Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Negro League researcher Cam Perron talks about his new book, the Negro Leagues, and the times to come

Author Cam Perron chats with Deadspin about his new book, Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players
Author Cam Perron chats with Deadspin about his new book, Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players
Image: Courtesy Cam Perron

In a profile over the summer, I asked Cam Perron what he’s up to next. At the time, the young Negro Leagues researcher, whose work of documenting players’ service time led to their receiving MLB pensions, was operating his memorabilia business and working on a book set to hit shelves in 2021.

Advertisement

After reading a copy of Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players, I called Perron to talk about the new book. He told me it is a bit about baseball, but more of a story of “friendship, history, relationships, and a search for information.” This is all true. But I think this is also a book about time.

The best stories ask more questions than they give answers. And after reading Perron’s book, I couldn’t help but wonder about the time running out. What happens to these stories in the years to come?

Fortunately, Perron and co-author Nick Chiles have captured former ballplayers in their own words, telling their own stories about the summers of old. In doing so, the book preserves a part of sports history that is far too often forgotten.

Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players is out now.

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Illustration for article titled Negro League researcher Cam Perron talks about his new book, the Negro Leagues, and the times to come
Image: Courtesy Cam Perron
Advertisement

DF: I want to start at the literal beginning of the book. Hank Aaron wrote your foreword and that may have been one of the last things that he wrote for anybody. How did you feel when you learned he was going to write the foreword for your book?

CP: I was just unbelievably honored and excited. Hank Aaron was — is —  one of my all-time favorite baseball players and a true idol of mine. Even though he did go on to have an extremely remarkable Major League Baseball career, him alongside Willie Mays are the two most successful baseball players, at that time prior to Hank’s death, to have played in the Negro League that were still alive. So having somebody like that to join forces with the book, to help him use his name and his story in the Negro League, and combine that with some of the other players who we feature in the book, who don’t have the greatest Major League Baseball careers ever, is a cool combo.

Advertisement

DF: Aaron wrote this foreword in August of 2020. He died a few months later. Your book will publish around two and a half months after his death. But what was going through your mind when Hank passed?

CP: I was just really sad to hear of his passing. I was hoping to get the chance to meet with him after the release of the book or before at some point. So it’s sad that that never got to happen. And then just for the baseball world as a whole, you know, really, really sad to hear of his passing.

Advertisement

DF: Yeah, and unfortunately because of the story and the people that you’ve been working with for years, death is this inevitable thing that keeps coming up in the book. You talk about going to reunions year after year, and noticing there are some people that are gone. And when you were growing up, you would send letters to these ballplayers and “return to sender” notes would come back with the word, “deceased.” From your personal standpoint, how do you deal with this?

CP: I guess I’ll kind of explain like, what goes through my head when I hear that a former player that was supposed to live passes away. Typically, I’ll just get a call from one of my research partners, Dr. [Layton] Revel or Chef [Clayton Sherrod], or a message from a family member or a former player, and they’ll let me know.

Advertisement

It’s usually later that night when I’m like sitting down on my computer typing up on little posts for my Negro League Facebook page or just going through some photos and just kind of, like, remembering the player on it, and thinking about it a little bit more, that’s often when I’ll get sad and it will hit me that my buddy passed away. So, you know, it’s still hard.

DF: I’m wondering what made you want to write a book in the first place? I mean, you’ve done a lot of shows. You’ve had speaking engagements. Why a book and why now?

Advertisement

CP: Well, it was always in the back of my head. In the book, I mentioned how a former player, Irvin Castille, told me when I was 13 years old that I should write a book. I was already gathering so much information and so many stories. He even wrote down on a letter some possible names for a book. So it was in my head going all the way back to age 13. But now I think the reason for the book coming out now, it’s just kind of a combination of several things.

I’m a bit older and we’ve had these reunions for nearly a decade. We have a museum in Alabama. And, lastly, it’s really just hitting the point where a lot of the players are passing away in record numbers. So putting this whole story together, intertwining my story with the players’ stories and struggles — it’s, I hate to say it, but I just don’t know how much time we would have left to do something like that.

Advertisement

DF: Yeah. I want to talk about the players and the characters that you bring up in the book because there were a lot of block quotes in there. What made you want to give the pen over to these ballplayers or researchers as much as you did?

undefined
Cam Perron with Sam Brison (left) and Reaf Blue (right).
Image: Courtesy Cam Perron
Advertisement

CP: When we started to put pen to paper, we were trying to figure out the best way to let the players’ voices shine [and] tell their story in a really in-depth way. That couldn’t come from me. You want to pick guys to say that themselves.

We do this transition where I’m kind of explaining some research or tracking down a player, and then we jump to the player telling their side of things and diving into where they came from and their experiences. I just don’t think it would’ve worked well if we didn’t allow the players to tell how they saw it.

Advertisement

DF: And how’d you get them to write for you? Obviously, you have a great relationship with them. Was it as easy as, “Hey, I’m writing this book and I really want to hear your story. So shoot me an email!” Talk us through that process of how you got these different players to write in the book.

CP: I’ve known hundreds of former players over the years and some guys have, what would we say, more in-depth stories and histories and descriptions of their careers than others. A lot of the guys in the book I’ve become very close with over the years. So just asking them to do an interview is not a problem. A lot of them, I’ve set up on various interviews in the past and worked with them to get baseball cards made or pensions. So getting them to contribute was not a problem. And from there we just interviewed them over the phone and recorded it and then put it into words. And in combination with several letters as well from players who have passed away.

Advertisement

We’ve [also] incorporated several handwritten letters from back in the day when a lot of the guys just write letters back and forth.

DF: You write about how “outsiders” were more concerned about the racial aspect of this story than the “insiders” — you and the ballplayers. So in your words, I want to get you to talk about what that difference is between the outsiders and insiders especially in their perceptions of race in the story.

Advertisement

CP: Yeah. I think when you don’t know anything about the relationships of the players at the reunions, and how I tie into it, and how we’ve all become so close, you know — it’s like this one big kind of reunion family that meets every year and constantly exchanges phone calls with each other. I mean, over the years, it’s become this really unique kind of community… So in that regard, we’re all just buddies that share common interests.

undefined
Perron with Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel.
Image: Courtesy Cam Perron
Advertisement

Whether you’re a ballplayer or you’reme — 60, 70 years younger than them — we’ve all just kind of disregarded our age our background our ethnicity, whatever it might be, because we all share the common interests of the Negro League. And for somebody who doesn’t know that they just kind of see, you know, who is this? Who is this young, white guy? That’s, that’s around all these old black baseball players. And, you know, it just kind of brings up a question that’s probably on a lot of people’s mind, “what exactly, is all this?”

DF: And by “all this,” what exactly do you mean?

CP: You know, why is this kid involved in researching only former Negro league baseball players? Why isn’t he interested in just current baseball players that play in the Major League? Why isn’t he just interested in researching old Major League Baseball players from the fifties and sixties?

Advertisement

And the reason I gravitated towards researching Negro league baseball players was because I was just drawn in, in so many ways, the fascination with, with trying to uncover and unearth numerous newspaper articles, locate former baseball players who had not communicated with their former teammates since the day that they had the bus drop them home in the 1940s or 50s. Just unearthing all of this information that isn’t out there.

There was so much information out there that wasn’t known [and] hadn’t been documented, hadn’t been put together or searched out. And that’s what really drew me in.

Advertisement

DF: I’m kind of wanting to go back to that comment you’ve been circling back to, that there’s really not a lot of time left with some of these players. In your estimation and from the research you’ve done. Do you have a sense of how many Negro leaguers are left? And of them, who do you still talk to most often?

CP: In my head, it’s very tough to make an estimation. I don’t always have a hundred percent knowledge of if a player may have passed away in recent months and we just haven’t found out yet. But my estimation is, still over 200 former Negro League baseball players living, most of whom played in the 1950 and early 60’s. While some people look at the Negro Leagues as ending in 1950 or the early 50’s, there was a league that was in existence until 1963. And while the quality of baseball may have deteriorated as many of the top talents were being signed into major league organizations, there still was a league.

Advertisement

Many of the guys in the book are guys that I’m very close with and we constantly communicate. Every couple of weeks or a month we’ll chat. Some guys I talk to more than others.

Eugene Scruggs, one of the players in the book, we’ll talk on the phone every month or two. Gilbert Black we’ll talk every month or two. Russell Patterson and I are communicating constantly through text message. Russell was my roommate at the reunions and we’ve become very close over the years. We’re always chatting about different things most of the time, not even about the related stuff. Just sports and what’s going on in the world and whatnot… I still communicate with a lot of guys. I have about a dozen or two that I check in with every couple of weeks to a month. I’d say I have about five to six that I text message every week or two. And then there’s, you know, another 50 to 75 guys that I’ll check in with every couple months.

Advertisement

DF: Instead of calling, have you FaceTimed any of them? Are you on social media with them at all? Just wondering.

CP: There’s a couple ballplayers, like the guys that do text messages, that have those capabilities where they can actually receive a picture on their cell phone. I’d say there’s only a handful who have iPhones that actually know how to use them. A couple of them lately have been able to do zoom but normally with the assistance of a family member who kind of gets them set up. Like Russell Patterson, for example, I remember about three or four years ago he always just had a standard flip phone. And I believe for his birthday or Christmas, somebody upgraded him to like one of the new, like LG smartphones. And a month [after getting the smartphone] he couldn’t say enough about how he wanted to go back to the flip phone because he had no idea how to use the smartphone. I thought that was funny.

Advertisement

DF: Don’t we all want to go back to the flip phone?

CP: Yeah. The amount of time I spend looking at pointless information all day… It’s ridiculous.

Advertisement

DF: I agree with that for sure!

In the book [and in the interview] you do keep coming back to this idea that perhaps in a decade or two not a lot of ballplayers will be left. I’m wondering, what happens then? Are you worried that the history of the Negro Leagues will go too?

Advertisement

CP: I don’t worry.

But there is one place where I am concerned, and I can’t do this all on my own. I wish that we could do professional video interviews of all of those living players that we can get a hold of. Seeing their face, meeting them, getting their story while we still can, because when I first started doing this and I reached out to guys over the phone, we’d have some interactions, maybe through some letters and a couple of phone calls. I heard their stories and then they passed away and I had written down some notes, but that just becomes like a little piece of paper.

Advertisement

We don’t just have these videos where we can, you know, meet this player and hear their experiences. So that’s one thing that I would really like to see happen.

I do worry though when players pass away. And at that time in 10 to 15 years, or however long it may be if there’s no players that are doing little events or talking about their career, then people might not think about it as much.

Advertisement

I do think Major League Baseball making their statement [to recognize Negro Leaguers] recently may draw some overall interest from baseball researchers and fans who want to explore learning about the history of the Negro league a little bit more — familiarizing themselves with many of the players who may be in the hall of fame or not in the hall of fame who had amazing careers in the Negro Leagues. But the little guys, those are the ones that I really worry about their stories fading away.

DF: You mentioned the MLBs announcement. I want to know if you have any additional thoughts on it.

Advertisement

CP: I think it’s good. It definitely brings some attention and much-needed recognition to the Negro League. I just want to see something more come of it. Maybe each team sends a film crew over to the players that live in their area or bring them in for a game or will the pension program change? I don’t know. I just want to see a little bit more done because I think the fact that major league baseball has not really brought much attention or recognition to the the Negro League and it’s players living or diseased. They still do have a chance with the guys that are left. 

Advertisement

DF: You wrote a chapter on unexpected attention too. Do you feel like you ever got used to the attention? Are interviews like this still weird?

CP: I would say a little bit. I still just do this stuff because I enjoy it. Speaking with the players and doing these reunions was always just something that I was passionate about. The biggest takeaway from having a little bit of attention over the years from various media outlets was it allowed more people to hear about the Negro League and the players.

Advertisement

So I think it just helps overall awareness of the history—the rich history—and the stories and experiences of those guys.

DF: So what’s next for you and what’s next for the work that you do in the coming months and years?

Advertisement

CP: Well, we’re having a conference call in the next couple of days, Dr. Revel, Chef Clayton, and myself and another individual, just trying to figure out what the next big event is going to be. With COVID going on, we’re just trying to figure out when the best time to do something would be and what type of event we would do.

The players that are still with us have been cooped up like everybody else for the last year and they want to come out and do something as people get vaccinated. Hopefully, we can aim for something, maybe September, October a little later, not sure yet. But again with time of the essence here, I think we would like to have a really big event where we could try to get as many living players in attendance as possible.

Advertisement

DF: Before I let you go, I have a question that is not related to the book, but it is related to your early upbringing as a [baseball] card collector. I wanted to ask you as a guy who made some money flipping cards, what do you make of NBA Top Shot? I mean, have you bought in? Is this the future? Do I need to start doing this? Tell us what you think.

CP: Goodness. I’m staying away.

I see it as in comparison to the late 1980s and early 1990s bubble of baseball cards… The baseball card bubble of the late 80’s and early 90’s was, there was a large flock of new investors and fans of baseball. And in turn a lot more people started collecting baseball cards, trying to get cards of the newest, hottest rookies, and then a lot of adults [start] seeing them as a legitimate investment… And all these companies start issuing more baseball cards and to try to fulfill the demand. And then the supply overwhelmed demand. A lot of the rookies don’t pan out. And, you know the values plummet and now people are stuck with a brick of a hundred Gregg Jefferies rookie cards that they paid 10, 20 bucks a piece for. And they now can’t get rid of them and they’re now nothing.

Advertisement

DF: That’s an interesting way to look at it, I guess.

Finally, I have to ask if there’s anything else that you want me to know about the book, about the story, about you, maybe even about NFT’s?

Advertisement

CP: Last thing I guess, in regards to the book, it’s not a baseball book. It’s a book that can appeal to, to really anybody. It’s about friendship, history, relationships, connection, a search for information, really just so many things that are not baseball-related.