You have to excuse Herb Simpson for not being able to do everything at 92 years old. He already has an energy level that defies his birth certificate. He already has the humor and timing of a comedian in his prime. So if he didn’t speak softly, you wouldn’t realize that he’s old enough to be a relic of a short-lived, nearly forgotten portion of African American baseball history in Seattle.
Simpson talks as if he’s trying to balance each word on a feather. As he spoke before a Mariners game at Safeco Field last week, his words were barely audible above the singing of a youth choir preparing to perform the national anthem. It wasn’t a distraction, however. It served as fitting background music for Simpson’s testimony on baseball, race and the United States’ evolution.
The New Orleans native returned to Seattle last weekend to be a part of the Mariners’ African American Heritage Day. He joined 10 others, including, former NBA stars Bill Russell and Fred Brown, former baseball stars Alvin Davis and Dave Henderson and U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones. In 1946, the World War II veteran came to Seattle for the first time with a surprising new career aspiration — baseball player.
Before serving in the Army, Simpson had only played sandlot ball in New Orleans. Now, he was being asked to join the Seattle Steelheads of the West Coast Negro Baseball League.
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“I said, ‘Who knows me in Seattle?’” Simpson recalled, laughing.
He later learned that an old friend had given the league his name. The West Coast Negro Baseball League was only a few months old, having been formed in October 1945 hoping to mimic the success of Negro League Baseball in the southern and eastern parts of the country. This West Coast league had the backing of two influential men. Track legend Jesse Owens and Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein co-founded the league. Saperstein served as league president, and he also owned the Steelheads. Owens was the vice president, and he owned the Portland Rosebuds.
But despite the big-name backers, the league didn’t last long. The Steelheads played just two months at Sicks’ Stadium before disappearing in July 1946, converting to a traveling Harlem Globetrotters baseball team that included both hoops legends and baseball players.
For Simpson, Seattle was an opportunity that led to a 10-year baseball career. After the Steelheads, he went on to play for the Globetrotters team. Then, after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Simpson later played in the minors for the Albuquerque Dukes and the Spokane Indians. It was a dream for a speedy 5-foot-8 first baseman/outfielder. And it started in Seattle.
“It was nice,” Simpson said. “Real nice. I enjoyed it. I loved everything about my time here.”
Sixty-seven years later, Simpson is the last surviving member of that Steelheads team, according to the Mariners. He never thought he would be honored for his short stint in a six-team league that evaporated so quickly. Records from the West Coast Negro Baseball League are difficult to find. Information is relegated to books, the tongues of historians and the memories of Simpson.
“It feels lovely,” Simpson said of being recognized by the Mariners. “I’ve enjoyed this. It feels lovely. Everybody is real nice, and I like Seattle.”
Without getting a start in Seattle, Simpson’s says his life wouldn’t be as rich. When he talks about what baseball meant to him, he tells the story of marrying his wife, Sophie Harris, at home plate in Albuquerque.
“They gave us presents and a portion of the gate receipt that day,” says Simpson, who was the first black to play for the Albuquerque Dukes. “We didn’t complain about that.”
After baseball, Simpson returned to New Orleans and worked as the head custodian of the New Orleans Parish School Board. As usual, he enjoyed every minute of that unglamorous job. As a retiree, he has relished his small role as an orator of African American baseball history.
“I’ve enjoyed that,” he says. “I’m up in the 90s now, and the doctor told me, ‘You know, if you go anywhere, always bring someone with you because you’re up in age now.’ My nephew wanted to come. There he is over there.”
He points to his nephew, who hands me a card. It’s a short, typed message of thanks. In the middle of the card, Herb Simpson signed his name.
It was a sweet gesture, but the thank you should go both ways. Much like his accidental baseball career, Simpson’s signature is a valuable way to memorialize the history of a Steelheads team that might otherwise be forgotten.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.