Joe Louis Reliford, the youngest professional baseball player in history and author of From Batboy 2 the Hall of Fame, is set to receive the History Maker Award on February 9, at the FOX Theater in Atlanta, GA. His story is one that touches the imagination of everyone who hears it, sports fan or not. On July 19, 1952, 12-year-old Joe Lewis Reliford stepped out of the dugout of the into Baseball history. A black batboy working for the minor-league affiliate of the then Kansas City A’s in an era of racial tensions and prejudice, he transcended the times and showed the courage to answer the call when asked to pinch-hit in the eighth inning of the landmark game.
The team, the Fitzgerald Pioneers, had employed young Mr. Reliford since the age of ten. Joe was a favorite of the players, to the point that, while travelling, they all left a restaurant together rather than eat in a restaurant which would not let their young batboy share a meal with them. They could not protect him from all of the bigotry that he faced while on the road with the team, but the show of support was a huge gesture in those times
The game was all but lost, with the Pioneers losing by a score of 13-0 in the eighth inning, and the crowd was vocal in their disappointment. The opposing team, the Statesboro Pilots, had a contingent of arrogant supporters in the stands. In jest, taunting the Pioneers and shouting all manner of challenges, the Pilots supporters called for the batboy to try his luck against their team. To everyone’s surprise, Charlie Ridgeway, the Pioneers’ manager, got permission from the umpire to do just that. When called, Joe Louis Reliford did not shy away from the history-making opportunity. He grabbed the bat and took the opportunity which had been awarded to him. His at-bat saw him thrown out at first base, only just barely, but that was not the end of the story.
Reliford was sent out into right field for the bottom of the inning, much to the surprise of everyone in attendance. Believing they had received a windfall, the Pilots players targeted Joe to take advantage of the fact that there was a pre-teen in the outfield. It did not work out very well for them. When a one-out single put a batter took first base, the batter following him hit a ground ball to right, and the man on first assumed he had a clear path to third. Just about everyone in the crowd was stunned to see him thrown out by the strong arm of Reliford. The next batter, Harold Shuster, was the Pilots’ best batter, and was in the midst of a 21-game hitting streak. When the ball left his bat headed for right field, it seemed destined to bring another run in. Instead, Joe made a leaping catch to end the streak, and the inning.
It was an unexpected and unbelievable moment, and it cemented Reliford as the youngest professional baseball player in history, supplanting Joe Nuxhall, who had held the record after playing at age 15 in 1944. It is something that started as a joke, but ended with a young boy stepping into the annals of baseball history. He will be honored at the Legendary Awards event at the FOX Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. He will receive the History Maker Award, aptly named given the events of July 19,1952. Joe Louis Reliford went from batboy to baseball icon in the space of the inning. All these years later, the legendary tale is being resurrected and recognized for the heart of competition and sportsmanship it truly represents.
By Jim Malone