MOBILE, Ala. — “Hey Cleon! Thanks for the roof!”
Cleon Jones leans out the window of his van and frowns at the woman who has called to him from her porch. “If Jesse weren’t sitting there” — Jones points at her white-haired husband — “I’d throw a brick at y’all. You weren’t even at our community meeting today.”
The woman holds her arms up, mock surrender, and smiles. “Sorry!”
Jones laughs. “All right, girl, all right. We ain’t going to mess with you.”
We bounce down the road deeper into Africatown, Mobile’s ancient black quarter, where Jones came of age in the canebrakes and alligator reeds that run to the Mobile River, where he learned baseball well enough to star with the Mets and where he and his wife, Angela, built a handsome brick home next to the shotgun shack where he grew up without running water or electricity.
He is a de facto mayor, neighbors turning to him to find loans to repair roofs, build a community garden or care for a son struck by lightning. Jones, his mustache snow-white in his eighth decade, peers from under a blue-and-orange Mets cap. His words amble out in a moonflower-soft Alabama accent.
“Growing up in the Jim Crow south, I learned my lane,” he says. “Hell yes, I stayed in that lane. Now every lane is ours and we have changes to make.”
Jones. Tommie Agee. Ed “The Glider” Charles and Donn Clendenon. They were 1969 Mets stalwarts, stars after whom my friends and I modeled our boyhood swings and our strolls to the plate. These African-American players were far more than that and in ways we only dimly divined. It’s worth considering them, especially Jones, on a weekend when the Mets are celebrating the 50th anniversary of that 1969 team.
They were the generational sons of baseball pioneers Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, navigating the Jim Crow South with its poisonous laws and unspoken trespasses.
Donn Clendenon, the loose-limbed first baseman with the BarcaLounger power swing, was a student at Morehouse, which assigned him a mentor known as a “big brother”: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, Clendenon, then on the Pittsburgh Pirates, organized black players and threatened a boycott unless games were postponed on the day of King’s burial; the owners grudgingly relented.
Ed Charles hailed from the segregated harshness of Daytona, Fla. Agee was Cleon’s best friend and a fellow son of Mobile. All of this is laid out beautifully in Wayne Coffey’s book about that team, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done.”
Mobile was a cistern overflowing with African-American baseball talent. A graceful Spanish-moss draped city of 190,000 people, Mobile produced five Hall of Fame baseball players and all were black: Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, sweet-swinging Billy Williams, Ozzie Smith and Satchel Paige. Jones recalls being a young boy watching Paige pitch an exhibition: “He ordered his players, ‘sit down’. And they sat on that field and he struck out the side.”
Near greats included the Kansas City Royals’ center fielder Amos Otis.
“Man, you wanted to play, all you had to do was step outside and toss a baseball in the air,” Jones said.
Much of that black athletic talent no longer flows into baseball, sluiced off into football and basketball. That pains Jones and is a story for another time.
In Jones’s telling, his boyhood was bucolic after a complicated fashion. He struck up friendships with white boys from Chickasaw and Prichard, and they played football and baseball. Sometimes they ate at his grandmother’s table in Africatown and sometimes he ate at their tables. He never had the luxury of forgetting where he was. When dusk tiptoed in he excused himself and took his miles-long walk home.
“I made sure I was home by nightfall, yes I did,” he said.
As he hurried home he heard the catcalls from the shadowed porches.
“Boy, you been dipped in chocolate?” and “Go back to Africa.”
Jones’s equanimity cracked.
“I’d yell back: ‘To hell with that. Take me back! You brought me here.’”
When he was an infant, his mother and father stood on a bus line in Mobile. A white man demanded they get to the back of the line. “My mother wore her hair long, and he snatched her hair and pulled her back” and called her a racial epithet, Jones said.
“They got into a ruckus and my daddy got the best of him,” Jones said. “Word came the police were looking for him, and that night my daddy jumped a freight train to New Orleans and Chicago.”
A few days later his mother fled to Philadelphia. When he turned 12, he heard his grandmother crying on the porch and he slipped out of bed and walked to her side and asked what was the matter.
Word had come that Jones’s mother had died. “I never saw my mother except in photographs.”
After high school, Jones began an arduous back-road trip through the minor leagues and Southern towns, where men and women narrowed eyes and screamed racial invective. More than a few black players shook their heads and departed for home.
Not Jones. “I’d hear that and dig in so deep at home plate that I was looking up at the pitcher. Then that pitch came and — bang!”
Here and there he saw glimmers of light. His team arrived in Jacksonville, Fla., one night and Jones and some black teammates piled into a fish joint. They sat 45 minutes without seeing a waitress.
The manager apologized and called the waitress over. She used a racial expletive in making clear she would not serve Jones and his party. The manager called over another waitress and fired the one who would not serve them.
The following day the players returned to that restaurant and the same waitress who had refused to serve them walked over. “She told us, ‘You know, I was brought up a certain way but I have to know I’m an adult and make my own decisions,’” he said. “I begged for my job back and now I’m begging you guys to forgive me.’”
The men talked to her and she served dinner.
They played that night and Jones looked into the stands and saw that same waitress cheering for them. “Every time we went to Jacksonville we always recognized her and she waved to us. And we had made a genuine friend.
“Most folks want to be cordial. You just have to leave the door open.”
Jones is no starry eyed idealist, and his eyes can flash steel when challenged. Even on the Mets, which he considered family, there were a few white racial incorrigibles. He would pad out of the shower and hear stuff he would rather not.
“After playing with those guys for a while, they turned out to be my friends,” Jones said, breaking into a chuckle. “Or they pretended so well that I couldn’t tell.”
Jones hit .340 in 1969, and with his speed and power, he was the batting leader of the team.
His end with the Mets six years later was desultory. His favorite manager and general manager, Gil Hodges and Johnny Murphy, had long since died of heart attacks.
He had injured his knee and had fallen to quarreling with Manager Yogi Berra.
Then, while he was in Florida rehabilitating, the police found Jones fully clothed and asleep in his van with a white woman. He had been driving her home when the van ran out of gas. The Mets chairman, M. Donald Grant, an imperious stockbroker, forced Jones to bring his wife to a news conference and apologize, a moment skin-crawling in its grotesquerie and racial overtones. Jones was released from the team not longer after, and retired the next year.
He has long ago made his peace with the club.
We lingered over lunch at Catfish Junction, dining on fried catfish and po’ boys and turnips, and drove back into Africatown. Of late, archaeologists have pulled the wood bones of what is almost certainly the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the Americas in 1860, off the floor of the Mobile River. The white slavers secreted their slaves — an illicit cargo as the importation of slaves was then illegal — in what is now known as Africatown.
Those black slaves later governed the town according to African custom. Jones and his community group are working to build an Africatown visitor’s center and to get new roofs and houses and attract younger black homeowners.
Jones is 76; time is not an endless river. Charles and Clendenon have died, and his friend Agee died much too young of a heart attack at 58. “They knock on his door at 10 p.m. and off he go,” his wife, Angela, says. “You have to do what God tells your heart to do.”
Jones nods. He will in a few days journey to New York to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration of that long ago championship.
“I have already lived a dream where I had to keep pinching myself and asking if this is real,” he said. “I have a chance to rebuild Africatown, the most historic black settlement in Alabama. We’ve had times of despair but life, it’s good. We move in all lanes now.”