Joe Durham sat in the Orioles dugout with Frank Robinson and Paul Blair. Blair, nicknamed “Motormouth,” was known for having to be the best at everything. Striking up a conversation among the three African-American ballplayers, he commented casually, “Yeah, I hit three home runs in one game.”
“Big deal,” Robinson retorted. “I won the MVP Award in both leagues.”
“Both of those feats can be matched,” Durham chimed in. “I did something no one else can ever do again.”
Blair and Robinson swiveled their heads toward Durham. Blair spent 12 full seasons patrolling centerfield in Baltimore, during which he earned a reputation as one of the best defensive centerfielders of all time. This status was backed up by his eight Gold Glove Awards, of which seven were earned in consecutive years. With glove, bat, and speed, Blair—along with Robinson—helped the Orioles to four American League pennants and two World Series titles. Robinson’s accomplishments are too numerous to squeeze onto his Hall of Fame plaque: Rookie of the Year, two MVPs, a Triple Crown, and 586 career homers. Then there was Durham. He appeared in a mere 87 games in an Orioles uniform, spread over two seasons with a two-year army stint sandwiched between. “Pop,” as he was affectionately known, walloped a total of five round trippers in the Major Leagues. Robinson had as many homers in his rookie season as Durham had hits during his career.
Without a word, the glares of the two aging ballplayers asked the obvious question of their coach: What on earth could Durham have possibly accomplished on a baseball diamond that surpassed their own legendary exploits?
“I was the first black player on the Orioles to hit a home run,” Durham explained with a grin. Without a reply, Motormouth sauntered into the clubhouse as Robinson turned his attention back to the field.
Sixty years after playing for the Orioles in their inaugural 1954 season, Durham sits at an Applebee’s in Catonsville. A seemingly harmless question is lobbed his way, intended as nothing more than a conversation starter, but his scars are evident as he bites off his reply.
“Did you dream of being a Big League ballplayer when you were a kid?”
“No.” He pauses, then patiently explains to the white interviewer who is his junior by more than four decades, “I never dreamed of playing ball professionally because we just weren’t allowed to play.”
The Newport News, Virginia, native did not play his first game of baseball until his freshman year of high school. A friend of his needed a catcher on the team, so Durham filled in. Turns out he was a natural, never hitting below .420 all through high school. However, by the time he graduated and was making seven to eight dollars a day playing for traveling teams in Virginia and North Carolina, he had switched to centerfield. “We didn’t have all the protective gear that catchers have today,” he reasons.
Durham would remain in centerfield as he played for the semipro African-American team the Newport News Royals. Another talented centerfielder was stationed nearby in the army, and when he joined the team, Durham was bumped to left field. He does not complain about the move, however, since anyone would have been shifted from center to make room for Willie Mays.
After high school, Durham went to Shaw University to play basketball. His collegiate career was cut short when he learned that the St. Louis Browns were having a tryout camp. Over 200 hopefuls reported to try to win one of five open spots. When Durham—simply known as #156 at the camp—rifled a throw on one bounce from deep right field straight into the third baseman’s waiting glove, his place was secured. All five of the chosen players, including Tito Francona (father of former Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona) would eventually play in the Major Leagues.
Durham’s pro career began with the Negro League team the Chicago American Giants, where Browns owner Bill Veeck sent him in order to avoid the harsh racism of the teams farther south. Durham remembers Veeck as a good businessman who spent time in the clubhouse and listened to his players, but this one executive decision missed the mark. “People talk about (racism) in Mississippi and Alabama,” Durham said. “Mississippi was bad. And Alabama was bad. But Chicago was just as bad as any of them.” The American Giants played one home game at Comiskey Park, then spent the remainder of the season on the road.
Meanwhile, the Browns moved to Baltimore between the 1953 and ’54 seasons. Durham was sent from Chicago to York, Pennsylvania, where he and five other African-American ballplayers broke the color barrier in the Piedmont League. By September, Durham was hitting .318 in York and had driven in 108 runs. That’s when he got the call to suit up in Baltimore.
“That was a thrill,” Durham said as he recalled his summons to the Big Leagues. He was eager to get on the field and show what he could do, but there was one problem: he’d found a place to live but had no money and no transportation to the ballpark. “One player took me under his wing,” Durham said. “Don Larsen.” Two seasons before making history as a New York Yankee by pitching a perfect game in the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Larsen was a charter member of the Baltimore Orioles. “He was 3-21 that year,” Durham said with a laugh as he remembered the dismal offense of ’54, which contributed to a 100-loss season. But Larsen befriended the rookie, who became the Orioles’ first African-American position player. With Larsen’s help, Durham arrived at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore for his Major League debut.
Starting in left field, Durham remembers looking over at the centerfielder. In the vast Major League stadium, he seemed so far away. It was a Friday, and Baltimore was hosting the Washington Senators. The rookie outfielder committed an error in his first game; but, batting third in the order, he also singled, drew a walk, and scored a run as the Orioles won 4-3. Durham got his second hit the following day, but the Senators won 3-0.
Sunday, September 12, brought a doubleheader. In the first match, Durham started in left, batted third, and went 1-for-4 for the third straight game as “Bullet Bob” Turley pitched the O’s over the visiting Philadelphia Athletics, 4-3. The second game saw Durham once again starting in left field and batting third. The A’s had lefty Al Sima on the mound.
In the bottom of the first inning, Durham hit a grounder back to Sima, who threw him out at first. He flied out to center in the third. With the Orioles holding a 1-0 lead, Durham led off the bottom of the sixth inning. Sima got a 1-1 count on him, then tried to come in with a slider. But it hung out over the plate and Durham stepped into it. “Once I hit it, I knew it was gone. I got good wood on it,” he recalls. At the time he didn’t realize he had just made history as the first African-American Orioles player to hit a home run. In fact, it would be several days before the significance of his accomplishment would come to his attention.
Durham singled home Cal Abrams in the next inning, notching his second RBI and raising his batting average to .313, but the A’s bested the O’s 5-4. After the game, an elderly lady approached the hot-hitting 23-year-old rookie with a battered baseball. She handed him the ball he’d launched over the Memorial Stadium outfield fence. He offered her money, but she refused. Now he says with a laugh that it’s a good thing, since he didn’t have any money.
The hitting streak ran to five games as the Orioles beat the Red Sox two days later in Baltimore, with Durham alternating protection of left field with Boston’s Ted Williams. The next day, September 15, Durham’s streak was broken as he had his first hitless game in the Major Leagues. Five days later the Detroit Tigers came to town, and Durham broke out with a three-hit game. It would be his last Major League hit for nearly three years. The next uniform he wore was that of the United States Army.
Durham returned to Baltimore in June of 1957 and played in half the team’s games that year. The rest of his playing career would be spent in the minors except for a brief appearance with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959.
Durham’s short career as a Baltimore Oriole carries many special memories. He still chuckles when he recounts a game in New York in 1957. “I was playing centerfield that Saturday afternoon when (Mickey) Mantle ran me back into the monuments,” he says. A grin spreads across his face as he mentally travels back in time and relives sunny afternoons on a big green patch of earth in Memorial Stadium, and smiles at the memory of close games won, teammates’ pranks, and even hitless games against Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium.
In spite of his relatively short time on Baltimore’s roster, Durham continued to be active with the organization. He has filled a variety of roles, from the front office to a minor league coach to a scout. For over 20 years he threw batting practice for the Orioles. He has enjoyed the highs of Oriole Magic and continued friendships with Baltimore lifers like Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell. To this day he makes appearances at Camden Yards to sign autographs.
However, nothing tops that Sunday afternoon when he made history for baseball, for the Orioles, and for African-Americans by crushing a hanging slider into the stands at Memorial Stadium. That’s a feat that can never be duplicated even by the beloved Motormouth Blair or the great Frank Robinson.