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Major Leaguer Sam Allen on Faith, Family & Baseball

Norfolk, VA

It was 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. For an 11-year-old Sam Allen....

“That was the greatest thing that ever happened,” says Sam. “It gave us a hero. Everybody wanted to be a baseball player. And I knew then that I wanted to be a baseball player.”

Born in 1936, Sam grew up in a tight-knit family with his mom and grandparents in their hometown of Norfolk, Virginia.

His love of baseball started with his grandfather. At that time, teams and spectators were segregated.

“The Blacks had to go in the side gate down the left field line. And the Black grandstand was next to the White bleachers. But we’d go every night because it was cheap,” says Sam.

By the time Sam was six, he had picked up on all the rules and signals. Before long, he was playing baseball with his friends.

“I broke a few windowpanes,” says Sam. “My grandparents had to pay for them. But I fell in love with baseball. It gave me something to look forward to.”

Sam was becoming a star at Booker T. Washington High School, in Norfolk—not only in baseball, but football as well.

“When we used to play football, you could hear the mic in the neighborhood. And my grandmother would uh be listening,” says Sam. “And she would hear, say, ‘Allen running the ball for Booker T., Allen making the tackle for Booker T., Allen kicking off for Booker T.’ Say, all I hear was 'Allen, Allen, Allen,’” laughs Sam.

After graduating, Sam was invited to try out for the Cincinnati Reds minor league team...but didn’t make the cut. One thing helped him press on—his faith in God.

“Without faith, I would’ve given up,” says Sam. “I had all the reason in the world to give up. A lot of the players that were cut down there didn’t play anymore, but I stuck with it.”

Soon after, an agent invited the now 21-year-old to try out for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League team, who were training in Jacksonville, Florida, at the time. Taking a step of faith, Sam bought a one-way bus ticket to Jacksonville.

“I didn’t have money to get back, I just had enough to get down there,” says Sam. “So, I don’t have any way to get back home! So, I gotta make the team!”

Sam’s big chance came playing against the Monarchs. The stands were packed that day, and a team from Jacksonville showed up with only four players. Not wanting to disappoint the fans—and lose money—the Monarchs’ manager told Sam and a few others to dress up for the other team.

“First time up, I got a hit, next time I struck out,” says Sam. “And I said, ‘Well, look, I gotta do better than this.’ So, the next time, I hit the ball over the scoreboard.”

Signed on the spot as an outfielder for the Monarchs, Sam became a proud member of the Negro leagues.

“I think contract was about $150, but I was so happy I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t have any money,” says Sam. “Now I got a contract and I’m going to get $2 a day, meals too.”

The Negro leagues were formed in 1920. Despite their talents, Black players weren’t allowed to play alongside Whites in the segregated major and minor leagues. By the time Sam joined in the late ‘50’s, the Negro leagues were well established.

“The Negro League was drawing 20-, 30-, 35-, 40,000 and at that time we were equal to the Major League Baseball,” says Sam. “White and Black went to the games, cause people loved baseball.”

Sam played professional ball for four seasons, moving from the Monarchs, to the Raleigh Tigers, to the Memphis Red Sox. Talented in the field, and at bat, he led the league in runs in 1957. Sam says despite the low pay, he loved pro ball, and the other benefits that came with it.

“The greatest thrill that I got out of playing baseball was, believe it or not, when I would come home the ladies in the neighborhood would be talking and they’d say, ‘That’s Bernice’s boy. He played baseball,’” says Sam. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, your momma proud of you.’ And that made me feel good, you know. Yeah, that made me feel good.”

However, on the road from town to town was a different story, as the team faced racism constantly.

“Some places you had the restaurant where you had to eat in the kitchen, see,” says Sam. “And the kitchen, they had a fish box where they would have a piece of plywood on them, yeah, that they would feed you in the kitchen.”

Sam says it was his faith in God that kept him grounded...and his mother’s example of Godly character that kept him from being bitter.

“My mother was a loving person,” says Sam. “My mother uh was the reason that I am the way I am. I’m about help people, that’s my thing. Because we always say, ‘Let the works I’ve done speak for me.’”

In 1960, Sam’s dream of making the majors got put on hold, when he was drafted into the Army at 24, and became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. He served two years before moving back to Norfolk, where he got married and started a family. He kept up with baseball—playing and coaching for fun—and watching his hometown team, the Norfolk Tides.

“Baseball is my game,” says Sam. “And-and I love it. I gave it 100%. That’s all. I did the best I could.”

And Sam’s legend lives on. 2003 Inductee Hampton Roads African American Sports Hall of Fame, 2007 Honoree at the White House, 2019 Inductee Tidewater Baseball Shrine at Harbor Park.

“They got my picture over here, right over here on the wall,” says Sam as he points over his shoulder. “A lot of people don’t have pictures on the wall, now. You know, when you come in a ballpark and see that, that means a whole lot,” says Sam.

Then, in December 2020, Sam and hundreds of his teammates and opponents would finally hold the title of “Major League Baseball Player.” 100 years after its formation, the Negro Leagues were recognized as Major League by the MLB.

“It’s about time, you know,” says Sam. “Cause we’ve been coming for many a year-you know, hundreds of years. So, we-we-we're getting there.”

Sam says that while sports will continue to play a part in bringing Americans together, it’s prayer that will bring healing among all the races.

“We gotta do a lot of praying because it’s been divided,” says Sam. “We need each other. Black, Whites, we need everybody to defend this country.” 

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