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Saturday, May 5, 2012

History of Negro leagues presentation at the Nashua Public Library Sunday

NASHUA – Early in a military career that would span 26 years, Joe Caliro had just been transferred from New York to Biloxi, Miss., when a routine stop at a department store turned in to something of a societal wake-up call for him and his wife.

“My wife went to get a drink of water, and a guy next to me nudged me,” Caliro recalled. “He said, ‘Better remind your wife she’s in the South now.’ ”

Puzzled, Caliro looked around and suddenly got it: His wife had just used the water bubbler distinctly marked “colored only.”

It was the first of a series of experiences that led Caliro, now a Portsmouth resident, to eventually begin collecting memorabilia, artifacts, souvenirs and historic accounts of baseball’s Negro Leagues. Today, he estimates that 450 items, counting the multiple individual baseball cards, make up his collection, most of which he recently began displaying at libraries and other organizations in the state.

On Sunday, Caliro and his collection are coming to the Nashua Public Library for a two-hour exhibit, during which he’ll present “The History of the Negro Baseball Leagues,” a compilation of anecdotes, historical accounts and other interesting tidbits chronicling life and baseball in the South’s sharply segregated Jim Crow era.

The exhibit will be open from 2-4 p.m. in the lower-level Image Gallery. Caliro will speak at 3 p.m. in the adjacent theater.

Registration isn’t necessary, but those wanting to see Caliro’s presentation should arrive early, organizers said.

Not long after the couple’s impromptu Southern introduction, and in part because of it, Caliro’s superiors assigned him to develop a lesson plan that would be used to teach newly arriving soldiers and their families about segregation, so-called Jim Crow laws, unwritten rules and other characteristics to help them assimilate while stationed in the South.

“A lot of people didn’t know that if you shared a taxi with a person of color, you’d get arrested,” Caliro said.

And while many new arrivals were generally aware of the “blacks in back, whites up front” policy on public buses, other little nuances weren’t widely known.

“All the white people got on first,” Caliro said. “You could let a white woman go first, but if she’s black, you had to go first.”

The lesson plan completed, Caliro turned it into high praise, he said.

“My officers said it was great, they really liked it,” he said. “But a week later, they called me in.”

Worried about potential local pushback, the brass changed their minds.

“They said they felt it might stir up the pot too much,” Caliro said. They told him thanks, but no thanks.

Determined that his extensive, and often exhaustive, research wouldn’t be for naught, Caliro had an idea.

“After doing all the work, I figured a good way to use (the information) would be to follow Jackie Robinson and his wife,” he said, documenting how the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier and his wife were treated at various ballparks, hotels and other public events or places.

Caliro’s hobby took him to a number of minor and major league cities, but it was another league that interested him most, even though it was in its final seasons.

“I just started collecting Negro League things, just out of interest and curiosity,” he said.

Of the several Negro leagues that played each summer for more than 50 years, the American Negro League was the last one standing at the time. Its final season was 1960, although its handful of teams had been touring mostly for entertainment, rather than competition, for nearly a decade.

Among one of Caliro’s most interesting anecdotes has to do with the Red Sox’ reputation for turning away even the most talented ballplayers who happened to be black.

“For years, they pretty much decided they wouldn’t sign a black player. A lot of people know that Jackie Robinson had tried out with the Red Sox – but they also turned down a couple of other black players with the names Aaron and Mays,” Caliro said, referring to future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

“People talked so long about the Curse of the Bambino. There was no Curse of the Bambino,” he said with a laugh. “It was the curse of racism.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.