By Jennifer Graham
Nine-year-old Harold Hair peered through the fence beside the dug-out at the ball park smelling the clay dust being kicked up from the bottom of a pair of cleats as a Jacksonville Red Cap sped past him reaching home plate.
His grandfather used to take him to watch baseball games at Durkee Field (J.P. Small Park) in Jacksonville during the late 1930s and early 1940s.
“That’s when the bull bit me,” Hair said. He is a native of Florida and lived in the Durkeeville area of Jacksonville at that time, which were just a few blocks from then Red Cap Stadium.
In fact, “the show” became the dream of one of Jacksonville’s talented athletes, Harold “Buster” Hair.
“Going to the show” was a reference used by players of the Negro American League for playing with a major league baseball team in the 1950s. He is the last living member of the league in Jacksonville.
Hair became the bat boy for the Red Caps, an all-black minor league that played in city from 1938-1942. This was a stepping stone of what would become one of history’s baseball stars and contributors to the segregation movement in the sport of baseball.
Team members would allow Hair to practice with them during the summer at Durkee Field. He learned the game of baseball, the rules and the positions from many of the players on the team.
Walter Skin Down Robinson was one of his mentors. “Skin Down” Robinson was the second basemen for the Red Caps and played ball from 1937-1944.
Hair played Little League for the Jacksonville Eagles, leading the team to a championship victory. He was an above-average batter. He continued to play baseball through high school at Stanton High, where he graduated in 1949.
His baseball talent led him to be drafted by the Birmingham Black Barons baseball team and invited to the All Stars for the East-West while he was a rookie. Hair also played for the Kansas City Monarchs. He played third base, shortstop and outfield.
He realized a minor league pitch was a challenge. He was told by another player he would get sent home if he couldn’t bat, with determination, he stepped up to home plate.
“Lord, send me one I can see,” Hair said. He swung the bat and hit a triple. He became the power hitter or clean-up batter with a .355 batting average.
Hair’s career was cut short when he received a letter from President Harry S. Truman stating that he was to report for duty to serve in the United States Army during the Korean Conflict. Luckily, he was requested to play ball during his time in the Army with the 64th Infantry.
Meanwhile, a conflict was stirring and it involved the color of Hair’s skin.
He and his minor league teammates faced discrimination everywhere. They could not use bathrooms at the gas stations. They had to sleep on the bus because hotel managers would see the color of their skin and suddenly had no vacancy.
“I was called the ‘n’ word more times than I care to remember,” Hair said.
Baseball, like much of the South, was segregated. Black people would sit on one side of the stadium in Jacksonville and white people would sit on the other side. This continued until 1945 when five players from the Negro American League made it to “the show.”
Hair was determined not to allow discriminatory behavior to stop him.
After two years of service in the Army and playing in the minor league, he went to college at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C.
Hair played college ball there, and the team won championships four years in a row. He became the baseball team captain during his senior year of college. Hair earned a bachelor’s degree while continuing to play ball.
In 1956 he was invited to go to spring training by a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals. From there he went to play ball with the All-Star team in Canada where he stayed with a French-Canadian family. He would help their children with math and English and was nicknamed “Professor Shortstop.”
He earned a master’s in education degree at the University of Florida with a 3.58 grade point average and was added to the dean’s list. He was an award-winning coach in basketball, baseball and football for Duval County Public Schools. He continued to work in the school system as an assistant principal.
He married Emma Higgins. They had five children: Joy, Wesley, Jesse, Fay and Harold.
He and his wife served at St. John Missionary Baptist Church. He was the senior pastor. After years of public service, Hair experienced one of the saddest times of his life with the loss of his mother and wife 89 days apart. Later, his eldest daughter died in 2004.
Hair said that when his time comes, he will have no regrets.
He played with the best like Satchel Paige. He sat in the presence of Jackie Robinson who broke the color barriers in baseball. He played at Yankee Stadium, the same place Babe Ruth played.
He has a bucket list. One item on the list is seeing his three great-grandchildren finish school.
He also likes to share a good joke. Often they involve baseball, such as the one about two older men – Ike, a catcher, and Mike, a pitcher, who were sitting in rocking chairs on the porch at their nursing home.
Mike: “Do you think they play baseball in heaven?”
Ike: “I don’t know, that’s a good question.”
Mike: “Whoever dies first will come back and tell the other one if they play baseball in heaven.”
Ike: “Good deal.”
Ike died, and Mike sat around for two weeks, then a month went by and he heard nothing from Ike. Mike was laying in his bed one night and he heard a voice say, “Mike?”
Mike: “Ike is that you?”
Ike: “Yeah man it’s me.”
Mike: “So, do they play baseball in heaven?”
Ike: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is yes, they play baseball in heaven. The fields are nice and manicured, the grass is green and smooth, and the bases are as white as they can be. The bad news is you are their starting pitcher next week.”