BY JERRY MILANI
Baseball fans may know Joe Black for having been the first black pitcher to win a World Series game, the roommate of Jackie Robinson and the 1952 National League Rookie of the Year. But to those who knew the Plainfield native, Black's life as a teacher, mentor, executive, newspaper columnist and humanitarian stood out even more.
"Meet the Real Joe Black: An Inspiring Life," is written by Steven Selzer, one of Black's students at Hubbard Junior High School in Plainfield, N.J. in the early 1960s. He has not only chronicled Black's baseball heroics, but has captured, through stories and personal experience, just how much Black touched many lives — from those of his students all the way to celebrities like Bill Cosby, who penned the book's foreword.
Selzer, now a lawyer living in suburban Washington, D.C., has the advantage of having known Black well — first as his teacher and baseball coach, then as his mentor and later as his friend. Growing up in Plainfield, which the author notes was ahead of the curve on integration and a well-mixed community in mid-century, Selzer considers himself "so lucky to have known him."
That seems to be the prevailing thought of anyone who came into contact with Black, who, like many black stars of that era, did his best pitching in the Negro Leagues prior to getting his opportunity in the majors. In a stellar first year in Brooklyn in 1952, Black helped the Dodgers to the National League pennant with 15 wins, 15 saves and a 2.15 earned run average. Injuries shortened his career and while he was out of the game by 1957, Black had just begun what Selzer terms "The Next Dream — Teaching that Counted."
More a storyteller than a biographer, Selzer writes in a breezy, conversational style that makes the book an easy read. His reverence for Black comes through clearly in the prose, but also through a nice extra touch, reprints of some of Black's popular "By the Way" newspaper columns and radio commentary.
The strength of Meet the Real Joe Black lies in the stories. Selzer speaks of how his own father, whose body shop was adjacent to the Blacks' modest home, spotted young Joe throwing rocks against the stoop day after day, once silently tossed him a baseball. It was a story that Selzer would only learn years later, from Black. He tells of the time Black brought his Hubbard baseball team to Yankee Stadium and, introducing them to Casey Stengel, asked the Old Professor for advice for his 12-14 squad. Stengel replied that Black should "teach 'em to lose in the right spirit." He talks about how, years later at Black's 2002 memorial service in Plainfield, Selzer learned how close Black was with Sandy Koufax. It was never like Joe Black to name-drop, and story after story reflects this humility as one of his defining themes.
Black's standing as a baseball pioneer is sometimes obscured by this humility. Calling attention to himself just wasn't his way. But some of that is changing, both through Selzer's book and a new initiative by the Washington Nationals, the Joe Black Award, to be presented annually to a group or individual that promotes the game of baseball in urban parts of the D.C. metro area. Black's lone surviving sibling, his sister Phyllis Greer, his two children, Selzer and others were scheduled to be on hand July 2 at Nationals Park for a ceremony prior to the game between the Mets and Nationals.
An award for helping others is just what Joe Black would have wanted.