Here he comes now, hunched over his walker, all dressed up in a dark pin-striped suit and gray fedora, making his way with some difficulty out of the sunlight of a late Sunday afternoon and into the Negro League Cafe. Many of the patrons recognize him as a baseball legend. He is guided to the VIP banquette along the back wall, where he can relax and tell stories about when he played the game, and at the same time observe all the patrons in the restaurant. He is delighted by the coincidence that a women's group of maybe 65 have gathered in the room for dinner, boasting of a still-keen eye for the ladies. He is 102 years old.
Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe gives off a rumbling laugh as he takes a seat, raising his smiling face on a tilt and ordering chicken. The writer Damon Runyon dubbed him "Double Duty" after seeing him catch a shutout by Satchel Paige and then pitch a shutout himself in the second game of a Negro leagues doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. He played baseball as a catcher and a pitcher for 36 years, until 1954. He was the only man to hit a home run off Paige and strike out Josh Gibson.
"Double Duty" still has the squat build of a catcher, about 5 feet 10, 200 pounds. He also managed for 22 years.
Family and friends call him Duty.
"Duty, do you want the greens and the macaroni?" asks his grandniece, Debra Richards.
"No, just the chicken. Just the chicken."
Duty is the oldest living professional baseball player of a Washington-based team, having played off and on for the Homestead Grays. He is older than the oldest living former Washington Senator, Cuban pitcher Connie Marrero, 94. (Marrero's birth date is April 25, 1911, although sometimes given as May 1, 1917.)
In fact, Radcliffe, the oldest living Negro leagues player, is older than any living former major leaguer, topping the 100-year-old Ray Cunningham, an infielder who played briefly with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1930s. Al Spearman, who played in the Negro leagues and is 78, has this to say: "Duty was before my time."
Radcliffe was with the Grays in 1946, when they divided their home schedule between Pittsburgh and Washington's Griffith Stadium. He remembers Griffith Stadium's distant fences -- and the Negro leagues power hitters clearing those fences.
"It wasn't hard for us," he says. "If you got the right pitch, the ball jumped in a hurry."
He's pleased that baseball is back in Washington, and curious about the team that was moved from Montreal.
"Who's the manager?"
"Frank Robinson," he is told.
He pauses, as if locating Robinson in one of the outfields of his mind.
"Frank," he says, "was a great player, a great player. He's managed a long time, too."
Spearman is at the dinner table with Duty, and Bob Wiggins, another Negro leaguer, and Duty's grandniece Debra and a great-grandniece, Bria Scudder. The cafe, at the corner of East 43rd and Prairie on the city's South Side, celebrates the long-defunct Negro leagues, from the paintings of Paige and Gibson and Jackie Robinson on a wall outside to a gallery's worth of artwork inside. Paintings of "Double Duty" and his brother Alexander, who also played, flank one doorway. The first hamburger on the menu is "The 'Double Duty' Radcliffe," featuring two beef patties.
Duty, it's said, played for more than 40 teams, sometimes several in the same season. He changed teams repeatedly for more money, putting him far ahead of his time as a free agent.
A 10-year-old named Sam Lowenthal approaches the table, his father explaining that it was the boy, not he, who spotted "Double Duty." The old man greets them amiably, extending his left hand, which he often does because foul tips have gnarled his right hand. The fingers on his right hand are swollen and crooked.
"Who did you play for?" the boy asks.
"All of 'em."
Duty laughs and they talk some more.
Then plates of chicken are served. He keeps his hat on.
Debra hands him a napkin. She doesn't want him to get his suit mussed. "He was always a very sharp dresser," she says, to which Spearman adds, "He loved the ladies."
Apparently, his eagerness to reach a new city and play another game, and enjoy the sights, offset the discomfort of the notoriously long bus rides in the Negro leagues.
"He was saying last night," Debra says, " 'There were a lot of pretty women in Washington, D.C.' "
Making the Rounds
Duty still has a slugger's appetite. Shortly, he is brought a second helping of chicken and an empty bowl in which to deposit the bones. A glass of lemonade is put in front of him.
When he is asked what player he thinks of when he thinks of the Negro leagues, he answers excitedly, "Bankhead."
"Sam Bankhead or Dan Bankhead?" Spearman asks.
"Bankhead," Duty says. "He was a great player. He could play third base, too."
That would be Sam Bankhead.
"I played a long, long time," Duty interjects, in effect a reminder that he knows his Bankheads -- there were several -- and just about everyone else who played in the Negro leagues.
"Double Duty" came along before the Wright brothers got their plane aloft and before Ford founded his motor company. Before there was a World Series, there was Duty. He was born on July 7, 1902, in Mobile, Ala., growing up there with Paige. The pair played ball together in a town that would produce many outstanding players, including home run king Hank Aaron. "I didn't care about anything else. Baseball was it," Radcliffe says.
He was one of nine children whose father was a house-builder. As a youngster, Duty learned to control his pitches by throwing a ball into a bucket.
Sometimes he got around by himself in a horse and buggy, but the sandlot was easy walking distance. He figures that, including their boyhood days, he caught Paige more than anyone. In later years, "Double Duty" would wrap a slab of meat in a handkerchief and slip it into his catcher's mitt for more padding to handle Satchel's screaming fastballs. Duty suffered a stroke last May that has slowed him and affected his speech, but his words are unmistakably clear on this subject:
"Nobody can be better than Satchel Paige. Satchel Paige is the greatest pitcher who ever lived."
Early in 1919, the year some White Sox players threw the World Series, Duty and his brother Alex rode the rails to Chicago, part of the black migration north. Their parents came later, settling on the South Side near old Comiskey Park. Duty would do his share, and then some, to rekindle people's love for baseball after the Sox scandal. As his biographer, Kyle McNary, observes in "Ted 'Double Duty' Radcliffe: 36 Years of Pitching & Catching in Baseball's Negro leagues," Duty played in exhibition games against Honus Wagner, who broke into the majors in 1897, and decades later against Willie Mays.
He began in Chicago by pitching batting practice for the great black team, the Chicago American Giants.
For most of the 1920s he played on semipro, traveling teams, reaching the Negro leagues in 1928, with the Detroit Stars. Soon he was playing on championship clubs such as the 1930 St. Louis Stars, the 1931 Grays and the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords.
"Double Duty" was a crowd-pleaser and a team spark. He was outgoing, often unsettling opposing batters by talking to them from his catcher's crouch, and sometimes when he was pitching he would shout down from the mound to the batter and tell him the kind of pitch that was coming, and still get a swing and a miss.
On one of his catcher's chest protectors was written, "Thou Shalt Not Steal."
He threw out Cool Papa Bell, whose speed prompted Paige's often-repeated quip that Cool Papa could turn off a light switch and be in bed before the room was dark.
Radcliffe played every chance he got. Besides the Negro leagues, he joined other black players on barnstorming tours involving games against the best major leaguers. He played during the winters on teams in California. He played a few seasons in North Dakota. He played in Mexico. "We had a good team in Mexico. We took names." He played in Cuba and says he saw Fidel Castro play. But over a peach cobbler for dessert, and a second glass of lemonade, Duty all but dismisses the Cuban dictator's baseball ability: "He wasn't much."
Radcliffe played in several Negro leagues East-West all-star games, either as a pitcher or a catcher.
On the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs, he roomed with Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier with Brooklyn in 1947. "He was a good fellow," Duty says. "If he asked a question, he'd listen to you."
Over the years, Baseball Hall of Fame voters have failed to elect "Double Duty," but he still has a chance to be enshrined. An independent research project on the Negro leagues, initiated by the Hall of Fame, is in the process of compiling facts and figures on the black players of yesteryear. One of the panel's objectives, a Hall official said, is to make sure no player has been overlooked for possible induction.
Even as the work goes on, one historian involved in the statistics gathering already has formed an opinion about "Double Duty."
"I'm not sure he's a Hall of Famer as a pitcher or as a catcher or as a manager, but as far as a whole career, there's no doubt about it," said Dick Clark of Ypsilanti, Mich.
"He's been a wonderful exponent of the Negro leagues," Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, a standout with the Negro leagues' Newark Eagles and later the New York Giants, said from his home in Florida. "He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as a player and an ambassador of the game."
Duty isn't campaigning. When asked about his absence from the Hall, he says: "I don't care about it anymore. It's all right. It's all right."
Meanwhile, Duty keeps active, despite needing a wheelchair and suffering from asthma. A White Sox fan, he plans to attend many of the team's home games this season, including the opener the next afternoon at nearby U.S. Cellular Field.
"Are you going to the game? Are you coming with us?" he asks two visitors from Washington as he gets up to leave the cafe. "Okay. Come see me at noon tomorrow. We'll talk it over."
Duty has lived in the same senior citizens residence, on 38th Street, since 1990. Alberta, his wife of 58 years, died in 1992. They had no children.
Duty remains the resident celebrity.
"How ya feelin', Duty?" an employee inquires as Radcliffe sits in his wheelchair in front of a picture window in the lobby. He has on a brown leather jacket with a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum patch. He's wearing a White Sox cap. It's past noon, and he is waiting for Debra to pick him up and take him to the game. The Sox are playing Cleveland. Until just a few years ago, Duty would drive himself. But she and others persuaded him to turn over the keys to his Mercury Grand Marquis.
"What's up, Duty?" someone asks.
And another: "D-u-u-u-ty!"
Duty eyes an elderly woman, getting off the elevator.
"There's my girl," he says. "Come here."
She laughs, pats him on the shoulder and keeps going.
Duty has been invited to attend a Negro leagues celebration at RFK Stadium that the Nationals have scheduled for May 13. He hopes to be there, although he's not keen on flying.
A few years ago, an acquaintance told him there was no reason to worry.
"Duty, when your number's up, it's up," the man said.
Duty replied: "The pilot's number may be up before Duty's number's up."
He wishes Debra would come because he wants to see the start of the game. "What time do you have?" Antsy though he is, he's still happy to talk about his playing days. He is asked how he dealt with the racial prejudice he encountered. His response is that in spite of it, playing baseball was a fun way to earn money even if it wasn't much. "I never worked a job in my life. Some people weren't nice when I played, but you always meet bad people no matter what you do. The majority weren't like that. People loved baseball when I played."
They still do -- there's an almost-impossible traffic jam near the stadium on 35th Street. Debra is driving, Duty alongside urging her on: "Go ahead. Go ahead."
But there's nowhere to go. The turnout is more than they expected. It's a gorgeous day, sunny and 67 degrees. Finally when they reach Gate 4, the handicapped lot looks full.
"I've got 'Double Duty,' " she shouts out the window.
Attendants scurry to remove the orange cones, then wave her in and clear a parking space.
It's the second inning by the time she wheels Duty to the handicapped portion of Section 133, behind the top row on the first level just to the left of home plate. He smiles as he looks out on the game in progress and the crowd of more than 38,000. The scene couldn't be more perfect.
Debra brings Duty a lemonade and a hot dog, smothered with everything available. His chair is on the aisle, and every now and then a fan stops to wish him well. "I just wanted to see a legend," says Bob Flynn, after meeting him.
Duty is withholding judgment on Ozzie Guillen, who is beginning only his second season as the White Sox manager, because Duty wants a division title, at least. But he likes what he sees: the pitching of left-hander Mark Buehrle, a run-producing double by Paul Konerko and the look of newcomer Jermaine Dye.
The Sox are winning 1-0 after seven innings, when Duty is ready to leave. It's cool for him in the shade.
The game ends with him still in the parking lot, posing with two young boys as their father snaps a photo. The crowd is filing down the ramps and out the gates, everyone happy because the Sox won, which makes Duty happy, too. He's sitting in the warm sunshine, looking up and smiling. "That's more like it," he says.