by iampunha | 7/07/2008 08:00:00 AM
Althea Gibson was lucky. She didn't have equal footing as a tennis player in her childhood, or even for all of her adulthood, but she got there before too much time had passed.

Today's honoree was born a generation before FDR sought the stories of the aging ex-slaves, two generations before Truman integrated the military (though previously, not for lack of trying), in the days before Martin Luther was King.

What had already happened by 1902, though, was the unofficial ban on black players in Major League Baseball, about which more here. So when today's honoree began to show baseball affinity as children, his parents joined millions of others faced with a future in which their children would not be allowed to compete on the content of their skills but on the color of their skin.

He never got to the majors, though he roomed with one of its most famous players.

We will never know how Theodore Roosevelt "Double Duty" Radcliffe, born on July 7, 1902, would have done against Babe Ruth's bat (and arm).

But to end the story there is to penalize him for being born in the wrong time.

For Leroy "Satchel" Paige, born on July 7, 1906, who with Ted Radcliffe was a star on and off the field before Kenesaw Mountain Landis died and left MLB open to integrate.

And for Robert Heinlein, born on July 6, 1907, whose name alone triggers stories in those who read his.

Baseball historians and statisticians like to talk about the ultimate ballplayers by calling them five-tool players. They run, hit for average, hit for power, field and throw.

"Double Duty" Radcliffe puts a kink in that. If you want to talk about his fielding, you have to compare him to other catchers.

You also have to compare him to other pitchers.

And then you have to compare his bat to that of other players who pitched and caught.

We're enthralled in this day by pitchers who can grow from being relievers to starters or vice versa.

We have two stories of a pitcher being moved to the field. One of them is owned by Rick Ankiel, and the other is owned by George Herman Ruth.

"Double Duty" moved back and forth regularly:

In the 1932 Negro World Series, Radcliffe played several positions without missing a beat. In the first game of a doubleheader, he caught Satchel Paige, then pitched a shutout in the second game. Radcliffe's ability to flawlessly move from one position to the next led sportswriter Damon Runyon to nickname him "Double Duty."

This isn't done in baseball today, and it wasn't done then. There are no stories of Christy Mathewson stepping off the mound to catch, of Honus Wagner moving from shortstop to pitch. We laud Babe Ruth for being so good with his bat that he was given a permanent home in right field. And yes, we absolutely should bear in mind this caveat against thinking of Radcliffe as some sort of superhero:

In the Negro Leagues, players who were good at only one position weren't very valuable. With rosters as small as 12 men during the depression years, pitchers needed to be able to play outfield, third basemen needed to be able to pitch in an emergency, and everyone needed to be able to hit. It's no wonder that Double Duty was highly sought after for 36 years. Besides being one of the best catchers in the Negro Leagues, he usually won about 70% of his decisions on the mound and was a dangerous power hitter, usually belting 20-25 homers per season.

But as much as we take that into account, we need to remember equally that we have no trove of stories of Cool Papa Bell catching a fly ball in center field, then throwing a run out at home -- and registering the assist and put-out.

But we do know that Radcliffe was lauded for doing similar things, and his contemporaries recognized him:

The widely traveled Ted Radcliffe was a man of many talents. Not only was a he 3 time all-star catcher, he matched this accomplishment with 3 all-star nominations as a pitcher.

In life, apart from baseball, Radcliffe was not alone. He was joined by fellow star Satchel Paige:

Radcliffe grew up in Mobile, only a few miles from Satchel Paige, and they were an air-tight battery when only kids. Another neighbor who played in those early sandlot games, Bobbie Robinson, became a star third baseman in the Negro Leagues and is still one of Radcliffe's closest friends today.

You are probably no stranger to Satchel Paige; or, if you are, you have probably at least heard of him, whereas "Double Duty" Radcliffe was unknown to me before I mapped the first week of July's Todays in History.

And now you can enjoy what some people not worth naming here (as I have identified them elsewhere) might keep from you. As you did yesterday, you can look at a black athlete virtually unmatched by white counterparts. You can look at a man who enjoyed a long, long life:

Former Negro Leagues star Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, believed to be the oldest living professional baseball player, died Thursday[, Aug. 11, 2005]. He was 103.