Baseball, Travel

An Hour With Superman

Perhaps today, many baseball fans don’t remember Art Pennington.  He never played in the Major Leagues, spending much of his baseball career in places like Havana, Cuba and Caracas, Venezuela, and toiling in the Negro League in the United States.

Art lives in my home town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and his home was ravaged by the flooding there last summer.  His home was filled with memorabilia from his playing days and beyond, and most of it was lost or destroyed when the flood waters occupied the entire basement and the first six feet of his first floor.  I was traveling back to Cedar Rapids last weekend to see my family, and was able to arrange a visit with Art, who had just returned to his home a couple days before after living in a FEMA-supplied trailer the majority of the ten months he was displaced.  By “arrange,” I mean I placed a phone call to him, and then my wife, father and I stopped by his house.

I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the exterior looked.  He has one room with some recovered items, including a large photo of himself.  In that room were also three bats, two of which were gifts from Henry Aaron.

The furniture was so new it still had the Broyhill tags on it.

His new kitchen is wonderfully equipped with brand new counters, cabinets and appliances.

His front porch is now cleaned up and looks nothing like the Associated Press photos that showed him entering his home after the flood waters receded.

For a link to those photos and a nice article by AP Sportwriter Jim Litke, click here.

We never ventured to the basement, which used to be filled with baseball relics as well.

Yet after all that he’s endured the past year, he insisted we come in to his house and sit down.  Granted, I was delivering a book entitled The Negro Baseball Leagues:  A Photographic History.  But it was clear we weren’t the first strangers to knock on his door and want to talk about baseball.

Art told us how he got his nickname (his mother tagged him as “my little Superman” when he lifted one end of car up for her when he was a kid.)

He talked about FEMA’s help and all the wonderful letters with contributions of $5, $10 and $20 he received.  Former Negro League player and Country & Western singer Charlie Pride sent him $1,000 to help the cause.

Art spoke of the time he batted off Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba.

He talked about the time he hit a home run off of Dizzy Dean, when both were on barnstorming tours and met up for a game.

He talked about Satchel Paige throwing so hard the baseball looked like a golf ball.  “If ‘ole Satch had been wild he’d a killed someone.  But he had such great control ’cause he used to practice pitchin’ over a soda pop cap.”  It was clear he had a special place in his heart for Satchel, or perhaps just lasting respect.  Describing one time when he told Satchel to “throw it and duck,” Art told us that “Satchel made a fool of me in front of 44,000 people, my mother and my granddaddy.  He threw three pitches right by me.”

Art said he got only three hits off Satchel in four years.  I was impressed that he got three, from everything I’ve read about Satchel’s greatness.

Art recalled racing against Olympic Gold Medalist Jesse Owens at a baseball game.  Jesse used to be one of the attractions to draw a crowd in those days.  “He’d even spot us five yards, but we never would win.”

Later in life, Art ran for several offices in Cedar Rapids, including Mayor and Safety Commissioner.  In his words, “everything but dog catcher.”  He didn’t win in any of the elections, but it gave him a forum to talk about racism, and some of the things he experienced.

He told us how his second wife, a white Spanish woman he married when playing in Mexico, couldn’t speak English.  Art would have to write down the kind of sandwich he wanted so she could go into the restaurant and get it for him.  He wasn’t allowed to enter because of the color of his skin.

He also indicated his second wife was a factor in him not getting called up to the majors with the Yankees, because she was white.  He did say he still gets a small pension from the Yankees.  My immediate thought was that was a small bit of justice.

Soon to be 86 years old, he astutely recalled event after event.  If a name slipped him, it wasn’t for long – he seemed to always come up with it before his story was complete.

Art “Superman” Pennington is back in the house he lived in for years, and it’s an exhilarating experience to see him smile, sitting on his new couch in a room with new carpet.

He apologized several times for “not having the house all together,” but we were all thrilled just to spend some time in his presence.  He said he would do a little bit each day to get it “fixed up.”

My own thoughts were just hoping others will help rebuild his memories with a book or a photograph they may come across.

As we departed, he told us to “stop by anytime.”   It was one of the best hours I’d spent with anyone in a long time.

I can’t wait to go back.

Photos:  Art “Superman” Pennington at his home (3).

Credit:  Jeff Findley

posted 20 April 2009

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