GULFPORT -- More than 55 years after he hung up his cleats and glove for good, Edward Bentley visited fifth-graders Wednesday morning at Bayou View Elementary to discuss life in the local Negro leagues.
Bentley, 79, stood in front of about 100 students with his cane by his side and told stories of his playing days with the Gulfport Panthers -- both the good times and the difficult ones.
Originally a softball player, members of the Panthers convinced Bentley to give baseball a shot in the early 1950s.
He's glad he listened.
"I told him, 'Coach, I don't have much speed," Bentley recalled. "He said, 'Son, if you hit it far enough, you can walk.'"
Bentley took the suggestion to heart and went on to provide power at the bottom of the lineup for the Panthers for more than a decade.
Asked how hard he could throw, the soft-spoken Bentley replied: "I wasn't a pitcher, but I had a good arm; a strong arm. I played third base and if I could knock the ball down, he's out. I had a good arm; an accurate arm."
With the Panthers, Bentley traveled around the region, barnstorming on Sundays in cities across Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. Local opponents included the Pascagoula Giants and Tigers, Moody Tigers of New Orleans, Hattiesburg Black Sox, Mobile Black Bears, Biloxi White Sox, Tigers and Dodgers, and Laurel Blue Sox, among others.
Baseball wasn't luxurious like it is now for professionals. Semi-pro ball players were only paid a few dollars -- if anything -- and were typically only guaranteed a meal after the Sunday games.
Jackie Robinson -- whom Bentley said he adored -- had only broken down the color barrier in Major League Baseball a few years earlier in 1947 and the life of a semi-pro in the South was anything but easy. Especially away from the familiar confines of Panthers Park in North Gulfport.
"We had a hard time finding places to eat. We had a hard time finding places to stay because we couldn't stay in (some) hotels back them. We had to find somebody that would put us up. It was hard," Bentley said. "... We would sleep in the cars or on the ground, sometimes out in the woods."
About more than money
So why go through it all? The low pay. The long road trips only to return just in time for work as a longshoreman the next day.
For the love of the game, of course.
"That's what it was all about. It had to be -- because it sure wasn't for the money," Bentley said. "I guess if I didn't have pride I wouldn't have stayed. I had pride. Once I got up into it I loved it."
There were a couple times Bentley felt like he could have taken that next step.
The famous Kansas City Monarchs came to the Coast once to scout potential players. Bentley was invited to try out but refused.
"I wouldn't go because I was in love. I had gotten married to a young lady and didn't want to leave her, so I stayed here," he said. "... I was a good hitter and had a good arm. That's all they were looking for. If you could catch it, throw and hit you had a chance."
And then, in the mid-'50s, the St. Louis Cardinals held a tryout in Picayune.
"They had just come by to say they came through," Bentley said. "They weren't looking for no ballplayers here."
Looking back, Bentley wishes he had been more driven. If he had, who knows, maybe he could have gotten "the call."
"I just wasn't determined enough," Bentley said. "You have to be determined. All I could see was work, work, work. I couldn't see the forest for the forest."
Admittedly, Bentley's mind wanders some nights when he's lying in bed.
"I think about the players and the good times we had," he said. "It meant a lot."
Following his speech, Bentley was presented a plaque with an old team photo and several individual pictures of him in his batting stance.
The photos have large creases and are beginning to fade, but Bentley's memory is not. Two months shy of his 80th birthday, Bentley named off each former Panther and their day job.
Reading brought to life
Bentley's speech dove-tailed with Shannon Thompson's lessons surrounding her class' reading of "We are the ship: The story of Negro League baseball" by Kadir Nelson, Bentley gave the book life.
"That book is about baseball, which is something the kids are interested in, but it touches on so many other subjects. We learned about World War II, The Great Depression, segregation. It's a fun way to get the kids interested in history," Thompson said. "I'm hoping they were able to understand that the book wasn't just a story. Someone actually experienced those events in the book."