Bill Greason – Negro League and Major League Baseball Player
Because it has been 75 years since the start of the five-week Battle of Iwo Jima, I thought it appropriate to highlight my conversation with Bill Greason, a veteran of WWII and at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Bill Greason was a successful pitcher in several leagues during his professional baseball career, starting in 1947 with the Nashville Black Vols of the Negro Southern Minor League and moving up to play in the Negro Southern League with the Asheville Blues the next year. During the first spring training with the Blues, Bill pitched 8 scoreless innings of an exhibition game against the Birmingham Black Barons, and his pitching performance against the powerful Birmingham team caught the attention of … and impressed team management, convincing them that a return to the Negro League World Series would require Bill Greason to wear the uniform of the Black Barons. Within five days, Bill was in Birmingham as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons, a Negro American League team.
Bill was a teammate of Willie Mays on the 1948 and 49 Black Barons, the only two surviving members of those teams (interesting fact, at the time of my interview with Jim Zapp; he and Bill were the last two surviving teammates of Willie Mays from the 48 and 49 team). Bill was never a player to shy away from a challenge, and his description of the events leading up to the Game seven playoff matchup with the Kansas City Monarchs showed he had the utmost confidence in his pitching ability, leading the Black Barons to the Negro League World Series against the Homestead Grays. The following year, 1949, Bill was selected for the Negro League All-Star game.
After WWII, Bill re-upped for four more years with the Marines, not thinking there would be another war, but six months before his time was up, the Marines called him back to active duty. The story explaining how he found out about being recalled right after pitching a 1-0 gem against the Memphis Red Sox is a funny story you’ve got to read; and on the flip-side, the awful treatment he received while wearing his Marines uniform when attending an MLB spring training game and subsequent support from his fellow Marines is a must-read.
Bill continued his baseball career, signing with the Oklahoma City Indians of the Double-A Texas League, where he pitched for two years. Bill was the second former Negro League player to sign with the Texas League after Dave Hoskins and their pitching matchups resulted in standing-room-only games whenever they faced one another. Bill’s success in Oklahoma leads the St. Louis Cardinals to sign him in 1954, becoming the second former Negro League player to play in the big leagues for the Cardinals. Bill did not find the same success in St. Louis as he had in previous stops, but he continued to play in the Minor Leagues until 1959 when he retired from professional baseball at the age of 34.
For me, it’s Bill’s time playing winter ball in the Latin Leagues, Mexican Leagues, and the Puerto Rican Leagues that stand out. Bill played many seasons with the Santurce Cangrejeros, a team owned by Pedrin Zorrilla. Bill was great friends with Roberto Clemente, and they played together on the 1954 Caribbean Series Championship team that consisted of a Whos Who of Major League baseball at the time:
- Roberto Clemente in Right-field
- Willie Mays in Center-field
- Bob Thurman in Left-field
- Buzz Clarkson at Third-base
- Don Zimmer at Shortstop
- Ron Samford at Second-base
- George Crowe at First-base
- Harry Chiti at Catcher
- Ruben Gomez – Starting Pitcher
- Sam Jones – Starting Pitcher
- Bill Greason – Starting Pitcher
As I mentioned earlier, Bill was at the Battle of Iwo Jima, and one night after a day of high casualties, he said something, and unknown to him, would foretell the direction of his life after baseball. He said to me, “Two of my best friends were killed, and I prayed that night, I said, “Lord if you get me off this island, anything you want me to do, I’ll do it.” So I dodged it for a long time; I could feel a different attitude had come into my life about things and about people.”
I met Rev. Greason at the church he has pastored for almost five decades, the Bethel Baptist Church of Berney Points. We sit for about one hour, and he patiently answered my questions, and my follow up questions without any sense of being rushed. We talked about playing on a youth softball team with a funeral home sponsor (scary stuff), moving from alleyway to alleyway, and at one point living across the street from the Martin Luther King family and a little about WWII. I explained that my dad was also in the Pacific Theatre of WWII and wondered if he and my dad could have been on the same islands during the war. As we were finishing the interview, Rev. Greason invited me to his office, and he showed me some of his baseball memorabilia and honors he had received over the years. Later he gave me a tour of the church, and after learning that my day job is a safety and risk manager, he explained they had a massive fire several years earlier, and we spend some time talking about the renovation and the obstacles they faced to repair their church.
The short time I was able to spend with Rev. Greason left me wanting to ask more questions and hear more of his stories, but the purpose of my visit was over, and I needed to be on my way. I realize the short time I spent with Rev. Greason was probably with one of many people he meets every day, but I will always appreciate his time and his willingness to tell me stories: funny, interesting and insightful stories, along with stories that are difficult to hear but none the less should be told.
It was an honor to spend time with Rev. Bill Greason, a pitcher that knew when he had two strikes on you, he’d wave bye’ bye, ‘cause you were done!