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The bus that would roll into into Bill Meyer Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., in the fall opened an endless field of opportunity when Charlie Fraley was a youngster.
The bus carried baseball legends.
Among them were Joe Black, Elston Howard, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Larry Doby.
And Jackie Robinson.
All those baseball players, and many more, were part of a barnstorming team of black stars who toured the southern U.S. to make extra income once their Major League seasons had ended.
For Fraley in the early 1950s, it was a dream come true — not only to see some of his baseball heroes in person, but to meet them in person.
To get into the stadium without buying a ticket, Fraley, who has lived in Radcliff since 1985, would wait for the players to exit the bus. He was one of the children who would run up to them and grab their bags to haul into the stadium.
“That way we would make sure we got in to see the game,” said Fraley, 70. “There were no Major League teams in the south at that time so it was a way for us to see Major League players.”
Getting a chance to see players they had read and heard about as children was a thrill, Fraley said. It was a meeting with Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues, that left a lasting impression on Fraley.
On one of the visits to Knoxville, Fraley sat next to Robinson. The Hall of Famer initiated the conversation.
“I was afraid to approach him,” Fraley said.
Dressed in his Little League uniform, one of the Brooklyn Dodgers — Robinson’s professional team — Fraley and Robinson talked in a dugout.
“He was easy going and soft talking,” Fraley said. “At that time, he was more of a hero to us.”
When residents of Knoxville heard Robinson would be visiting, Fraley said, “It was the talk of the town. A lot of us were playing baseball because of Jackie.”
Robinson broke the color barrier April 15, 1947, when he started for the Dodgers at first base. He went on to play 10 years in the majors, earning six All-Star game berths.
“It was a proud moment for black Americans,” Fraley said of Robinson as the first black major leaguer. “Knowing who he was was just an honor to be there ... He was very inspirational to me.
“I look back at him and what he went through, and I can’t say I went through the same thing,” he added.
Fraley hadn’t seen the movie “42” which depicts that historic event, but he intended to go. He has seen the 1950 film “The Jackie Robinson Story” and is aware of the challenges and obstacles blacks faced at that time.
Fraley and his friends always looked forward to days when the bus came to town to get autographs and to be as close as they would ever get to their heroes.
After a few years, Robinson stopped attending the games, but several other players were there every year.
The children received baseballs signed by the players, but instead of placing them on a shelf inside their home, the balls were used in their games.
Fraley now chuckles at the thought of how valuable those autographed balls would be today.
“We would use them and knock the cover off of them because we used them so much,” he said. “We didn’t have money to buy any others. We would use them and then put black tape on the baseballs and just keep using them.”
Jeff D’Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-1757, or at firstname.lastname@example.org