By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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."
The ancient old team bus, with "Jasper Steers" painted on its side, often clattered through the night to make it to the next day's game. "We started out playing all over Louisiana and Texas, then up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and into Saskatchewan, Canada," says Risenhoover, now making his home in Granbury.
It would be a rare treat when the team was allowed the "luxury" of spending a night in some ramshackle "colored town" hotel. There, the players often slept on broken-down beds with stale-smelling mattresses that were covered with unwashed sheets. When nature called, a trip to the outhouse was the rule. Still, it beat trying to rest on the side of some dark road and bathing in creeks and rivers, which Risenhoover and his teammates often did.
"But it was never about accommodations or money," Risenhoover, now 66, says. "It was about having the opportunity to play baseball. Everyone on that team loved the game and was thrilled to get the chance to play every day. Some were dreaming of getting a shot at the big leagues, like Jackie Robinson had just a few years earlier." In truth, the only success story was that of teammate Alvin Jackson, a left-handed pitcher who went on to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets, then served for a while as the Boston Red Sox pitching coach.
"But for most, playing for the Steers was just a way of staying in the game for another season or two."
For Risenhoover, that summer when he and his teammates played in big cities and rural whistle stops, when his windups were occasionally made as the chants of "white boy" and "nigger lover" echoed from the stands, it was a learning experience that would remain with him for a lifetime. "I gained a valuable understanding of what it was like to be a minority," he says. Most treasured of his memories of the tour, however, was the manner in which his teammates accepted him. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that our defense seemed to play just a little bit harder when I was pitching. Maybe it was because they were worried about me being too young to stand up to the kind of hitters I faced. But I like to think they did it because they respected me as a teammate."
Certainly, the youngster pulled his weight. He doesn't remember his won-lost record, but points out that the Steers rarely lost. "We were sort of a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters," he says. It is, however, one of the team's rare defeats that he can still recall. Playing against a Canadian all-star team at the end of the June-to-August tour, he pitched 17 innings before losing 1-0.
By the time he returned home, Risenhoover's arm would never be the same. His own dreams of big league glory ultimately fell short after disappointing spring training tryouts with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Athletics.
For that memorable summer, once all the gate receipts were tallied and operational expenses deducted, the young pitcher pocketed the grand sum of $250.
It would be years, long after his playing days were over and his attention turned to writing and teaching the craft to others, that he recalled his summer with the Jasper Steers in his 1992 novel White Heat. Though it enjoyed good reviews and modest success in the marketplace, it had long been out of print when a friend passed along a well-worn copy to Triple Horse producer Horstmann, himself a one-time semi-pro catcher.
Having just won a 2002 Atlanta Film Festival award for a short film titled Cliché that he'd written, directed and produced, he was anxious to do a feature-length film. "I couldn't get the story of this kid playing with the Jasper Steers out of my mind," he says.
Nor, for that matter, has Risenhoover. "You know, when James Byrd was dragged to death by those guys, I felt terrible. Not only for the horrible thing that happened to him and his family, but for the entire community. Jasper's a good place to live, with a lot of good people. The town and its people didn't deserve to be portrayed the way they were.
"The story of the old Jasper Steers, I hope, will show another side of my hometown."