A few weeks back, an old black man wearing a thrift-shop suit
and an aging fedora was sitting in his wheelchair at the front
door of Harry Caray's, a Chicago restaurant, waiting for a ride.
A group of sailors, white men in dress whites, were about to
enter the restaurant.
"I'm Double Duty," the old man said as the sailors came upon him.
"Is that right?" one of the sailors replied.
"I'm the oldest living ballplayer."
July 14, 2002
"Well, God bless you."
"I'm gonna be 100 on July the seventh," said the old man, who
didn't look a day over 85.
"Congratulations to you," the sailor said.
"You all can come to my party."
"Where is it?"
"I was a catcher," the old man said. "We barnstormed against all
of 'em, Ty Cobb and them. Ty Cobb comes up to bat and says to
me, 'No nigger's gonna catch me stealing.' He gets to first,
tries to steal. I get him. As he's coming off the field, I yell
at him, 'No nigger's gonna catch you stealing? Well this nigger
just done did it.'"
The white sailors in their dress whites roared.
The old black man in the fedora is Theodore Roosevelt (Double
Duty) Radcliffe, born in Mobile on July 7, 1902. He is the
oldest living Negro leagues player and in his mind the oldest
living ballplayer, period. (At least one ex-major leaguer,
pitcher Ralph Erickson, is older, by 12 days.) His nickname was
coined by renowned New York City sportswriter Damon Runyon after
Runyon watched Radcliffe work both ends of a Negro leagues
doubleheader in 1932. The Pittsburgh Crawfords, Radcliffe's
team, were playing the Chicago American Giants at Yankee
Stadium. In the first game Radcliffe caught his childhood friend
Satchel Paige and the Crawfords won 4-0. In the second game
Radcliffe pitched and the Crawfords won 5-0. Runyon wrote that
"it was worth the price of two admissions to see 'Double Duty'
Radcliffe play." For the 70 years since, Radcliffe has been
called Mr. Duty at church and at funerals and other formal
gatherings, and simply Duty in more casual ones. There's almost
nobody left who remembers him as Ted.
In an interview in early April, six weeks before he died at age
78, Joe Black, who pitched in the Negro leagues and for the
Brooklyn Dodgers, addressed the question of Negro leaguers who
belong in the Hall of Fame. "There are only three former Negro
leaguers who aren't in Cooperstown who should be," Black said.
"Biz Mackey, Verdell Mathis and Duty. Duty is the most deserving
of them. He was a great defensive catcher, one of the best ever,
always talking to the hitters, distracting them, always
encouraging his pitchers, never negative. He was a good pitcher,
with a nice little breaking ball, and he could always hit. When
I faced him, he was already an old man, but everybody said,
'Pitch him carefully, he can still hit.' They had it right."
When Black traveled from his home in Phoenix to visit family in
Chicago, he'd get together with Radcliffe. In April, with his
health failing, Black didn't know if he'd ever see Duty again.
"Is there anything you'd still want to ask him?" Black was asked.
"His secret for living such a long and happy life," Black
answered. "Not just long--long and happy."
In memory of Joe Black, who inspired the question, and with a
nod to Paige, composer of a similar list, here are Double Duty
Radcliffe's Nine Manly Rules to Lead a Long and Happy Life,
collected by your correspondent while driving Radcliffe from his
South Side apartment to Gladys' Luncheonette, his favorite
soul-food restaurant, on May 31, 2002.
1. Carry big bills--hundreds and so forth. Small change is for
2. Don't eat pizza.
3. Eat at McDonald's all you want.
4. Run around the block once every morning, but just once.
5. Go to church on Sunday if you're feeling good. Don't if you're
6. Marry a good woman.
7. Be careful of the women you fool with. If they don't respect
themselves, don't fool with 'em.
8. Smoke two El Producto cigars a day--one in the morning, one in
the evening--but don't inhale.
9. Have a doctor you can trust.
This is not one of Duty's rules, but you may find it valuable:
Don't do everything your trusted doctor tells you to do. Five
years ago Radcliffe's doctor told him to stop having sex because
he was having postcoital fainting episodes. Duty says he ignores
this order. In fact he wants to make one last trip home to
Mobile chiefly, he says, because there's a young woman there,
not yet 30, with whom he is eager to defy his doctor's advice.
In his sharp moments--every day brings some alert hours and
others less so--Radcliffe remembers the rich history of black
baseball in Mobile, birthplace of Hank and Tommie Aaron, Willie
McCovey, Amos Otis, Ozzie Smith and, of course, Paige, his
homey. As boys, Ted and Satchel lived five blocks from each
other, and Radcliffe says he knows a deep truth about his friend
that others do not: Paige's actual birth date. According to
Radcliffe, when Paige got into baseball he assigned himself a
birth date: July 7, 1906, which would have made him exactly four
years younger than Duty. Radcliffe claims that Paige, who died
in 1982, was in fact born in 1900. "He was always two years
older than me when we was kids," Duty says. "He was always two
years older than me when we was in school together." Assuming
Radcliffe is correct, then Paige was 48 years old as a rookie
pitcher for the Cleveland Indians in 1948.
The often-told story behind Paige's nickname has him, as an
enterprising boy looking for tips, rigging a pole at the Mobile
train station to help passengers with their bags, or satchels.
Duty says the real story involves less altruism. "He was a bad
kid, always in trouble," Radcliffe says. "He'd go down to the
train station and steal suitcases. Once he stole five satchels.
That's how he come by that name."
Radcliffe most likely caught Paige more than any other catcher
and regards him as the greatest righthanded pitcher he ever saw.
This is a deliberate opinion: Radcliffe played for 36 years, 22
of them as a player-manager. When you ask him about the best
players he saw, he considers most everyone: black players, white
players, Latin players, career Negro leaguers, career major
leaguers. He followed Babe Ruth's career and says Ruth would
have been welcome as a Negro leaguer. "Babe Ruth was mulatto,"
Radcliffe says. "He had the nose of a colored man. He grew up in
that orphanage, so nobody knows what all is in him for sure, but
there's black and white blood in him. We all thought it was
great that he could pass for white and hit all those home runs
and make all that money playing white baseball. But Josh Gibson
was a better power hitter. I played with Josh Gibson. Best power
Besides Paige and Gibson, here are other players on Duty's
Alltime Roster, subject to change, depending on his daily mood.
Best lefthanded pitcher: Carl Hubbell
Best base runner: Lou Brock
Best base stealer: Rickey Henderson
Most aggressive player: Jackie Robinson
Kindest great player: Stan Musial
Nastiest great player: Ty Cobb
Most generous owner: Abe Saperstein
Best baseball-playing revolutionary: Fidel Castro
Best overall player: Oscar Charleston
Best white catcher: Mickey Cochrane
Best Negro leagues catcher: will not say
Some notes regarding the list: Of Paige, Radcliffe says, "Threw
it harder than Randy Johnson--more accurate too." Duty found
Hubbell's screwball, which he faced in exhibition games,
unhittable and appreciated how much admiration Hubbell had for
Negro leagues baseball. Radcliffe saw Brock and Henderson play
hundreds of games, on TV and at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park.
He roomed with Robinson when they both played for the Kansas
City Monarchs in 1945. Radcliffe has spent time with Musial at
various card shows over the years and played winter ball against
Castro in Cuba. Duty says that when Cobb tried to steal on him,
he was wearing a chest protector painted with the words THOU
SHALT NOT STEAL. Radcliffe played for and managed teams owned by
Saperstein, including the Harlem Globetrotters baseball team, a
cousin to Saperstein's basketball team of the same name. ("He
was my friend," Radcliffe says of Saperstein. "He once gave me
$5,000.") As powerful as Gibson was, Radcliffe, like many Negro
leaguers, ranks Charleston way ahead of him for overall play.
"Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays before there was a Willie
Mays," Duty says, "except that he was a better base runner, a
better centerfielder and a better hitter." Cochrane was the
preeminent catcher in the major leagues when Radcliffe was a
young man in the game. As far as the best all-around Negro
leagues catcher is concerned, Duty is not a modest man, but
there is a tradition among legends for leaving certain questions
blank. Ted Williams, for example, when asked to name his alltime
lineup card, always leaves leftfield open. You don't answer
Radcliffe is the subject of an amazing book, Ted "Double Duty"
Radcliffe, by Negro leagues historian Kyle P. McNary, which is
invaluable if you want to get a handle on Duty's far-flung
career. Radcliffe seldom stayed with the same team for more than
two or three years, going to whatever club offered him the most
money. From 1920 until his retirement in 1954, he played for 42
teams. Sifting through box scores from 45 newspapers--including
the Philadelphia Afro-American and other defunct black
publications--McNary determined that Radcliffe was a career .303
hitter for the 658 games he could document. But McNary estimates
that Radcliffe played in 3,800 games. McNary documented 128
career wins and 48 losses for him in 224 games pitched, but he
estimates that Radcliffe was on the mound in 875 games. In
McNary's most dedicated piece of research he determined that in
22 exhibition and off-season games against major league
pitchers, Radcliffe had a .403 average.
But what old-time baseball people remember best about Duty is
his storied career as a ladies' man, despite a 52-year marriage
to his late wife, Alberta. Alfred (Slick) Surratt played for a
black Canadian team managed by Radcliffe in the early 1950s.
Surratt was making $50 a week and needed more money. On that
team Duty drove the bus, handled the cash and pinch-hit if need
be. Surratt waited for the perfect opportunity to ask his
manager for an advance: when the skipper was having dinner with
one of his lovely young dates.
"Duty, can I speak to you?" Surratt asked.
"Of course," the manager said. "How can I help?"
"Well, Duty, I really need some money."
"Now you just tell Duty how much you need."
"I could use $150."
Duty got out his thick stack of cash and said, "You need
one-fifty? Here's two. You send some of that home to your
missus, and you make sure to tell her it comes from ole Double
The next day, Duty let Slick have it. "Don't you ever do that
again," he said. "Imagine, you talking like that to me when I'm
with my lady."
Surratt had caught his manager at a susceptible moment.
Generally, Radcliffe was an alert man, and generally, he remains
alert, despite two strokes. He often goes to Comiskey Park, just
over a mile from his house, sometimes driving himself there in
his tan Mercury Grand Marquis. He's always welcomed as a guest
of the White Sox, and he occasionally visits the clubhouse and
chats with the players. On Sunday, Duty's 100th birthday, he
threw out the first ball to Buck O'Neil and enjoyed a party in a
ballpark suite with more than 500 guests.
A few weeks earlier Radcliffe was watching the White Sox play the
Texas Rangers, sitting in a wheelchair in the handicapped
section, even though he can get around reasonably well with his
walker. Duty arrived in the third inning of a sloppily played
game. His patience for such baseball is limited. Within 10
minutes of his arrival, he picked up on the single most
interesting thing there was to see in the ballpark that night. On
the out-of-town scoreboard, in abbreviations and yellow lights,
was the score: TB 9, NYY 3. The New York Yankees were getting
shellacked by the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays through five
innings. Radcliffe raised his trembling, spotted, 99-year-old
right hand, his fingers crooked from years of catching, pointed
his lit cigar at the letters 400 feet away and said, "Ain't that
Radcliffe lives in a clean, modern, government-subsidized
high-rise off Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, in a 15th-floor
two-bedroom apartment with the unmistakable aroma of El
Productos. He lives alone, but there are people, most
particularly a loyal nurse and friend, Claire Hellstern, and a
devoted niece, Debra Richards, who look in on him regularly.
(Radcliffe says he had three children with Alberta and that "they
have all passed.") He has been living for years on Social
Security payments, card-show earnings and a $10,000-a-year
baseball pension for former Negro leaguers. He has, he says,
numerous girlfriends in his building, which is populated by
senior citizens. He goes out for lunch most every day, often to
Gladys'. He was there the other day, eating chicken with collard
greens and black-eyed peas and drinking a Pepsi. From the start
of the meal he had his eye on his waitress.
"What's your name?" he said when she delivered the check.
"Alicia," the waitress said.
"You're a fine-looking girl." She smiled, revealing two rows of
perfect bright-white teeth. "Don't you know me?"
"I remember you from last time," the waitress said. "You said the
same thing to me last time."
"I'm the oldest living ballplayer."
"I know," the waitress said.
"They told you?"
"You told me, last time you were here."
"You know they're going have a party for me, don't you?"
Radcliffe asked her. "I'm gonna be a 100 on July 7. You gonna
come to my party?"
"I'll check my calendar," the waitress said. She placed the check
on the table and started to back away. Duty realized it was now
"You know we're gonna get together, don't you?" He winked, he
chortled, he adjusted his dentures.
"You have a nice day," she said sweetly.
In the mind of the oldest living ballplayer their union is
inevitable. In the mind of Mr. Duty, Alicia the waitress has no
better chance against his charm than Ty Cobb did against his arm
so many years ago. The man's faith in himself is unshakable.
What baseball people remember best about Duty is his storied
career as a ladies' man, despite a 52-year marriage.
"Is there anything you'd still want to ask Duty?" Answered
Black, "His secret for living such a long and happy life."
"There are three Negro leaguers who aren't in Cooperstown
who should be. Biz Mackey, Verdell Mathis and Duty."