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Country star Pride's path inspired by Jackie

Honored with Robinson Award, former ballplayer became a trailblazer in music

KANSAS CITY -- Long before Charley Pride became a Country Music Hall of Famer, he had another career. He was a professional baseball player.

"I was pretty good," Pride said.

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Pride was talented enough to pitch and play outfield in the Negro Leagues for several seasons, but not quite good enough to make it in the Majors.

"I got to the Los Angeles Angels," he said of a tryout in 1961. "I just couldn't stay there."

Yet Pride accomplished enough in the baseball world to be honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City on Wednesday night. To kick off the Museum's annual celebration of No. 42, Pride was presented the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1997, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, Robinson's No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute.

Still close to the game as part owner of the Texas Rangers, Pride joined a select group that includes Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Don Newcombe and Rachel Robinson.

"I'm happy to be in that kind of company," Pride said, acknowledging this recognition came his way more for what he's done off the baseball field than on. Pride has been called the Jackie Robinson of country music for becoming the industry's first African-American star.

What doesn't make Pride too happy these days is a growing number of African-Americans who haven't followed the path blazed by Robinson.

"To see him go through all of that and have only about five percent of African-Americans in baseball today is hard for me to take," Pride said. "It hurts me."

When Pride was playing in the 1950s, he said he made $100 a month in salary and $2 a day in meal money. For one of 11 children born to sharecroppers in Sledge, Miss., that kind of money wasn't a problem, especially for a game he had taught himself to play.

Pride says he intended to become a country-music singer from the time he bought a guitar from Sears, Roebuck and Co. when he was 14. But seeing Robinson reach the Majors gave Pride another idea.

"I thought, 'Here's my chance out of the cotton fields,'" Pride said.

Pride believes he could have made the Majors, too, if he had not blown out his right elbow in Sikeston, Mo., in 1956.

"The main scout for the St. Louis Cardinals was there," said Pride, then with the Memphis Red Sox. "I hit a home run that Sunday in Memphis. The next day was my turn to pitch. The inning before, I struck out the side. Then they put a catcher out in right field and he missed a popup. I got a little testy and on the next pitch, I tried to snap off a curveball and cracked my elbow. The scout saw that, and I didn't see that scout no more."

With Tommy John surgery not yet an option, Pride said a family member treated his right arm with alcohol rubs. Pride returned to play several more years, but he had to rely on a knuckleball. When his fastball left him, he admitted, so did his childhood dream.

"My intention was to go to the Major Leagues and break all the records by the time I was 35 or 36 and then go sing," Pride said. "Wouldn't it have been something to be in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame? That probably never would be accomplished [again]."

Well, Pride still managed to be part of what might be an unprecedented transaction when he and a teammate on the Louisville Clippers were sold to the Birmingham Black Barons "so they could buy a bus."

Making the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and receiving an award named for Jackie Robinson 13 years later also is unique. Pride admitted near the end of his presentation, "I am blessed."

In more ways than one.

Stan McNeal is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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