Godfrey recollects time as part of Negro Baseball League on 100th anniversary

If you ask Comas “Neal” Godfrey about the Negro Baseball League, he’ll tell you three things: Satchel Paige was the best pitcher, Jackie Robinson was the best base runner and he was the best catcher.

Just take a visit to Jerry’s Barber Shop on University Avenue in Lubbock.

While shining shoes, Godfrey will talk to you about how Robinson, who integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, stole every base during the 1955 season.

Robinson started his career in the Negro Baseball League, playing one season in 1945 then integrated the MLB two years later. The unforgettable 1955 campaign is when he helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the club’s first World Series title.

“You couldn’t throw him out no matter how fast you could throw it,” Godfrey said of Robinson. “He’ll beat you, he’ll beat the ball to the base.”

Telling his story

Even at age 88, there are some things Godfrey, who goes by his middle name, can still remember. A few include: how he’d frame the strike zone — while other details are a little hazy. He’d tell the stories of his two-year stint in the NBL in his younger days enough to where any of his five children could fill in whatever details evaded him.

Shelia Godfrey-Witherspoon, Comas Jr., Craig and twins Stacy and Tracy Godfrey are used to hearing their father’s stories. The majestic tales didn’t become real, though, until a 2003 trip to the Negro Baseball League Museum in Kansas City, Missori.

No sooner than the family entered the building, the Godfrey patriarch ran into an old friend in John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil.

The grandson of a slave, O’Neil was a solid hitter and first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs, while also being a teammates with Paige. After his time in the Negro Baseball League, O’Neil was a scout for the Chicago Cubs before the club promoted him to its major league staff which made him the first Black coach to serve on a major league roster in 1962. He also scouted for the Kansas City Royals.

O’Neil had the biggest part in the creation of the museum in an effort to preserve the history of the Negro Baseball League. He was on the board of directors when it first formed in 1990 before an expansion four years later.

It had been decades since O’Neil had seen Godfrey, but the two recognized and embraced one another in the middle of the museum on that day 17 years ago.

“All the stories that he told us about him playing and all the stuff just kind of came to light like man, he did,” Tracy said of his dad. “(O’Neil and Godfrey) talked forever. He had the opportunity to walk around with Buck O’Neil as they viewed the museum. He got introduced to the staff and the kids. That was just a feeling of, I can’t tell you the feeling. It was great.”

The reunion was the last time the two would see each other, though, as O’Neil passed away on Oct. 6, 2006.

Godfrey, O’Neil, Robinson, Paige, NBL founder Rube Foster and every player that recorded an out or plate appearance in the Negro Baseball League contributed to barrier-breaking history and are celebrated this year for the league’s 100-year anniversary.

Changing times

Kids have it good these days, Godfrey said.

He was slow, but deliberate with every word, leaning forward in a brown leather rocking recliner at Stacy’s Lubbock home. As a catcher, the only thing Godfrey had to protect himself was a helmet, breast pad and glove.

“Now they have stuff to cover your ears up, cover your nose up and your mouth,” Godfrey said as his children chimed in to agree. “I just had two things on me: helmet and the breast pad. And the glove. And I caught that ball, too. Yeah, I was pretty good at baseball, catch that ball.”

So good, in fact, that he caught the attention of the Monarchs while he was playing for the Lubbock Black Hubbers, the city’s first semi-professional African American team, in 1958.

He’d never admit it then, but Godfrey smirked now as he described his key to ensuring his pitcher got a strike.

“I would catch that ball and if the umpire didn’t look fast enough, I’d drop it and everything was a strike,” he said. “It wouldn’t be no strike, and I know it wasn’t a strike.

”But I wouldn’t say anything, you know.”

The Monarchs (1920-65) were the most prominent and longest-running team in the league, sending more Black players, including Robinson and Paige, to the majors than any other squad. They won the first Negro League World Series and even survived the devastation of the Great Depression (1929-1939), which ended many team’s tenure in the Negro National and Negro American Leagues.

When the Monarchs picked up Godfrey in 1958, he was about 26 years old and one of the youngest on the club. Many of the players, including O’Neil, were in their 30s and 40s during their playing days. The age differential was never a problem as Godfrey used the opportunity to learn.

The one thing they couldn’t fully prepare him for, though, was the racial persecution they’d face while traveling.

That’s another thing kids these days know nothing about, Godfrey said.

Racism wasn’t foreign to him. He told of how white people used to spit on him and any other Black person when they walked past them.

“Now, I’ve never been prejudiced, but if we had a new car, good-looking car, you couldn’t drive it to the filling station to get no gas because they wouldn’t put none in,” Godfrey recalled. “Your car looked too good. That’s how things were. That’s why when I got old enough, grown enough to know what’s going on, I taught my kids.”

Staying in a hotel was unfathomable, too, so Black players would often sleep in their cars or on the bus. They had to save their money for food, anyway.

Visits to restaurants meant entering through the back door and eating in the overheated, crowded kitchens because Black people were not allowed to eat in the dining areas.

When asked how he felt about this kind of treatment, Godfrey said it didn’t make any difference since he still got to play baseball.

“I think any time you love something, you look over, sometimes, the faults, and the way (people) treat you,” Craig Godfrey said. “I think he had the love for the game, and it didn’t matter what he had to go through to play. He was determined to play because that’s what was in his heart.”

It’s a lesson Neal Godfrey learned as a child in Easton, Texas. His father taught him to play baseball and made sure he knew that if he wanted to have a future with the sport, Godfrey would have to become engrossed with it.

“Yeah, you’ve got to stick with it,” he said.

Godfrey dedicated his life to baseball for as long as he could, even though he never made it to the big leagues like Robinson and Paige. Instead, he returned to Lubbock around 1960 to raise his family with wife Johnnie-Mae, who passed away in 2012.

Godfrey took his turn at every imaginable job, finding the most work in farming and ginning cotton while managing to coach his sons in baseball. He saw to it that all of his kids went to college after graduating from Frenship High School.

After seeing all of his children off, Godfrey retired around 1990.

“I guess you can call it retired,” Stacy said, admitting his father won’t ever stop working.

Godfrey still manages to get around and shines shoes at Jerry’s Barber Shop. He doesn’t have to, he just enjoys it.

Living history

Godfrey no longer has his bat, glove, Monarchs uniform or any other paraphernalia from his playing days in the Negro Baseball League — only fleeting memories. He did buy a ball cap from the Negro Baseball League Museum when the family visited in 2003.

At the time when Godfrey played, he was just a young man having fun and living out his dream as a baseball player. He, nor anyone else then understood the magnitude of what they were doing. Never in their wildest dreams would any of those players thought they’d be remembered and celebrated as part of American history.

“He didn’t realize he was part of that history until somebody wanted to ask him about it,” Godfrey-Witherspoon said of her dad. “He said, ‘Why did they wait until I get this old?’ I said, ‘Well dad, nobody even knew.’ There’s people out there now that they don’t know they were part of history.”

Indeed, Godfrey, a Texas Rangers fan, is living history.

Some he remembers. Some, he doesn’t.

But, he’s just as much a part of the Negro Baseball League’s centennial anniversary as Satchel Paige, the greatest pitcher, and Jackie Robinson, the greatest base runner.

“(I) just enjoyed playing,” Godfrey said. “That’s all I can tell.”

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