By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It is a warm and lazy East Texas summer a half century ago that author and former SMU journalism professor C.C. Risenhoover most fondly remembers--long before the 1998 dragging death of a black man named James Byrd Jr. chilled and repulsed the nation and turned the logging community of Jasper into a pitch dark example of hate-crime ugliness.
In 1954, segregation was still very much a part of the social climate with blacks and whites attending separate schools and churches. African-Americans were directed to avoid public drinking fountains and rest room facilities reserved for "whites only," and allowed to view Saturday-afternoon matinees only from the balcony after entering the movie theater through a side door. In the downtown Jasper cafe where Risenhoover's mother worked as a cook, the few black customers who boldly stopped in for lunch or a cup of coffee were directed to a tiny back room adjacent to the kitchen.
While the young Risenhoover was aware of the color line that divided the community, he gave it little thought. It had no real effect on him. After all, many of his childhood friends, neighbors living just across the railroad tracks in the tiny houses furnished by the local sawmill, were black. With youthful pals who had nicknames like Biscuit, Capjack and Iron Man, he played sandlot ball, swapped stories and hunted squirrels in the cypress-shaded bottomlands.
It was not, he admits, until he was a teen-ager that he became firsthand familiar with some of the difficulties that African-Americans, young and old, experienced. Now, it is that long ago awakening that award-winning, Atlanta-based Triple Horse Entertainment is making plans to bring to the screen as a theatrical movie to be titled Outside the Lines.
"This," says Triple Horse producer Karl Horstmann, "is a powerful story that is going to be highly entertaining yet deal with many of the issues our society is still struggling with." First told in autobiographical book form by Risenhoover, it is an understated tale of racism and redemption, coming-of-age and the pursuit of a boyhood dream, told in a semi-pro baseball setting where a barnstorming group of men and boys--11 of them black, one white--play for the love of the game. And each other.
Son of a sawmill employee, Risenhoover was just 16, looking ahead to his senior year at Jasper High School and dreading another summer working on a logging crew, when a life-changing opportunity came his way.
"There was this guy in town named Elmer Simmons, a pulpwood contractor, who was easily the wealthiest black man in Jasper," Risenhoover says. "He loved baseball and had put together a touring semi-pro team that was mostly made up of former Negro League players who he'd hired to work for him.
"He'd even gone somewhere and bought all the fixtures--bleachers, lighting, dressing rooms, concession stands--from an abandoned minor league stadium and had them moved to a plot of land he owned just outside the Jasper city limits."
It was there that the all-black Jasper Steers played their home games. And it was there, in that summer of '54, Simmons promoted an exhibition game matching his team against an all-white minor league team from nearby Lake Charles, Louisiana. Determined to draw the largest number of paying customers possible, the inventive Simmons approached Risenhoover and his lumber inspector father with a proposition: If C.C., a youngster who had been thrilling Jasper High baseball fans with his fastball and sharp breaking curve since his freshman year, would pitch in the exhibition, he'd earn $50.
"I think," Risenhoover says, "that he felt having a white pitcher on the field with eight black teammates might be the kind of novelty that would help draw a crowd. For me, it was just an opportunity to play another game, to pitch against some batters more talented than I'd ever faced." His father, once a gifted pitcher for the Broken Bow, Oklahoma, "town team" before going off to World War II, gave the idea his blessing.
Despite running a high fever on game day and occasional racial catcalls from the stands, young C.C. performed well. He pitched 13 innings, registered 22 strikeouts, and he and the Steers won, 3-2. The postgame celebration, however, was short-lived. That night he was admitted to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe case of bronchitis.
"I was still in the hospital when Mr. Simmons visited me and said that the Steers would soon be leaving on a summer tour that would take them all the way into Canada," Risenhoover says. "He asked if I would like to sign on as one of the team's pitchers. When he told me he'd already cleared it with my parents, I immediately agreed."
He quickly learned that in semi-pro baseball, the emphasis was definitely on the "semi." Each of the 12 players on the team would, according to their contracts, receive $2 per day for meals and a small percentage of the gate receipts should any money be left over after travel expenses. In truth, there were days when even the two bucks for food wasn't passed out.
"We'd usually eat only one meal a day," he says. "And most of the cafes where we ate probably hoped they'd never see us again. We'd go in, order bowls of chili, doctor them up with all the ketchup we could find and eat every cracker in the place. Then, of course, we never had any money left for a tip."