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Mississippian Charley Pride, one of country music’s all-time most beloved performers, died Saturday at age 87 from complications due to COVID-19. Upon hearing the news, I immediately thought back to meeting him more than 37 years ago.
This was the first week of April 1983, which meant that pro golfers and a few big-time celebrities were descending on the Hattiesburg Country Club for the old Magnolia Classic pro-am. Pride, then 45, was holding court with a few sports writers and TV reporters in an old green army tent that served as the tournament’s media headquarters. We were about two minutes into the interview and still laughing at one of Pride’s first answers when a crusty, old south Mississippi sports writer, long since dead, blurted this question: “Charley, can you tell us what it was like playing baseball in the old n—– leagues?”
For a split second that seemed so much longer, nobody said anything. Pride’s smile quickly faded to a blank stare. I remember wanting to climb under my chair. I couldn’t imagine how Pride must have felt. Here he was, at the pinnacle of his success, already with 14 gold albums and 21 No. 1 hits. He was the reigning Country Music Entertainer of the Year. And here he was, back in his home state, and he has to hear something like that. I thought the entire interview might end before it really got started.
And then, just like that, Pride managed a smile. And the he turned back on his considerable charm.
“Let me tell you about my baseball…” he began, and off he went, beguiling us with story after story, mostly about baseball.
Who knew? This son of sharecroppers from the Delta town of Sledge who sang so soothingly songs like “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and “Is Anybody Going to San Antone” also once pitched against the likes of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
“I don’t think Aaron ever got a hit off me, but I never could get Mays out,” Pride said. “He hit me everywhere except the bottom of my foot.”
Pride told us he learned to play baseball in a cow pasture in Sledge, where he grew up picking cotton and then a guitar. At 14, he used the money he saved from picking cotton to buy his first guitar, an old Sears and Roebuck Silvertone. He learned to play quickly and well. At 15, he had his first professional engagement. “A guy from up the road gave me three dollars to come play at his dance,” Pride said. “That was my start.”
But for years, Pride’s musical career played second fiddle to his desire to make a living playing baseball.
“I was a pitcher and an outfielder,” he told us. “I had a hummer, a hook and a change. I had all a pitcher needed until I hurt the old hose. Then I tried a knuckleball. That didn’t work out, but I could always hit. Still can.”
You should know that Pride had come to Hattiesburg from Pompano Beach, Fla., where he had attended baseball spring training, including one game covered by Sports Illustrated. Back then, celebrities were often allowed to take part in spring training games. Pride played and struck out twice in two at bats.
“They wrote Charley Pride hits three ways: right-handed, left-handed and seldom,” Pride said, chuckling. “But they don’t tell you that last year I went one for two against Jim Palmer. I know I can still hit.”
In the mid-1950s, Pride had played for the old Memphis Red Sox. “That was in old Negro American League,” Pride said, glancing at the old sports writer who had chimed in earlier. “I guess they’d call it the Black American League now. Anyway, we used to barnstorm after the season and the best players from our league would play the Willie Mays All-Stars from the Major Leagues.” In those barnstorming days, Pride not only pitched against Aaron and Mays, but also against such established Major League stars as Ernie Banks, Elston Howard and Junior Gilliam.
“I almost beat the Mays All-Stars in 1956 at Albany, Ga.,” Pride answered when asked to name his best baseball memory. “I struck out 12 and had ’em 1-0 in the ninth inning. Then they scored twice and beat me 2-1. I cried.”
Pride quit organized baseball in 1961, but not because of country music. So, why, he was asked?
“It was the opinion of several major league teams that I was too old,” Pride said, seemingly trying to hide a smile. “That wasn’t my opinion, mind you, but that’s what they thought.”
Pride told us the most money he ever made in baseball was $200 a month, plus $2 a day in meal money.
“I do a little better than that now,” he said, eyes twinkling.
He had that right. Pride’s accomplishments included 36 No.1 hit singles, 31 gold albums, four platinum albums and one quadruple platinum album. As an RCA Records recording artist, he ranked second in all-time record sales behind another native Mississippian: Elvis Presley. He never reached his goal of playing Major League baseball, but he did become part owner of the Texas Rangers Major League team. And he sang the national anthem before a World Series game.
Yes, Pride told us, he was often asked about how a Black man from Sledge, Mississippi, could possibly become one the greatest stars of country music, an industry dominated by white artists.
“It was just the music I heard on the radio that I liked,” he told us. “I don’t see anything that unusual about it. Everybody has to grow up somewhere. Just so happens, I grew up in Sledge.”