Wilmer Fields, Negro Leagues Player And D.C. Counselor, Dies at 81
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page B06
Wilmer Fields, 81, who died of a heart ailment June 4 at his home in Manassas, was a right-handed pitcher for the Negro Leagues who later organized baseball games for prison inmates while working as an alcohol counselor.
In recent years, Mr. Fields was president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association, which helped raise money for income-strapped former members and bring attention to the long-defunct league. Having left his athletic career with few regrets, he found that the association reinvigorated his early passion for the sport as he fought for money for aging ballplayers from the segregated era.
Wilmer Leon Fields, a Manassas native, was the son of a farmer. He and other neighborhood children took fence boards and other improvised materials to play baseball. He also asked for divine intervention.
"I'd say my prayers [and] ask the Lord to give me the strength and make me healthy enough to play baseball for a living," he said.
At 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, he played quarterback at Virginia State University in Petersburg but eagerly left school when he was recruited to play for the Washington Homestead Grays in 1939.
The Grays were one of the finest teams in the Negro League, winning nine league championships before folding in the wake of desegregated professional baseball. The Grays played many of their home games at the old Griffith Stadium in Washington and some in Homestead, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Fields's 11-year career with the Grays was interrupted -- but hardly harmed -- by Army service in Europe during World War II. Returning from war, he found 1946 his best pitching year.
"I was 16-1 [even though] I didn't know where the ball was going half the time," he told The Washington Post in 1990. "The only guy who beat me was [Cincinnati Reds star Johnny] Vander Meer in an exhibition game in Dayton. He had just finished shutting out the Pittsburgh Pirates."
After Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and broke the color line in major league baseball, the Negro Leagues began to shutter.
Mr. Fields, who also had been an outfielder and third baseman, accepted exhibition offers from teams in Latin America and Canada. He said the money and schedule were good and allowed him plenty of time to fish and golf.
He left baseball in 1958 and initially took a job as a bricklayer's helper. Disappointed by the low pay, he found more promising work as an alcohol counselor with the District government. His work took him to reform schools and prisons. At the Lorton Correctional Complex, he organized baseball games between inmates and young Prince William County players.
He retired in the mid-1980s, worked briefly as a security guard and then became part of the new Negro League Baseball Players Association. As president since the mid-1990s, Mr. Fields organized autograph shows and held benefit auctions to raise money for many of his former colleagues from the diamond.
He also wrote a memoir, "My Life in the Negro Leagues" (1992).
A daughter, Maridel Bates, died in 1996.
Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Audrey Roche Fields of Manassas; two sons, Marvin Fields of Clearwater, Fla., and Wilmer "Billy" Fields Jr. of Manassas; a brother, Oliver Fields of Manassas; a sister, Evelyn Fields of Manassas; four grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company