Monday, December 20, 2010

Mr. Ponce’s Story

     Ponce arrived in New York City in 1954 speaking no English other than baseball jargon. To this day he can still name the Yankee’s line up from that year; baseball was his religion. In his mid-seventies, Ponce still looks like a ball player cut from the same cloth as Big Pappi. In the late 1950’s Ponce was playing on a traveling team based outside of Charlotte. The pitcher was a young man who had followed him from Cuba. The two of them roomed in the home of a retired schoolteacher. Ms. Finley was a force of nature. She was the daughter of sharecroppers and the only literate person in her family. She was on a mission to stamp out illiteracy one baseball player at a time. The price for living in her home, beyond a nominal rent, was that you had to learn to speak, read, and write English to her satisfaction. It’s amazing how quickly two young men can learn a language under the threat of eviction. This threat was even more poignant given their new found affection for Southern cuisine.  In Ponce’s own words, “Hmmmm, Corey. I tell you (dramatic pause), that woman could COOK!”.  Ponce learned English to Ms. Finley’s satisfaction.

         Understanding English in the deep South may have been a doubled edged sword. It was always clear that whites were insulting them, but taunts in an unfamiliar language are easy too ignore. As their English improved Ponce and the pitcher became increasingly aware of what the white men were saying. One day outside of Atlanta Ponce's fear turned to anger as he silenced a man who followed him into a bar spitting hate. It was just one punch. In less than twenty minutes the two ballplayers were running for their lives. The mob had formed, and as Ponce described it, it was a well-rehearsed play. This was not the first time young men had run for their lives in this part of the world. His memory of the chase is hazy. He remembers running. He remembers his friend pulling him into the woods. He remembers the long hot wait until nearly dawn. The pitcher had saved Ponce’s life. The next day, the pitcher left. “America”, he said, “is no place for a black man”.

         Ponce moved back to New York and later to Boston. He runs a community center and teaches kids to play baseball. On May 3, 1999, Mr. Ponce turned on the television to watch the Baltimore Orioles play the Cuban All-Stars in an exhibition game. Some time during the sixth inning one of the Cuban pitching coaches noticed the television camera on him. He held out a handmade sign that read “Lazaro Ponce is my friend”. The Baltimore Orioles lost the game 12-6

Ponce, Thank you for all of your stories!!!!!!!

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