His back is bent with age. His eyes, dimmed and cloudy.
His voice, barely above a spoken whisper
But on Thursday afternoon at the Muskegon Museum of Art, 94-year-old Cecil Kaiser — once a powerful pitcher in Negro League baseball, known for his wicked fastball and unhittable off-speed breaking pitches — was back on the ball field, if only in his memory.
“I played with him,” Kaiser said, pointing his cane at a portrait of the legendary Satchel Paige, a Negro League pitcher enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“And him,” he said. This time, Kaiser’s cane aimed at a painting of Josh Gibson, another African-American player instantly recognized by baseball aficionados, black and white, young and old.
“Yessir,” Kaiser said softly, his conversation more inward than public comment. “He was my catcher.”
Kaiser, who lives in Detroit, stood in the middle of the art museum’s newest exhibition, “We Are The Ship,”
a visual homage by artist Kadir Nelson to the men of Negro League baseball and their historical significance.
“They’re pretty much all gone now. Not too many are left,” Kaiser said.
Born June 27, 1916, Kaiser is the oldest living player from the Negro leagues, and one of only 13 players left in Michigan. Most live in Detroit and Ypsilanti; two are in Grand Rapids.
Later in the day, nearly 600 people would attend the opening of “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball” on display until March 13.
But for a few minutes in the afternoon, Kaiser — for whom the Negro league is not history, but his life story — was all alone, surrounded by portraits of his former teammates.
“Played with every one of them,” he said slowly, leaning on his cane, catching his breath, “or against them.”
Like so many who made it into the professional Negro League, Kaiser first played on sandlot teams, considered the proving grounds for young African-American players.
Baseball historians say Kaiser was good enough to play in the Major League, but both the United States — and baseball — were segregated when Kaiser was young. Major League Baseball was only for white players.
If young black men wanted to play professional ball in the U.S., they joined the Negro leagues.
“It was rough,” Kaiser said.
No blacks were allowed in the Major League until 1947 when Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to integrate baseball, was drafted out of the Negro League by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It wasn’t planned, but by then, Kaiser was sitting down, ready for an interview, directly in front of Robinson’s portrait. Over Kaiser’s shoulder, there was a photograph of Robinson with Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who changed the face of baseball forever when he hired Robinson.
“You tried to be the best you could be. That’s all you could do,” Kaiser said.
He tried out for the elite teams in the Negro League “in 19-and-35,” he said, eventually playing for the Detroit Stars, Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, earning $700 a week at his peak. He also played in the Latin American League and the Canadian Provincial League. When he didn’t pitch, he played in the outfield, but it is his reputation on the mound for which the 5-foot, 6-inch Kaiser, who weighed 165 pounds, is best known.
He was nicknamed the “Minute Man,” because it only “took him but a minute” to strike out his opponents. And sometimes, they even called him “Aspirin Tablet Man.”
“I threw aspirin tablets out there,” he said.