The youngest ballplayer ever was HOW old?

A 12-year-old moved up from batboy and also integrated the Georgia State League

February 10th, 2021
Photo via Gwendolyn Reliford, Art by Tom Forget

Joe Louis Reliford was in the place he always was when he visited Blue and Grey Park -- home of the Georgia State League's Fitzgerald Pioneers: Way up beyond the outfield fence by the town's railroad tracks. That's where he and his friends would play their own baseball games while they watched the pros practicing below.

But today, Reliford's mind was elsewhere. His mother, who suffered from arthritis, was raising 10 kids on her own -- his father had passed away years before -- and the 10-year-old felt he needed to get a job to help out. He loved baseball, so why not be a batboy for the local team just blocks from his house?

There was a problem: this was 1950 in the Deep South and Reliford was Black. The chances of an all-white team in an all-white league in a pretty much all-white sport hiring a 10-year-old Black kid seemed unlikely. There's a reason Reliford and friends watched from the railroad outside the stadium -- that's about as close as they were allowed.

He made a beeline for manager Ace Adams and told him his story. He asked him if he could be the team's batboy. Adams, a bit shocked by the request, told Reliford he had to clear things with his mother. Once she was in and assured that her son would be taken care of, the job became his. Sixty-eight dollars every two weeks.

But nobody, not Joe, not Adams, not anybody associated with that first part of the story, would ever believe that two years later, Reliford would do something that put him in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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"I've heard the story so many times, I remember everything," Gwendolyn Reliford tells me from her home in Douglas, Ga.

(Joe, sadly, had a stroke and was unavailable for an interview. But his wife Gwendolyn was more than happy to tell her husband's story.)

"He said he always felt bad that his mom had to take care of all of his siblings without a dad," Gwendolyn remembers.

Joe Reliford with his wife Gwendolyn

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So Joe, who wasn't tall enough to go on most rides at an amusement park (4-foot-11, 68 pounds), hit the road with a bunch of adult white males.

He shined shoes, carried bats and balls and got water for players. There were hateful remarks at away games and, occasionally, from some Pioneer players.

"There was one man who gave him a fit," Gwendolyn says. "Just because he was Black."

"Only one or two didn't want anything to do with me," Joe said once in an interview. "They were both pitchers, and they couldn't win anyway. When they got pulled from the game, I was the one they threw the glove at."

But for the most part, the team protected Joe and took a liking to Fitzgerald's new batboy. His closest confidante was player/manager Charley Ridgeway.

"Charley Ridgeway always called [Joe] his son," Gwendolyn says. "And when they rode on the bus, he always sat with him in the front."

"Mr. Ridgeway was a pretty good ballplayer and he took me under his wing," Reliford told MiLB.com back in 2007.

When the team was barred from eating at restaurants on the road, Ridgeway and the team went elsewhere or ate on the bus.

"When they would find spots to eat and they'd go in the restaurants and there was this Black boy in there, [the restaurant] would say, 'We don't feed Blacks,'" Gwendolyn tells me. "They would leave. They wouldn't eat in the restaurant. ... Charlie wasn't having it. They'd leave and go find one [that would take Joe]."

As the years went on, Ridgeway allowed Joe to practice on the field with the team. For the boy who grew up watching Satchel Paige barnstorm through Georgia and remembered Josh Gibson getting at-bats in local Negro League games, warming up with pro players -- pro white players -- seemed unimaginable.

"Joe loved baseball," Gwendolyn says. "Not only did he shine shoes and keep up with equipment, they actually let him get out on the field and pitch and hit and practice with the ballplayers. He was actually a pretty good ballplayer, even though he was small."

“I got out there and played catch with all of them, and they threw it pretty hard at me," Joe told the Courier-Herald. "That’s how I learned to catch. If you keep on practicing and learning something consistently, you soon become pretty good at it. Before too long, I could catch ground balls and catch pop flies, and then I could hit the ball too.”

Satchel Paige, Kansas City Monarchs ace, at Yankee Stadium

And then, on July 19, 1952, the impossible happened.

Joe Louis Reliford, a 12-year-old Black kid, played in a professional baseball game. The youngest to do so in organized baseball history.

The Pioneers were playing an away game in Statesboro, Ga., and getting blown out 13-0 in the eighth inning. They were also in the midst of a terrible season, 14 games under .500 and 20 games out of first place. The crowd, large and boisterous because of an Elks Club promotional night, wanted something different. Something fun.

"[The Pioneers] were so far behind, the score was terrible," Gwendolyn says. "The fans wanted some fun and when they saw [Joe] out there, they thought, 'Well, the batboy couldn't be worse than the players, how could he be?' So they kept yelling, 'Put in the batboy!'"

With his team down so many runs, the crowd not letting up and knowing that Joe could hold his own with the pros -- Ridgeway gave in: he told Joe to "grab a bat." Even though it was against the rules to play your batboy, Ridgeway thought Joe had earned a chance.

Reliford would pinch-hit for Ray Nichting -- who, as Joe described, was the Pioneers' version of "Mickey Mantle." He was nervous. He thought Ridgeway was teasing him at first and was "as scared as can be." He used a fungo bat -- the lightest on the rack -- and walked into the box.

There it was, it's almost too unbelievable to be real: A five-foot, 12-year-old child standing in against a six-foot, 24-year-old man named Curtis White. The crowd was on edge, happy they got what they wanted and excited for whatever might happen next.

And White didn't let up on Joe.

"He threw to him just like he was a grown man," Gwendolyn says. "He didn't let up because he was a boy."

White threw a first-pitch fastball right by Joe and then, although he didn't do what he wanted and hit it "out of the park," Joe somehow made contact on the next strike. He ripped the ball down to third, but the third baseman made a great play in the hole and threw him out by a step.

"The fans went wild," Gwendolyn says, laughing. "They never expected him to hit the ball."

That could've been enough for a legendary story, the fact that he put the ball in play. Who would believe it? Nobody would ever top it.

But that was only the first act of Joe Reliford's debut.

"Mr. Ridgeway gave him a glove and said, 'Go on out there,'" Gwendolyn says.

The crowd was delirious. Joe trotted out to right field and, unlike any of us if we were put into a pro baseball game as a child, he actually wanted the ball hit to him. And well, the balls were hit to him.

Joe threw out a runner trying to go first to third -- "I guess he was thinking that little child can't throw me out" -- and for the last out of the inning, he made a play for the ages.

Statesboro's top player, Harold Schuster, stepped up to the plate. He had a 21-game hit streak on the line. He was looking for a homer, glancing in the direction of the little kid in right field. Sure enough, Schuster hit a towering fly ball toward the right-field fence.

"The fence wasn't that tall, but when he reached up his hand, it almost hit the top of the fence," Gwendolyn says. "It would've been a home run, because it would've gone over the fence."

Robbed of a homer by a 12-year-old -- who could barely reach up over a five-foot fence. The crowd lost it. They streamed out on the field, running toward their new baseball hero. Joe didn't know what to think.

"He was scared," Gwendolyn tells me. "He thought they were gonna come get him and hurt him because he stole a homer away."

"The bleachers emptied, and it scared me to death," Reliford said years later. "I caught a ball and I wasn't even supposed to be on the field. All those white folks were coming toward me and I thought they were doing it because I caught the ball. But they were happy for me and I didn't know it."

Spectators patted him on the back and stuffed money in his pockets. Ridgeway sang Reliford's praises on the bus ride out of town. But soon after the game, once headlines hit the local news, the league fined and suspended Ridgeway for putting Joe in the game. The umpire was fired and Joe was eventually let go.

"He was a Black guy and he wasn't supposed to be out there anyway," Gwendolyn says. "That was the last time he played there."

Joe's celebrity status (and talent) got him a job playing with a local Negro League team called the Lucky Stars and he was a star football, baseball and basketball player in high school. He got a scholarship to Florida A&M, but a broken collarbone his senior year derailed his future in sports. He instead became an electrician and then, after moving to Douglas, Ga., post college, was hired as the city's third Black police officer.

Gwendolyn says she didn't fully realize what he'd done until they were married in the late 1960's and she found a book at the library called "Strange but True Baseball Stories." Joe's batboy debut was in there. There have since been many local stories chronicling Reliford's feat and Sports Illustrated did a big profile in 1990. He's also been invited to Nationals games to throw out the first pitch and sit up in the owner's box. Ted Turner, former owner of the Atlanta Braves, gave Reliford a lifetime pass to games.

So, that's the story. That's how a 10-year-old kid, who just wanted to help out his mom, wound up with a display in baseball's most holy institution and integrated pro ball in one of the most racially-divided, brutally-segregated areas of the country. He believes the attention his appearance got helped pave the way for future Black stars like Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays to be able to play with whites in the South.

Who could ever doubt him?

Reliford poses with a Douglas, GA., sign honoring his moment back in 1952