For country singer Charley Pride, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson
was a larger than life figure. “Jackie Robinson looked to me as if he was 11 feet tall,” Pride said in a 1986 interview.
When Robinson bravely crossed the color line in 1947, he inspired young Charley to pursue a career in professional baseball. “I saw Jackie Robinson go into the major leagues, and I told my dad that this was my way out of the cotton fields.”
Charley Frank Pride was born March 18, 1934, in Sledge, Mississippi. He was one of 11 children who worked the family farm picking cotton. His older brother Mack (born in 1932) shared the same baseball ambitions.
But Charley Pride’s baseball dream was bigger than just making it to the big leagues, he wanted to be an impact player. “I think every kid has a dream … (but) my dream was to go into the major leagues, break all the records, and set new ones by the time I was 35 or 36, THEN go sing. That was my plan,” said Pride.
“When they said, ‘who hit the most home runs?’ the answer was not Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron – Charley Pride. ‘Who was the last .400 hitter?’ Not Ted Williams – Charley Pride. That’s what I wanted to do. I dreamed, slept, eat, breathed it (baseball).”
Like many aspiring ball players, Pride’s big-league dreams did not come true. “I played in the old Negro League, right behind Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron … when I cracked my elbow, my wife says, ‘you’re not gonna make the majors,’ she was right.”
His baseball career lasted 11 years, 1953-1964, with four of those seasons played with military and semi-pro teams.
He signed his first professional contract in 1953 with the Boise Yankees in the NY Yankees farm system, and his last pro contract in 1960 with the Missoula Jacks in Montana, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
Throughout his career, Charley played with several Negro Leagues teams including the Memphis Red Sox, Louisville Clippers, Birmingham Black Barons, and Memphis Chiefs. During his years in the Negro Leagues, he was named an All-Star twice, 1956 and 1958. Below is a comprehensive, although possibly incomplete, list of Charley’s teams:
Name: Charley Frank Pride
Positions: Pitcher, OF, SS, 2B
Year, Team (notes)
- 1953 - Boise Yankees (signed in April)
- 1953 - Fond du Lac Panthers (Class D WI State League; traded in May)
- 1953 - Memphis Red Sox (August)
- 1954 - Louisville Clippers (May)
- 1954 - Birmingham Black Barons (July)
- 1954 - Negro All-Stars (vs. Major League All-Stars, October)
- 1955 - El Paso Texans & Yaquis in Nogales, Mexico (April) | Note: Article with photo
- 1956 - Memphis Red Sox (May) (All-Star - transitioned to knuckle ball pitcher)
- 1956 - Willie Mays All-Star Barnstorming Tour (Negro League All-Stars)
- 1956 – Military draft (late 1956) Fort Chaffee, AR; Fort Carson, CO.
- 1957-1958 - Fort Carson Mountaineers (July) | Note: Discharged in early ’58.
- 1958 - Memphis Chiefs (July)
- 1958 - East-West All-Star Game (August) Note: Starter for West All-Stars.
- 1959 - Memphis Red Sox (May) Note: Opening day starter.
- 1960 - Missoula Jacks (MT) (April) – Note: Plays ball and sings
- 1961-1964 - East Helena Smelterites – Note: Starts booking in 1963
1956 Willie Mays All-Star Barnstorming Tour
On the official Charley Pride website, the singer lists his participation in the 1956 Willie Mays All-Stars barnstorming tour as a career highlight. "As an all-star player in 1956, Charley played against a group of major-league players (the Willie Mays All‑Stars) that included Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. At the end of the season, these teams barnstormed together all over the south playing exhibition games that the major-league all-stars almost always won. However, one October night in Victoria, TX, Charley sealed a rare victory for the negro-league all-stars by closing out a game with 4 innings of shutout ball."
The Pinnacle of Pride - The 1958 East-West All Star Game
Given that Jackie Robinson was the childhood inspiration for Charley to pursue a career in professional baseball, it is a safe assumption on my part that the greatest on-field moment for Pride was the 1958 East-West All Star Game. Held on Sunday, August 24 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the East All-Stars were comprised of the top players from the Detroit Clowns and Birmingham Black Barons. The West All-Stars were made up of the top players from the Kansas City Monarchs and Memphis Red Sox. West manager Rufus Ligon (photo below) selected his ace, Charley Pride, as the starter for his squad. Sporting an 8-3 record on the mound, Pride was having one of the best seasons of his career – and this was just months after being discharged from the military.
Jackie Robinson, 1958
And if being named the starter of the all-star game was not honor enough, Pride was able to perform with his childhood idol watching from the stands. Organizers for the game had invited Jackie Robinson to throw out the first pitch, as the game was dedicated to the Negro League stars of yesteryear. Joining Jackie in the first-pitch ceremony was Bingo DeMoss (below), who caught Robinson’s throw.
Based on the box score that appeared the next day in the Chicago Tribune, Charley Pride had a great game. He faced 13 batters in three innings of work, allowing no runs, 2 hits, 2 walks, and struck out one. He also went 1-for-1 at the plate.
Charley left the game after three innings of work with a 2-0 lead. Unfortunately, the number two pitcher Aubrey Grigsby gave up a three-run home run to Birmingham outfielder Brown Jackson. The East All-Stars finished with 4 runs in the 6th inning and the West never recovered. The final score: East All-Stars 4 – West All-Stars 2. A no-decision for starting pitcher Charley Pride.
After the 1959 season with the Memphis Red Sox, Charley gave the majors one final shot. He paid his way to travel to Montana to tryout with the Missoula Jacks, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. He impressed the coaches and made the team. Ironically, “Big Sky Country” is where the transformation of Charley Pride the baseball player to Charley Pride the country singer took place.
During the 1960 season, the ball club leveraged Charley’s talents as a singer and had him perform at team events. And by 1963, he was booking gigs in small clubs and restaurants like the Rainbow Inn (advertisement below).
Charley Pride, 1961-1963, East Helena Smelterites
Charley Pride removed his baseball uniform after the 1963 season, and by 1966 he released his first single “The Snakes Crawl at Night” – released with no photo of Pride, a decision made by studio executives, as they wanted his talent to stand on its own. And it did. His music career skyrocketed. To some extent, Pride felt a career in music was his destiny. Years later he confessed, “When I was growing up on the farm in Mississippi, an old fella once told me, 'Have you ever thought that no matter how good a ballplayer you are, you weren't put on this planet to play ball? It's not for you. You’re here to sing.”
And sing he did. Today, Charley Pride is one of the most respected singers in country music. He is the winner of three Grammys and has sold more records for RCA records than anyone not named Elvis Presley. According to his official website, “many of Pride’s other honors clearly underscore his impact on American Music. In 1994, he was honored by the Academy of Country Music (ACM) with its prestigious Pioneer Award. In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And in 2017, The Recording Academy®, renowned for its GRAMMY® awards, honored Charley with a Lifetime Achievement Award.”
Aside from his impeccable singing and great storytelling through song, Pride is recognized as a pioneer for breaking into the predominantly white world of country music as an African American. But Pride is reluctant to compare himself to his childhood hero.
“When I first started, reporters would ask, ‘Charley, how does it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music?’ Charley would respond, “I’m Charley Pride, the staunch American.” He continued, “The difference between Jackie Robinson and Charley Pride is that Jackie Robinson was specifically picked to go to the Dodgers and break barriers. Nobody came to me.”
“Branch Rickey called Jackie the N-word … he said, ‘The reason I said that is because you’re going to hear that a lot, but what you gonna do about it?’ You’re going to take the baseball, and the bat, and you’re not going to say anything, because if you don’t make, ain’t nobody else gonna make it.”
“Nobody sat me down and said, ‘Charley N-word, you’re gonna go break down barriers. I’m here by choice.”
Pride is quick to point another significant difference between him and Robinson. Charley Pride never faced overt racism from his peers or his fans. The stage was his sanctuary. Off the stage was another story.
“People say, man, you must have had it really rough.’ But I didn’t. Now, I can tell you some FUNNY things, but not TOUGH … like Jackie Robinson. They put a black cat on the field, they signed a petition saying they wouldn’t play with him and all that. None of that (happen to me). Not one of my peers (in country music) has ever said a harsh word to me or called me (anything racist).
I got out of the army in 1958. I had a son. He was so hungry that I stopped at a store to buy him some milk – in my own home state (of Mississippi) – and I had to get someone to go into the store to get a carton of milk for him because I could not go up and get it myself.”
Charley Pride’s Legacy – in Music & Baseball
When people ask Charley what his favorite song is, he responds, “It’s the one I’m singing at that moment.”
And when asked about his legacy, he says, “I would like people to say that he loved what he did, singing. And I do. I try to go on stage and give 110 percent every time I go on – and I think I’m a pretty good fella. If I get that much, that will be enough for me.”
The Charley Pride baseball scrapbook – the archive of digitized newspapers available online – suggests that he might have several baseball highlights that he wouldn’t mind being remembered for.
In 1974, Charley was invited to spring training with the Texas Rangers. At age 40, he still had the baseball itch and it needed to be scratched. Rangers' manager Billy Martin placed Charley in the lineup as DH for a game against the Baltimore Orioles. Pride went one-for-two against 1973 Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer, Jim Palmer. After the game, Martin joked that “the ball was 'laid in' for Charley because Palmer likes country and western music.”
And of course, we should remember the summer of 1958, when Charley was named the starting pitcher for the West All-Stars, pitched three shutout innings, went 1-for-1 at the plate, and left the game as the winning pitcher of record – all while his childhood idol, Jackie Robinson, sat in the stands and watched him perform. What a thrill that must have been for Charley Pride, the starry-eyed baseball player from Sledge, Mississippi – a “Mississippi Cotton Picking Delta Town.”
For the Negro Leagues Centennial Celebration – Let’s Celebrate Charley
Charley Pride will celebrate his 87th birthday next year on May 18, 2021. For both the Negro Leagues Centennial and his birthday, I would encourage all baseball and country music fans to join the Charley Pride Fan Club.
A one‐year membership to the Charley Pride Fan Club costs $18 and it entitles you to an autographed / personalized 8 X 10 photo from Charley, a Charley Pride fan club badge, quarterly newsletters, access to concert meet‐n‐greet passes (when available) and other special benefits.
UPDATE (Dec. 12, 2020):
I joined the Charley Pride Fan Club shortly after writing this blog post, and in late November 2020 received the package below. Then today I read the news that Charley passed away in Texas, and due to complications from COVID-19. Like all of his fans, I am saddened by the news. But I am glad that I got to know him a little better through the research behind this post, honored to be a member of his fan club, and will cherish the personalized autographed photo. What a great life he lived -- he really did "Get it Done with Pride."
- Video: Charley Pride On Strombo: Full Interview | LINK
- Video: Charlie Pride: You Need Country, Gospel and Soul to Make American Music | CNBC | LINK
- Video: Pro baseball and picking cotton: Charley Pride's life before country music | LINK
- Article: Pride of the Rangers, The Miami News, Mar 16, 1978, Page 100. | LINK