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Joe Reliford

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Joe Louis Reliford

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[edit] Biographical Information

Joe Reliford became the youngest person to participate in a professional baseball game on July 19, 1952. He was a bat boy for the Fitzgerald Pioneers of the Class D Georgia State League when he was inserted as a pinch hitter at the age of 12 years and 234 days. He was also the first black player to play in a Georgia State League game.

The ninth of ten children in a family of sharecroppers, Reliford moved to Fitzgerald after his father died. He played sandlot baseball and followed both of the town's professional teams, the Fitzgerald Lucky Stars of a minor Negro League and the Pioneers - although due to segregation laws that prohibited African Americans from entering the ballpark for Pioneer games, he would watch the games from a nearby tree.

At the age of ten, Reliford inquired about becoming the team's bat boy with manager and president Ace Adams. Adams agreed and soon Reliford was earning a bi-weekly salary of $48. He also had to travel with the team on road games and when he requested permission from his mother, Adams assured her that he would be safe despite the Jim Crow laws of the time. The team's white players embraced the bat boy, teaching him batting and fielding skills after practices.

In mid-July, 1952, the Pioneers at 37 - 42 and Statesboro Pilots at 35 - 42 were battling for fourth place. On July 19, the Fitzgerald club traveled 130 miles north to Statesboro, GA for the team's "Elks Night" promotion. On the night before the teams played in a close 5 - 4 game in Fitzgerald; a game which had two controversial calls by home plate umpire Bill Howe. The first was on a potential game winning play at the plate for the home team and a fair/foul call on the eventual game winning home run by a Statesboro player. The car of umpires Howe and Cal Drummond had its tires slashed and gas tank filled with sand with Fitzgerald being fined $200 and placed on probation.

By the top of the eighth, Statesboro was leading 13 to 0 and the fans began to chant "put in the bat boy." With the game out of reach, manager and second baseman Charlie Ridgeway submitted to the capacity crowd. With the approval of umpire Ed Kubick and the understanding that should the Pioneers win they would have to forfeit, Ridgeway sent Reliford to pinch hit in place of the club's leading batter, Ray Nichting, at a .330 clip.

Reliford settled into the batters box against Curtis White, who at the time was working on a two-hit shutout. After a moment of disbelief, White threw the ball and the bat boy took a pitch for a called ball. On the pitcher's second offering, Reliford hit a sharp grounder to the third baseman, whose throw barely beat the young Pioneer to first.

In the bottom of the inning, Ridgeway sent Reliford to man center field. The Pilots leadoff hitter and manager, Charlie "Red" Quimby, hammered a pitch into the gap for a double - but he then decided to test the youngster's arm. After retrieving the ball, Reliford fired to the cutoff man who nailed Quimby at third. The next batter was Harold/Jim Shuster who hit a a long fly ball to center field. At the fence, Reliford made a leaping catch robbing Shuster of an extra-base hit and possibly a home run. After the game - lost by Fitzgerald, 13 to 0 - the fans streamed onto the field to congratulate the 12 year-old and stuff money in his pockets.

On the following day of the incident, league president Bill Estroff fired rookie umpire Kubick and suspended player-manager Ridgeway for five days and fined him $50. Estroff charged that the two had "made a travesty of the game" by allowing an ineligible player to enter the game and emphasized that Reliford's race was not a factor in his decision. Ace Adams, who had stepped down as player-manager on July 11 to focus on his duties as club owner/president, retook the reins of the team. Reliford was soon dismissed from his position as bat boy.

After the incident Reliford continued to pursue sports, lettering in four sports - including baseball, basketball, and football - while in high school. He played football while at Florida A&M University but his football career ended due to a knee injury. Reliford was a Douglas, GA deputy sheriff for 18 years. Since 1991 the minor league exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has featured a piece on Reliford's game.

[edit] Further Reading

  • Jerry Grillo: "Joe Reliford: The Inning of a Lifetime", in Ken Fenster and Wynn Montgomery, eds: Baseball in the Peach State, The National Pastime, SABR, Volume 40 (2010), pp. 56-58.

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