Carl Long, who used baseball to escape segregation and broke the color barrier of the Carolina League as its first black pro ballplayer, died Monday after a long illness. He was 79.
After leaving pro baseball, Long – who grew up in Rock Hill’s Boyd Hill neighborhood – became the first black bus driver, police officer and detective in the once-segregated city of Kinston, N.C., where he remained after finishing his decade-long baseball career.
Long played for the Kinston Eagles in the Carolina League in 1956, leading the league in runs batted in with 111 – a record that still stands. Last year, his autobiography “A Game of Faith: The Story of Negro League Baseball Player Carl Long” chronicled his escape from Rock Hill’s segregation by going on the road with the Negro Leagues’ Birmingham Black Barons, then with other professional teams.
Long had a stroke in October and never fully recovered, his brother, Charles “Doody” Dunlap, said.
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“My brother Carl was a great baseball player, and he was an even greater man,” said Dunlap, a retired York County sheriff’s deputy who was among the first black officers in York County. “He had a lot of courage. And people still talk about how good a player he was. He was the best.”
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Rock Hill was home to a professional baseball team, but it did not allow black players. Long did not let that stand in the way of his plans to escape a grim future picking cotton.
The son of a legendary bootlegger and character in the Boyd Hill neighborhood, Long was a baseball standout even as a child, often playing catch with Dusty Rhodes, the star of the Rock Hill Chiefs minor league team. Rhodes later would become a Major League Baseball star, but Long never made the bigs.
“Jackie Robinson was my idol; I wanted to be just like him,” Long said in a 2009 interview with The Herald, while he was in town for a card show. “I would wait out there at the old field there at the fairgrounds where the Rock Hill Chiefs played, and Dusty Rhodes would call me over and play catch with me.
“I was just a kid, but ol’ Dusty knew I could play. I had a rifle for an arm.”
Most baseball people in Rock Hill believe Long was among the best – if not the best – player to come out of York County. In the 1950s, after professional baseball was integrated, he seemed destined to play in the majors. But a shoulder injury cut short his prospects.
While playing pro ball in the Negro Leagues, and then in the minors with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, he knew and played against and with such greats as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Charley Pride – who went on to become a legendary country singer.
Long was among a group of Negro Leagues stars who met with President Barack Obama at the White House in 2013, when the players were honored for their contributions to sports and society.
In Kinston, Long was so beloved that the city and baseball teams celebrate “Carl Long Day” each year.
Until he was hospitalized, Long traveled extensively telling children about how his life started in Rock Hill, and the greatness that followed.
The Rev. Sotello Long said his father was passionate not just about baseball, but about encouraging young people to follow their dreams. Those inspirational talks – including an August appearance at the York County Library in Rock Hill – also focused on the importance of faith, determination and overcoming obstacles in life.
“I give talks whenever I can to tell young people the value of education and doing their best,” Carl Long told The Herald in August. “What I had to go through, it made me a better person.”