Larry LeGrande, a Roanoker who starred in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s and played with the legendary Satchel Paige, died April 13. He was 83.
The cause was complications from lung and bone cancer, said Mary LeGrande, his wife of 60 years.
“He had cancer, which nobody knew until the last minute,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It was stage four when they finally found out and we didn’t know that until last Wednesday. It spread all through his bones and on Thursday night, he just slept away.”
LeGrande spent three seasons as a catcher and outfielder in the Negro Leagues. He also played for a New York Yankees minor league affiliate until he was released to avoid paying him a roster bonus. In 2002, he was inducted into the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame.
LeGrande went to Carver High School in Salem, an all-Black school during the era of racially segregated schools. He developed his arm in Roanoke County by digging fence post holes and tending to the pigs and chickens on the family farm. He always loved baseball, especially the New York Yankees, but his school didn’t have a baseball team.
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So the left-handed-hitting LeGrande had to play with the Webster All-Stars of Blue Ridge, where he was noticed by the Negro League’s Memphis Red Sox.
Before playing in an exhibition game at the former Municipal Field in Salem, the Memphis Red Sox were told by a restaurant manager that they should check out this young local kid named Larry LeGrande. After seeing LeGrande play baseball, they invited him to Memphis for a three-week tryout.
The problem was that LeGrande still needed to graduate from high school. LeGrande’s principal, Chauncey Harmon, excused him from school for three weeks with the understanding that he keep up his classwork and learn his mandatory part for the senior play.
He made the team, came home to finish school and headed for Memphis. He’d never played before more than 200 people. In his first game, in Birmingham, 10,000 jammed the ballpark.
“We killed two chickens on our farm, my mom cooked them, and I carried them with me in a brown paper bag on that 600-mile train trip to Memphis,” LeGrande told writer Mike Stevens in a 2021 commentary published in The Roanoke Times. “It took two days to get there.”
The Negro Leagues were once the only game in town for Black ballplayers. After Jackie Robinson’s 1947 breakthrough with the Brooklyn Dodgers, they became a conduit of talent into the major leagues. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and many others went from the Negro Leagues to big-league glory.
Mary LeGrande said sometimes the police arrived at the motel that her husband’s Negro League team was staying at, telling players that they had to leave without a refund after they had just booked the motel earlier that night.
Furthermore, when the Memphis Red Sox played white major league teams in off-season exhibitions, they got run out of town after winning.
“A couple of times he said that some teams would come out with black on their face,” Mary LeGrande said.
After a year in Memphis, LeGrande jumped over to the Detroit Stars and became one of the league’s best players.
He was picked for the 1958 East-West All Star Game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
Robinson threw out the first pitch.
“I shook his hand in the dugout,” Larry LeGrande told The Roanoke Times in 1997. “He told me: ‘We will win eventually.’ He was talking about integration.”
The following summer, LeGrande played with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he met Paige. LeGrande was Paige’s catcher during his stint with the Monarchs and the two grew close.
In 1959, LeGrande made the St. Petersburg Saints, a minor league team affiliated with the New York Yankees.
“Oh man, it was heaven,” he told The Roanoke Times in 1997. “I’d never played Little League baseball. That was for whites. I never played high school baseball. My school didn’t have a team to offer. And here I was with the Yankees organization.”
In the first month of the season, he led the team in runs batted in. The local sports editor called him the team’s best outfielder.
Then LeGrande’s heart was broken when his manager told him he was being released. The Yankees didn’t want to pay the second $2,500 they owed the Monarchs for buying out LeGrande’s contract.
Mary LeGrande said her husband couldn’t even watch baseball for three years because he was devastated.
“I’m as bitter as I was the day it happened,” Larry LeGrande told The Roanoke Times in 2002. “I’m waiting for [the late Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner to give me a call.
“I’ll tell you, racism was really something at this time. I was about two or three years too soon.”
After being released by the Yankees, he returned to the Monarchs, but left in 1961 to play for Satchel Paige’s All Stars.
LeGrande always told his wife stories of how he drove Paige’s Cadillac for him.
After his stint with the All-Star team, LeGrande returned to Roanoke to work for General Electric, from which he retired as a wireman in 1997 after 33 years of employment.
“He liked it, but he didn’t like getting up early,” Mary LeGrande said.
Larry LeGrande built a strong relationship with his great grandson, Jon LeGrande, who plays baseball for Wabash Valley College in Illinois.
“Whenever [Johnny’s dad] got a video of [Johnny] batting, he’d send it to my phone and I would show [Larry] him batting,” Mary LeGrande said. “He got such a thrill out of that. He enjoyed that more than anything.”
LeGrande gave his great grandson tips on hitting. His batting average is .338 and he has 29 RBIs this season.
“His great grandson told him, ‘I did what you told me, I hit it where it was pitched,’” Mary LeGrande said.
A public viewing will be held for LeGrande from 1-5 p.m. Friday at Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home & Crematory. A Celebration of Life Service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church in Gainsboro.