The older pastor, wearing a long purple robe, ascended the steps to the pulpit. “God has always had a plan and a purpose for each of our lives,” the Rev. William H. Greason said in a slow, gentle voice. From the pews came affirmations of “Amen!” and “All right!”
For more than 50 years at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Greason has been a constant presence in his congregants’ lives. He has officiated their weddings, baptized their children and lifted their spirits through loss. His parishioners say his impact has been extraordinary.
Long before he was a preacher, though, Greason had an entirely different life. In his dark, silent study down the hall at Bethel Baptist, on a shelf stuffed with old theological books, is a photograph of the 1948 pennant celebration of the Birmingham Black Barons of baseball’s Negro leagues. A young Greason beams at the center.
Greason, 98, is one of baseball’s “forgotten heroes,” according to the Center for Negro League Baseball Research. Seventy-five years ago, he shut down the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League’s championship series and then earned the Black Barons’ only win in the final Negro World Series, which the Black Barons lost to the Homestead Grays.
Back then, Greason was a lanky right-handed pitcher whose top-notch fastball and devastating curve dazzled crowds at Rickwood Field, a charming ballpark in Birmingham where the game’s greats of the first half of the 20th century — including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Babe Ruth — once played.
These days he is the oldest living player who can tell tales of the height of the Negro leagues, which were finally recognized as major leagues in 2020, many decades after their demise.
On a recent afternoon at his church, Greason — who was also the first Black pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals — talked about his playing days, how he became a minister and why he doesn’t watch baseball anymore.
But as Greason’s story shows, one’s love of the game is not so easily extinguished.
The Whiz Kid
Born poor in segregated Atlanta, Greason — imitating older ballplayers on sandlots — learned to pitch in the early 1930s. In his teens, he played semipro baseball for a pencil factory team. He loved using his wits and talent to fool batters, he said.
In 1943, with World War II raging, Greason was drafted into service. He reported to Montford Point, a segregated camp in North Carolina, becoming one of the first Black Marines. He served at Iwo Jima, where he watched many of his fellow Marines die and was a witness to the flag-raising made famous in a photograph by Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press.
Convinced he, too, would perish on the island, Greason promised to do whatever God asked of him should he survive.
After the war, Greason returned to baseball. He quickly worked his way through the Negro minor leagues and had his contract purchased by the Black Barons in the spring of 1948.
The Black Barons were beloved in Birmingham, a deeply segregated manufacturing city in the southern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Joining a talented, veteran-laden roster, the 23-year-old Greason won his first three starts. A newspaper called him “The Whiz Kid.”
He pitched before festive crowds at Rickwood Field, and during bus trips across the Jim Crow South and beyond, the quiet, unassuming Greason became “like brothers” with his teammates, he said.
One teammate was a 17-year-old center fielder still finding his way in the game: Willie Mays.
Greason “seemed to understand me pretty well,” Mays wrote years later. “He was always careful to help me out when he could without calling attention to what he was doing. He gave me respect and in turn helped me grow up.”
The Black Barons dominated the Negro American League in 1948 and topped the Monarchs in the league championship series. Greason had pitched brilliantly throughout the series and when Manager Lorenzo Davis, who was known as Piper, needed someone to close it out, he knew where to turn.
“Give me the damn ball,” Greason said before tossing a complete game three-hitter.
The Black Barons’ good fortune ran out in the Negro World Series — the last of its kind — with the Grays winning in five games.
As integration took most of the Negro leagues’ best players to the American and National Leagues, Greason made it his goal to join them. It took him until 1952 to catch on with Class AA Oklahoma City, but with batters “going dizzy trying to hit his assortment of pitches,” according to The Pittsburgh Courier, Greason became a target of the Yankees and the Red Sox, neither of which had fielded a Black player to that point.
Oklahoma City refused to relinquish Greason, hanging on to him until late 1953, when St. Louis acquired him.
He finally made his Cardinals debut at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Memorial Day 1954 when he was 29. With the wind howling toward the outfield, he gave up three home runs to left field in three innings. He made two other brief appearances before getting demoted. It would be his last major league chance.
He kept playing in the high minors, and starred for the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rican Winter League. His Santurce teammates included Mays and the future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.
By phone, Cepeda vividly recalled Greason, who had power at the plate in addition to his pitching exploits, blasting “the longest home run I ever saw in Puerto Rico.”
Life After Baseball
After finishing his professional career in 1959 with Class AAA Rochester, Greason returned to Birmingham and drove a delivery truck for a department store.
He and his wife, Willie, whom he had met during his playing days, attended the 16th Street Baptist Church. On the horrific Sunday in 1963 when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the church, killing four girls, Greason was away playing semipro baseball.
One Sunday afterward, Greason recalled, “all of a sudden the Lord spoke to me from within. He said: ‘It’s time.’”
Greason, honoring the promise he had made in Iwo Jima, began studying for the ministry and preaching at the 16th Street Baptist Church. His sermons taught “human rights — the rights of people and the word of God,” remembered Shelley Stewart, then a disc jockey who has been called “the radio voice for the Birmingham civil rights movement.”
Greason became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in 1971. Overseeing a congregation of 1,000-plus members, Greason officiated ceremonies, led Bible classes, preached and counseled — “nurturing a whole generation up through childhood,” according to Mike Holt, a deacon at Bethel Baptist.
In the decades that have passed, nearly everyone who knew Greason as a ballplayer has died. Aside from a few books in his study — a Negro leagues encyclopedia; a worn paperback titled Baseball’s Forgotten Black Heroes — few visible clues connect him to his former life.
In 2018, after 65 years of marriage, Willie died as well.
Even as Greason’s own health began to decline, he kept on preaching.
“In his mind God anointed him as pastor,” Holt said, “and only God can take him down.”
In the small house where he lives alone, Greason watches TV programs featuring televangelists and “The Kelly Clarkson Show” — but not baseball. “It’s not what it used to be,” Greason said.
Specifically, Greason said with disapproval, modern players wear long pants and batting gloves. It was the same tone he uses to describe contemporary music in church or young and fiery guest preachers.
Did he know about the pitch clock? “I worked fast,” he replied.
At that point, Greason’s eyes sparkled with a memory.
“Before games,” he said, “I’d go over the whole lineup and ask myself: ‘How are you gonna pitch ’em?’ So when I got out on the field, I knew what I had to do.”
Smiling, Greason said he remembered a full Rickwood Field on pitching days — and having a good, confident feeling. “I believed I could get anybody out,” he said.
Greason said Mays, with whom he has stayed in touch, was the best ballplayer ever — better than Ruth and Hank Aaron — because Mays could do it all.
Increasingly in recent years, according to Thom Craig, Bethel Baptist’s trustee administrator, Greason has been telling old baseball stories from the pulpit.
As Greason’s 99th birthday approaches in the fall, his life’s two callings — baseball and the Gospel — are intersecting more than ever.
On a bright Sunday morning, about 50 parishioners gathered in Bethel Baptist’s high-ceilinged sanctuary.
“God didn’t give you the ability to throw a baseball like he did to me,” Greason, who stood before them wearing dark-framed glasses, announced over organ music, “and he gave you a gift that I can’t do nothing with!” Congregants nodded passionately and called out “Amen!”
Greason retired to his study after the service. He put his robe away in the closet, a Black Barons jersey hanging a few hooks away.
Other artifacts could be spotted nearby. There was a mitt on the shelf of a cherry wood hutch and framed pictures of Greason from his playing days.
And encased in glass on his desk: a baseball with “John 3:16,” the Bible verse promising believers eternal life, written on its surface.