Riley offered personal experience


Claremore resident Gerome Riley was a member of the Claremore Clowns, a local team of all-Black players who played teams in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas.

When Claremore resident Gerome Riley has words to say both friends and strangers stop and listen.  At age 88 his memory is razor sharp and his story telling is legionary.  He once again proved this during the recent 17th Annual Claremore Field of Dreams Baseball Banquet.

Noted baseball author, lecturer, and Negro League Museum (Kansas City) founding committee member Phil S. Dixon was the banquet special guest speaker.  He spoke and presented a slide show about the life and times of Negro baseball, the years before Jackie Robinson broke the color ban in the Major League in 1947.

It was Riley, however, that gave the crowd a personal view of Black baseball playing days in Claremore.  He was a member of the Claremore Clowns, a local team of all-Black players who played teams in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas.

“They liked to clown around before games, throwing and catching the ball behind their backs, or playing Shadow Ball, going through all the motions without a ball but when it came time to decide winning and losing, it turned serious.   We were usually victorious,” Riley assured his audience.

Born near Chelsea, Riley attended a rural all black school though the Eighth grade.  Then he had to choose between going to Claremore, Nowata, or Vinita for high school.  He selected Claremore Lincoln.

“The state paid my father to drive me to school,” he added, “I had heard about the Clowns before coming here (1952) and I wanted to join the team.  I was a good athlete and could play baseball and basketball,  I was too young at first.  They had some every good players, good enough to play with the professionals.

“So I joined the Hot Shots.  It was a junior team for the Clowns with sons and other younger players.  We would go with the older team and play maybe five innings before the regular games.  As the older ones dropped out over the years we younger ones would step in.”

Claremore businessman L.M. (Big Daddy) Sheppard formed the Clowns in 1945.  The first roster featured Lonnie Rogers, brothers Norbert and Ollie Dixon, Benny Metcalf, Milford Kinnard, Roseanne White, Lucious Wallace, Art Williams, Joe Coleman, Pete Hamilton, Herman Kelly, and Mac Kilpatrick.

Kilparick, the team catcher, would always smoke a cigar and would have it sticking out his mask while behind the plate.

“We played both white and black teams.  It didn’t matter to us.  And there was seldom any trouble.  We just wanted to play ball.  We usually won.  Some of the other teams didn’t like that but there wasn’t much they could do but play harder the next time.  Vinita was always a tough place to win.”

He explained the Clown players were consider as a semi-pro team.  Players did not receive a salary.  They did usually split the admission 60-40, the home team getting the larger percentage.

“Admission was a quarter or maybe 50 cents and probably the biggest crowd might be around 200.  We never made much, just enough usually to cover for gasoline on road trips, bologna and crackers for afterwards, and maybe beer,” he added.

The end of school segregation here in the early 1960s also meant the end of the Claremore Clowns.

Riley said the local  Black youngsters were now allowed to play on the previous all white high school and little league, and American Legion teams.He added before the end of the Clowns a few white players joined the team.

“ That was no problem.  All of us both black and white, just wanted to play baseball.”

The Field of Dreams event is held to benefit the baseball programs of Claremore High School and Rogers State University.

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