Before the 1997 baseball draft, Jerry Hairston Jr., then a sophomore at Southern Illinois University, went to visit his grandfather in search of career advice.
"I didn't know whether to come out [for the baseball draft] or not," he said. "I felt I was ready."
But Hairston wanted his grandfather, Sam, the first black American to play for the Chicago White Sox back in 1951, to give him his opinion, so he went to Birmingham where Sam Hairston was a coach for the White Sox Class AA minor league team. Sam hit some ground balls to his grandson at shortstop. After fielding each ball, Hairston threw across the diamond to his father, Jerry Sr., a former White Sox player, on first base.
After the drills, Hairston Jr. said, "my grandfather told my dad: 'He's ready to play. He should sign as soon as possible and start his career.' When he said that, I knew I was ready."
As a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, the 23-year-old Hairston continues the baseball legacy started by his grandfather, a former Negro Leaguer who made history when the White Sox became the sixth major league team to hire black players, although he played only four games. Hairston Jr. made history of his own, becoming the first third-generation black player in major league baseball when he was called up for a six-game stint last season. Two other families have sent three generations to the big leagues: the Boones (Ray, Bob and Bret and Aaron) and the Bells (Gus, Buddy and David).
Mindful of such a rare legacy, Hairston welcomes his presence in the majors as an opportunity to keep alive the memory of his grandfather, who died in 1997.
"My grandfather was a proud man," he said. "I know he would have been very proud of me. . . . I wish he were here and could see me right now."
An all-star catcher in the Negro American League in the 1940s, Sam Hairston signed with the White Sox in 1950, the same year he won the Negro American League Triple Crown with the Indianapolis Clowns, batting .424 with 17 home runs and 71 RBI. That was three years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color line as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
After beginning with Chicago's Sacramento farm team, Sam Hairston was called up to the majors in July 1951. Although he arrived three months after Minnie Minoso, a Cuban-born black player, and made his debut with the team following a trade with Cleveland, the White Sox list Hairston as the team's first black player because he signed in 1950 and attended training camp, a team spokesman said.
Hairston batted .400 in four games for the White Sox, going 2 for 5 before he was sent down the Sox's Class AAA team Colorado Springs. He saw his chances of being called up again diminish with the White Sox's acquisition of catcher Sherm Lollar, who became an all-star. Hairston spent the rest of his playing career in the minor leagues, where he was named to all-star teams in 1952, 1953, 1955 (Western League) and 1959 (Sally League).
"My grandfather said [Lollar] was a good player," said Jerry Hairston Jr., adding that his grandfather never expressed any bitterness about his brief stint in the majors.
"A lot of his best years were spent in the Negro League. So given the opportunity earlier, he would have played [more] in the major league. But, I guess the color line wasn't broken fast enough.
"He told me stories about being the first. Of course, it was difficult, especially coming from the Negro League to major league baseball."
Jerry Hairston Jr. recalled that his grandfather told him the easiest part of the transition was on the field.
"Off the field, he experienced a lot of prejudices," he said. " . . . He heard different racial slurs. But he learned to really channel that. He took that and used that to his advantage. And tried to prove to people that he can play. So it was a motivating factor."
Hairston is proud of the role that his grandfather and others played in integrating the sport.
"Baseball has been a game that has really helped pave society," he said. "Before the civil rights movement, . . . Jackie Robinson and other Negro League players, like Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, my grandfather . . . came in [the major leagues] and people saw those players on the field. Back then, a lot of white people said, 'Black people can't do this.' But then they saw firsthand, 'They're just like us.' "
The Hairstons are part of a large clan of people, scattered throughout the country, who were descended from former slaves belonging to a wealthy family--also named Hairston--who owned a string of plantations throughout the South. Today, the annual Hairston family reunion attracts hundreds, including some white members of the clan, and was featured earlier this year on "60 Minutes II." Jerry Hairston Jr.'s immediate family has never participated in the reunion because it is held in the summer, during baseball season.
Playing for the Orioles, Hairston said, "is a tribute to my grandfather and father." Although his grandfather never saw him play a major league game, "He always knew I would make it to the big leagues," Hairston said.
Sam Hairston made that prediction when his grandson was only 2 years old. At the time, father, son and grandson were in Mexico, where Jerry Hairston Sr. was playing. Father and son were playing catch before a game when Sam Hairston came out of the dugout and asked a photographer to take a picture of the three of them, a photo that Jerry Hairston Sr. still has. That day, Sam Hairston announced that Jerry Jr. would be the third generation to play major league ball.
"It's amazing how he could just pick it out," Hairston Sr. said of his father's prediction.
Hairston started as a shortstop in the minor leagues after the 1997 draft and made a quick trip through the minor leagues, switching to second base along the way.
Last season, Hairston began at Class A Frederick, was promoted to the Class AA Bowie Baysox and made his major league debut with the Orioles on Sept. 11, 1998. After starting this season at Class AAA Rochester, Hairston was called up to the Orioles in June when starting second baseman Delino DeShields went on the disabled list, spending 25 games with Baltimore and batting .277 with two home runs and seven RBI.
When major league rosters expanded earlier this month, Hairston returned.
Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks knew all three Hairstons and has seen the youngest Hairston improve in his third pro season.
"I just marvel to watch his progress, how rapidly he came along," he said. ". . . I can tell he had good training."
One former Negro League player who knew Sam Hairston said he would be impressed with his grandson's play, noting that the second baseman displays some of the hallmarks of Negro League play.
"The old ball players, like [Sam] Hairston, played the fundamentals of the game," said Gordon Hopkins, 65, who came to the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, the year after Hairston left to join the White Sox. "They didn't care about how many home runs you hit. [Jerry Jr.] hits doubles and singles. He lays down the bunts and sacrifices. He does strategy plays. That's the kind of ball you had to play when I went out there."
CAPTION: Jerry Hairston Jr. says playing for the Orioles "is a tribute to my grandfather and father," right, both of whom played for the White Sox.