Catching Up With the Kid Who Helped Get MLB to Right a Decades-long Wrong for Negro Leaguers

Photo: Courtesy of Cam Perron

Cam Perron started flipping baseball cards in first grade.

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“I’ve been side hustling my entire life,” he tells Deadspin.

“I’ve always dealt with all sorts of little antiques and collectibles. Baseball cards, sports autographs, and eventually entertainment autographs, which is now my specialty.”

Illustration for article titled Catching Up With the Kid Who Helped Get MLB to Right a Decades-long Wrong for Negro Leaguers
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Perron is a 25-year-old entrepreneur, speaker and author. Today, he has his own memorabilia business with over 17,000 products. “I stay busy,” he says.

But before turning his side hustle into a full-time job, Perron was a teenage researcher who changed the way some Negro League players were compensated and recognized.

For his work helping Negro League ballplayers receive MLB pensions, Perron became somewhat of a teen celebrity. He gave a Ted Talk, appeared on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (twice) and a TV writer wants to bring Perron’s story to Hollywood.

Cam Perron with HBO Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel.
Cam Perron with HBO Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel.
Photo: Courtesy of Cam Perron

This week, I got the chance to sit down with Perron. We revisited his unlikely journey to Negro League research, we spoke about the significance of the league on its 100th anniversary, and we got an update on where he is today.

Cam’s story begins as in a suburb outside Boston, as a die-hard Red Sox fan. The Sox’s World Series win in 2004 gave Perron a desire to connect with his favorite athletes on a personal level. He convinced his parents to bring him to regional malls to get autographs from his favorite ball players. But the face-to-face interactions were not as personal as Perron had hoped for.

“The current players were not as friendly in person,” he says. “You had to wait in the long lines, they would charge $200 at an autograph signing.”

The disappointing, pay-to-play meet-and-greets led Perron to search for other ways to connect with athletes. That’s when a friend introduced him to writing letters to ballplayers through the mail.

“It was something I didn’t really know about, [despite] having had all these baseball cards at the time,” says Perron.

In his letters, the teenager gravitated toward older players, because they were the ones who would always write back. But it was Negro League players, especially, who would respond routinely and thoughtfully.

“I was really intrigued by the replies. Like, if you’re a [MLB legend like] Duke Snider, you’re used to just getting hundreds of baseball cards in the mail every month to sign,” says Perron. “But when you’re a Negro League player, you get a request maybe a couple of times a year.”

The responses Perron received captivated him. The letters sparked his interest to learn more about these players, who he thought of as underdogs.

“You could have played in the Negro Leagues and have been a janitor, like Cool Papa Bell, the legendary baseball Hall of Famer.”

The players Perron wrote to were not the ones he had to wait in line for. They were not celebrities, either. But they should’ve been. These were some of the best to ever play the game, he thought, and they are not remembered as such for reasons that have nothing to do with baseball.

Perron’s developing passion lead him to Negro League internet forums, like the NLBPA, where he found more players to write to. Soon, he was sending dozens of letters a day, corresponding with guys at least three times his age.

“I just felt so captivated and inspired,” says Perron. “I just wanted to dig up as much of this stuff as I could. [Their stories] baffled me.”

During the course of his digging, Perron came across a letter from Cleveland Buckeyes player, Paul Jones.

Jones contacted Dr. Leyton Revel, one of Perron’s research mentors and the founder and executive director of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research (CNLBR) in Birmingham, Ala. At the time, Jones was in his 80s. He played in the league for several years and requested more information about the MLB pension program. Unfamiliar with the program, Dr. Revel assigned Perron to work on Paul Jones’ pension plan. The teenager had to find four years of evidence that Jones did, in fact, play in the Negro Leagues in order for the him to receive a pension from Major League Baseball.

Perron with Paul Jones, the first player Perron helped receive his MLB pension.
Perron with Paul Jones, the first player Perron helped receive his MLB pension.
Photo: Courtesy of Cam Perron

Dr. Revel found three years of documentation in old newspaper clippings but Cam struggled to find the fourth.

“I go through hundreds of newspaper articles and I finally found the fourth year. It’s 1948,” remembers Perron.

A week after finding the proper records, Perron presented his findings at a CNLBR event with dozens of former Negro Leaguers.

“I bring this article to the reunion. We have this big event with like 50, 60 players who came in from all over the country. I’m 14 at the time, I took a week off of school. I give the article to Dr. Revel and… then [he] says, ‘you know, it appears like Paul Jones is going to be getting his pension.’”

Two weeks later, Paul Jones received a check in the mail for $100,000.

That was the first pension that Perron and Dr. Revel had worked on. Soon, other players were coming up to the researchers, wondering if they should be receiving a pension.

“They started coming up and talking to us asking, ‘Do I qualify?’” says Perron. “And within the next couple of months, we realized that five or six other guys at that event could also qualify for the pension.”

A young Cam Perron with former Negro Leaguer Sam Brison (l.) and a it older with Reaf Blue, another former Negro Leaguer.
A young Cam Perron with former Negro Leaguer Sam Brison (l.) and a it older with Reaf Blue, another former Negro Leaguer.
Photo: Courtesy of Cam Perron

In a matter of weeks, Perron helped more players get pensions. “Within six months, we’ve got probably over a million dollars.”

The monumental effort put Perron in the media spotlight. The young suburban white kid was helping Black men from a distant time. It was, admittedly, a great story. But for Perron, the spotlight was never something he expected or felt he deserved.

“I just kind of stumbled into this,” he said. “I didn’t really have any goals.”

But what he did for Negro League players led him to where he is now, selling old memorabilia and collectables. His lifelong side hustle is now a full-time job. But he still carves out time to work with the Negro Leagues and its players. He is even writing a book called Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players.

The book is set to hit shelves next year.

On this centennial anniversary of the league, I asked him about this particular moment in American life. Does he think about race and racism through the lens of the Negro Leagues?

“Definitely,” he says. “I’m a white guy from a suburb outside of Boston...I’ve lived a life not having to deal with police brutality and violence and with these issues we’re hearing about now. But since I was 12, players told me about all this stuff.”

Players would tell Perron stories of the past. Stories, Perron says, still relevant today.

“I’ve had players that told me about just getting arrested while Black, told me stories of their kids getting shot down to gang violence,” he says. “It’s the same stuff that’s going on now. It’s about time that it gets brought up and addressed in a more mainstream way.”

Former Negro Leaguers get together for a reunion.
Former Negro Leaguers get together for a reunion.
Photo: Courtesy of Cam Perron

Although historians, the Black press, book authors like James Riley, John Holway and many more, have contributed to the history of the Negro Leagues, an institution that remains largely forgotten in contemporary American history and sports coverage.

Unlike some other Negro League researchers, Perron was not alive during Jim Crow segregation, but he has spent the first two decades of his life listening, reading, and helping to amplify voices of the unheard.

“I think there’s something to be said about people from different generations coming together,” he told me.

“I’ve always been a workhorse,” he said, reminiscing about the days when he flipped baseball cards and memorabilia. But “I got into this because I genuinely enjoyed hearing the stories of the Negro League. It was completely undocumented and it was a large part of history that was being overlooked.

“How could I let that go?”

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