Atlantic City’s Mr. October

Area’s 17th annual tribute to ‘Pop’ Lloyd this weekend

By Michael Pritchard
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 1, 2009

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When it comes to celebrating the life and career of John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, one of the greatest stars of the early 20th century Negro Leagues and a man who adopted Atlantic City as his home, there is never a shortage of stories.

Take that time early in his career when the famed shortstop still played catcher once in awhile and was hit in the head by a foul ball. Lloyd quickly found a metal, mesh wastepaper basket, put it over his head, and the idea for the catcher’s mask was born. Or there’s the time when he was playing in an exhibition with Ty Cobb, a man infamous for spiking infielders and not exactly known for racial tolerance. Pop put sheets of metal on his shins; perhaps the first shin guards in sports. Cobb couldn’t get past second base and ended up leaving the game in frustration.

It isn’t always easy to separate fact from legend in such stories, but there is one story that the organizers of the 17th Annual Pop Lloyd Weekend (Oct. 2-4) — a three-day celebration that features a sports symposium at The Richard Stockton College, an awards dinner at the Trump Taj Mahal and a special mass at Lloyd’s former church — know is all true and left an amazing impact on Atlantic City.

Long after Lloyd retired from playing, he worked as a janitor at the Indiana Avenue School. In the boiler room, he kept a bucket of baseball gloves.

“He’d take young boys who were having trouble and give them a glove,” says Belinda Manning, head of the Pop Lloyd Committee, which organizes the weekend. “Then he’d take them outside and teach them to play. His whole life was like that. He was a humanitarian who wanted to give the children of Atlantic City the benefit of his experiences. That was his quote. He wanted them to benefit from everything he had experienced.

“That’s why we give humanitarian awards during the weekend,” Manning says. “They’re not sports awards or intellectual awards. They’re humanitarian awards for people who have spent their lives building a bridge from the past to our youth.”

Through the years, the committee has honored a host of former Negro League athletes and many other sports figures that embody the spirit of Lloyd. This year awards will be presented Saturday, Oct. 3, to Charlie Jenkins, Olympic Gold medalist; Jason Kaye, youth advocate; Leslie Maxie, journalist and Olympian and Bill White, president of MLB’s National League.

Along with those honorees will be honors for about 20 local youths.

“That is always the most heartwarming part of the weekend, for me,” Manning says. “These youths get to stand on the stage with national figures and have these awards passed along to them. It’s very symbolic.”

And it’s a fitting tribute for Lloyd, whose own career and impact on baseball earned the respect of even the greatest of his contemporaries. It’s said that announcer Graham McNamme once asked Babe Ruth who was the best ballplayer. Ruth first asked “in the major leagues?” and when McNamee said “No, anywhere,” Ruth named Pop Lloyd.

As a star long before the majors were racially integrated, Lloyd played for numerous teams and in numerous exhibitions, including the first games by black players in Yankee Stadium. His winter league sojourns to Cuba also made him a legend on the baseball-crazy island.

But while originally from Florida, it was while playing with and managing (as a player manager) the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in the 1920s that Lloyd adopted Atlantic City as his home. Lloyd, along with stars like Dick Lundy and Charlie Mason, gave the Giants some of their best seasons. Later, Lloyd would also serve as commissioner of the city’s Little League programs and, of course, as a ready mentor for any child. With that legacy, the Pop Lloyd Weekend celebration has always sought to honor all Negro League players and the long, varied history of their community accomplishments after baseball.

“We look at the weekend as a type of homecoming,” says Michael Everett, projects coordinator for the committee. “We’ve had so many people come in to help us celebrate the weekend through the years. But it does have a sad element. So many of the people — who are the primary sources for this history — are no longer with us. Every year it seems we have to say goodbye to somebody who has meant so much to us. It’s not easy and it also gives us a sense of urgency that we need to document and remember this era.”

This year, for example, Monte Irvin will appear at the Friday symposium at Stockton. Irvin, a great star of the Negro Leagues and later in the majors (with the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs), has become one of the most visible remaining spokesmen for the era.

In the past, other great Negro League players have attended, including Emilio Navarro, the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues and at 103 years old, perhaps the last living person who actually played against Pop Lloyd.

“I remember he was here a few years ago and he told me a story,” Everett says. “He was covering second base and Pop came in hard on a play. He told me, ‘Pop was out and I was out.’ I didn’t quite know what he meant by that, but then he said, ‘I was out — out cold. Pop knocked me out!’ That’s the type of intensity Pop played with. But he added, and they always do, that Pop was the consummate gentlemen off the field.”

So amid the stories and memories of Lloyd, Atlantic City will again honor many great gentlemen who played under the shadow of segregation and persevered.

“With all these players, all the former Negro League players, there is just such a strong message to send to us today,” Everett says. “It’s a story of pride and passion and social justice. These guys truly played for the love of the game and they went through so much. And it’s a story where the good guys won.”

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