Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
Workers at Lake City Nursing and Rehabilitation Center applaud resident Jamuel Tarrant as he is wheeled outside for an informal ceremony honoring his years as a pitcher for the National Negro League team Baltimore Elite Giants.
A brush with racism nearly cost Jamuel Tarrant a shot at fame on the mound as a pitcher with the National Negro League.
Tarrant, 97, was gaining attention in the little cotton mill town of Piedmont, S.C., as a pretty good right-handed pitcher when he was insulted for the color of his skin.
“There were these two teams, the Black Rangers and the White Rangers,” he said. “They asked me if I wanted to go to the batting cages to pitch. I went and had a lot of fun. Then the man came over to me and touched my arm. ‘If only we could paint you white,’ he said to me.”
The pain of that long-ago memory creeped across Tarrant’s face Thursday as he recalled the incident.
“I just said, ‘Forget it. If I can’t pitch with this,’ ” he said, rubbing his smooth brown skin, “ ‘I can’t pitch.’ That finished it. If I wasn’t good enough for them as black, I wasn’t good enough for anything else.”
But the baseball gods weren’t about to let a good pitching arm get away. The cotton mill where Tarrant worked formed a baseball team and he told the coaches everything he knew about the sport. Playing in community parks, Tarrant soon caught the eye of a scout for the Negro National League.
That’s how Tarrant became a pitcher for the Baltimore Elite Giants, a NNL team active from 1938 to 1947. Tarrant pitched to Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella.
“My favorite pitch was a curve ball,” said Tarrant.
Tarrant even struck out the legendary Jackie Robinson, who played one year for the Negro American League, before breaking the color barrier and hitting the majors.
“He told me how to pitch to him,” said Tarrant. “The first three pitches were balls. Then three strikes.”
Tarrant was honored Thursday at Lake City Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for his history-making role in the National Negro League. A rabid baseball fan, Tarrant has been sidelined from attending baseball games since coming to the center. However, someone donated six tickets so Tarrant and family members can attend a June 26 Braves game. They will also get to experience a VIP Batting Practice and get to meet some players.
Tarrant’s favorite is Chipper Jones.
“I love to watch him play,” he said. “He’s one of my favorite players. But one of the best third basemen I ever seen was Brooks Robinson.”
Tarrant still mourns the team’s loss of former Braves manager Bobby Cox.
“The new man is pretty good, but he can’t get out of them what Cox did,” said Tarrant.
Former Braves outfielder and Baltimore native Brian Jordan made a surprise visit Thursday to the center to meet Tarrant.
“It’s an honor for me,” said Jordan. “He deserves it. I’m happy to be able to thank him because he made it possible for guys like me to play ball. It’s a shame he had to be 97 before he was honored.”
Jordan, who also played for the Falcons, is a broadcaster for Fox Sports and Comcast. He also calls local baseball games and will be calling the game the night Tarrant hits Turner Field.
“To see him vibrant at 97 and for him to remember the highlights like pitching to Roy Campanella, to remember that,” said Jordan, shaking his head. “It’s like he was living and waiting for this day to happen.”
Tarrant’s granddaughter, Donna Tarrant-Bangura, attended the ceremony with husband Abu Bangura and son Abu Jr., 11. They were proud to see him recognized after so many years.
“It’s a wonderful acknowledgment,” she said. “We’ve all talked about his history as a family and listened to his stories from back in the day. They are just awesome stories, unbelievable.”
Her husband said the day was a long time coming.
“It’s a blessing to receive the support of the community,” he said. “And the state of Georgia as a whole. Everything happens in God’s time. It just takes patience.”
Several years ago, Tarrant spoke to his great-grandson’s second-grade class, as a legend, for Black History Month.
“He’s a great person and he made history,” said Abu Jr. “I look up to him.”
The family will be accompanying Tarrant to the Braves game.