UT Arlington staffer teams with former local ballplayer on children’s book

Posted Monday, May. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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When she’s not advising students at the University of Texas at Arlington or being a wife and mom at home, Kathleen Sullivan spends much of her time thinking about, researching and writing about baseball.

She knows much about the history of women in the game, for example. Think A League of Their Own.

And after she was featured in a 2004 Star-Telegram article about the value of baseball-themed literary works, she learned about a local former ballplayer who was sort of a Jackie Robinson in reverse.

Jerry Craft may be best known as a rancher and former 16-year mayor of Jacksboro, west of Fort Worth. But he also had what he thought was a compelling tale to tell, and after reading the 2004 article, he contacted Sullivan, whose last name is now Stephens.

“He said, ‘I have a baseball story for you,’” Stephens, who was teaching a college class at the time, recalled last week. “I said, ‘Shoot. Tell me.’”

First she persuaded Craft to visit her students and relate his tale of being the only Anglo ballplayer in the semipro West Texas Colored League. Then Stephens, a published author, suggested that Craft write a book about his experiences as a star pitcher for the Wichita Falls/Graham Stars in 1959 and 1960, still a heavily segregated era in Texas.

Craft, a lifelong rancher who minored in journalism at Texas Tech, told her that he didn’t know how to write a book.

“I do,” he said Stephens replied. “If you’ll let me, we can write it together.”

The rest is publishing history, although it took four years for the ink to meet the paper. Craft was busy with his cattle operation and knows that he drove Stephens crazy with the long periods between completed chapters.

They co-authored the 2010 book Our White Boy. Now they have taken the material and distilled it into Pitching for the Stars: My Seasons Across the Color Line, a book for children ages 9-11.

At the time, he wasn’t trying to make any grand statements. Just the opposite, in fact.

Craft was a student at Texas Tech University, home during the summer break, when Stars manager Carl Sedberry invited him to try out. The team was good in almost every area except for pitching, and Sedberry wanted to change that.

Only thing is, he didn’t tell Craft that he would be trying out for an all-black team.

“I wouldn't have gone,” Craft said by phone Monday. “That’s just the way things were back then.”

The other Stars were just as happy to have Craft on the team as he was to be on it. They nicknamed him “White Boy,” and the term wasn’t meant endearingly.

Within a few weeks, he began earning his teammates’ respect. Stephens said the story arc has the team coming together and then, after tragedy strikes, fading apart. After a big win, first baseman Wayne Fisher introduced Craft to his relatives as “Our White Boy, Jerry.”

It was, Craft said, the first time anybody had used his name.

About two months later, after a long day of baseball in Waco, the team stopped to eat in West. Because of segregation, the players had never dined together at a restaurant. But they thought this one, a black restaurant, might be different.

Instead, the owner asked Craft to leave. In a show of solidarity, his famished teammates went with him.

“Welcome to our world,” Craft said one player told him.

Stephens said the story helps round out a chapter in local baseball history. No records exist of the West Texas league.

“It’s an important perspective to remember,” she said. “He does build relationships with people he would not have met or even talked to.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Patrick M. Walker, 682-232-4674 Twitter: @patrickmwalker1

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