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Negro Leagues Museum honors singer and ex-ballplayer Charley Pride

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, April 12, 2013, at 12:57 a.m.

Before Charley Pride became one of the first black country music stars, before he recorded 39 singles that would rise to No. 1 hits and before he released “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” as the single emblematic of his success, he played baseball. And he played it well.

In fact, although he always loved music — he learned to play guitar before he was 18 — Pride’s first dream was professional baseball, not country music fame.

Turns out, he lived them both. And he lived them in a time period where the color of his skin forced him to defy odds.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum presented the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award to Pride on Wednesday — an honor that was especially meaningful for Pride, whose baseball career was in many ways ignited by Robinson’s courage.

“When I saw Jackie Robinson go to the majors, I thought, ‘Here’s my chance out of the cotton field,’” Pride said. “I wanted to break all the records and set new ones.”

Many of those close to him, however, insisted his voice was the true calling. They begged him to bypass baseball for a career in music.

That could wait, he told them. A childhood dream would come first.

Pride pitched and played outfield in the Negro Leagues for the Memphis Red Sox and Birmingham Black Barons. He even pitched in the New York Yankees’ farm system.

But in 1956, his career took a downward spiral. Pride cracked his arm while pitching with Memphis. A man who pitched with intimidation — and later compared himself to Hall of Famer Bob Gibson — never fully recovered the life on his fastball.

Once known for the crowd of scouts he drew on the days he took the mound, Pride pitched in front of smaller audiences with each passing start.

“It could’ve been me and Bob Gibson in St. Louis,” Pride said, pausing as if reflecting on what might have been. “When (the scouts) saw that arm go, I didn’t see them at the park no more.”

At least he had other options. Two years later, Pride began recording songs in a genre of music reserved for whites. A memorable trailblazing career was born.

The museum honored Pride for that Wednesday, giving him an award previously won by notables such as Hank Aaron and Joe Morgan.

“The award is given for career excellence in the face of adversity,” said Bob Kendrick, museum president. “You look at what he did — he’s a really good baseball player. And then he fell back into a country music career.

“We should all have a fallback plan like that.”

Pride’s honor comes during the museum’s annual memorial celebration of Robinson — a commemoration that will shine brighter this year than perhaps ever before.

A movie depicting Robinson’s life — “42” — opens nationwide Friday but will be shown to a sold-out audience tonight at the AMC Barrywoods 24 theater. Some of the movie’s stars, including Harrison Ford, are to fly to Kansas City today for the red-carpet event that will benefit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Kansas City Sports Commission. Robinson’s son, David, is also scheduled to appear, as are former and current Royals players, including Frank White and Hall of Famer George Brett.

Years after an arm injury cut his career short, Pride remains active in baseball. He is a minority owner of the Texas Rangers and attends games regularly — and he insists on analyzing the game as if he were the team’s manager.

He also still tours and has 17 concert dates scheduled from now through June.

To reach Sam McDowell, send email to smcdowell@kcstar.com.

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