difficulties in later life as well, however. Living in a public housing project overrun by gangs, he and his wife of 58 years, Alberta, who died in 1992, faced violence and fear. "I've been held up twice in front of my house and in my car. They beat on me. You're always living in doubt, like something's going to happen. When you go out your door, you don't know what's going to happen," Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko quoted Radcliffe as saying in 1989. The couple was even once beaten and robbed. Following Royko's column and outcries from other members of the media, the Chicago mayor's office and the Baseball Assistance Team, which provides aid to needy former baseball players, helped the Radcliffes relocate.
Radcliffe was honored along with 14 other Negro League legends at Washington D.C.'s RFK stadium in May 2005. He threw the ceremonial first pitch from a golf cart behind the mound by handing the ball to Washington Nationals coach Don Buford. At the time, Radcliffe was the oldest living known professional baseball player alive. He died on August 11, 2005, in Chicago. "Double Duty shared such a love for baseball and a passion for life," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf remembered in an obituary posted on ESPN.com. "We all loved to see him at the ballpark, listen to his stories and share in his laughter. He leaves such a great legacy after experiencing so much history and change during his long life."
In Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, Radcliffe recounted the joys of playing in the Negro Leagues—and the discrimination he faced over the years. "I've had a good life," he stated. "Of course, we didn't have as much luck as the people got today, 'cause we couldn't stay in the white hotels then. The only place we stayed in a white hotel was up around North Dakota or Canada. We couldn't do it around here (Chicago). But then some people never had the opportunity we had. Some people come along and dig ditches all their lives." In a 2002 interview with Nancy Armour of the Los Angeles Times, Radcliffe reflected on his long career. "I could pitch and catch all my life," he said. "I thank God he gave me the strength to make a good name for myself."
Holway, John, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, rev. ed., Da Capo Press, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, November 20, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2002.
Sports Illustrated, July 6, 1992.
"'Double Duty' Radcliffe Dies at 103," ESPN online, http://espn.go.com/classic/obit/s/2005/0811/2131415.html (December 3, 2005).