History is often made up of events that are planned in advance, but sometimes there's just no accounting for how things happen. In 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the majors, it was an event carefully orchestrated by Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey. But the majors weren't the minors, and it wasn't until the 1952 season that the Class D Georgia State League had its first black player. And the way that came about was completely unexpected.
On July 19 of that year, the Fitzgerald Pioneers traveled about 100 miles to the town of Statesboro to play the Statesboro Pilots. It was Elks Night, and the Pilots responded by turning the game into a runaway. It was so bad that the Elks sitting behind the visitors' dugout started to razz Fitzgerald's player-manager, Charlie Ridgeway, yelling, "Put in the batboy! Let's see if he can hit."
At the start of the eighth inning, with Statesboro leading 13-0, Ridgeway decided to add a little levity to what had become a long evening. He asked plate umpire Ed Kubick if he could indeed insert the batboy into the lineup. Kubick said he had no objection.
Heading back to the bench, Ridgeway told Joe Louis Reliford, the Pioneers' batboy, to grab a bat. Joe, a 12-year-old black, had been with the team all season. He got the job mainly to help support his family. Joe's father had died, and his mother suffered from severe arthritis. The batboy job paid $48 every two weeks.
Ridgeway, who is now part owner of radio station WBHB in Fitzgerald, says of the batboy, "Joe was quite a little ballplayer. He would take batting practice with us and then go into the outfield and shag fly balls. He could play."
Joe stepped up to the plate. With a two-hitter on the line, Pilot pitcher Curtis White at first shook his head incredulously, then dug in on the mound. "Boy, I really wanted to get a hit off that guy," Reliford, now in charge of security at the Coffee County courthouse, recalls. "He didn't ease up one bit. He pitched to me like I was Mickey Mantle. If he had given me anything to hit I was going to try and take him out of the park." Instead, Joe hit a sharp grounder to third and was thrown out at first.
Ridgeway stuck with the batboy and sent him out to play rightfield in the bottom half of the eighth. With two out in the inning, Statesboro's Harold Shuster came to the plate. Shuster had hit in 21 straight games but was hitless that evening. Now, he sent a sinking liner down the rightfield line. Joe raced over and made a diving, acrobatic grab to end the inning.
The Elks in the stands went crazy. But Shuster, miffed that a kid had cost him his hitting streak, yelled at Reliford after crossing first base. It was almost too much for the youngster. He wasn't sure if the fans were cheering his catch or jeering him for halting the streak. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he headed for the dugout. But once there he was congratulated by his teammates. Fitzgerald went quietly in the top of the ninth, and Statesboro won 13-0.
What under normal circumstances would have been a dreary ride home was a jubilant one. The Pioneers had made history. Despite the fact that it was the practice in the South in those days for blacks to sit in the back of the bus, "Joe sat anywhere he pleased," says Ridgeway. "He wasn't only our batboy and a part of the team, he was our friend."
The Georgia State League didn't take a light view of the shenanigans that had gone on in Statesboro that summer night. Umpire Kubick was fired, and the Pioneers were fined $200. The league also fined Ridgeway $50 and suspended him for five days. (The town of Fitzgerald took up a collection and paid the fine.)
A few weeks later, Joe Reliford went from being the Pioneers' batboy to playing for the Fitzgerald Lucky Stars of the local Negro League, where he was something of a celebrity because he was believed to be one of two blacks ever to have played in organized baseball with whites in Georgia. The other player had taken part in an exhibition game in Atlanta with a major league team as it barnstormed its way north after spring training in 1949. The team was the Brooklyn Dodgers; the player was Jackie Robinson.