Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

PLAINS -- Look into Roosevelt Jackson's face, and you'll see it.

You don't have to look long or hard. You'll see it.

It's the light. It's there, beaming, burning, spilling over and washing onto everyone who touches Jackson, a man who has touched so many for so long.

Jackson, a living, walking-talking testament of courage and perseverance, was brighter than ever Friday night as he spoke to an audience at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, where Georgia and the former president embraced the oldest living member of the Negro Leagues.

"We're grateful you came,'' said former President Jimmy Carter. "It brings back a reminder of how great the Negro League players were, and you are one of our neighbors.''

Jackson's voice broke a bit as he answered the former president.

"You don't know what those words mean to me,'' he said.

The two men posed for a photo together, and Jackson smiled and said: "I hope I can get one of those.''

Jackson, 93, lives in Buena Vista. His very roots run deep into the Georgia clay. He was born in Gay on Dec. 20, 1917, and has been honored by the state of Georgia as well as the USA, which came out with a postage stamp as a tribute to Jackson, who was recently named to the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame.

He was moved on Friday.

"I'm the grandson of slaves,'' he said. "I feel so good to be here. I can't hardly tell you how I feel. It's past the limit of how good I feel ... I am so overwhelmed I can't explain how I feel. It will be days, maybe months -- maybe a month or two before I will be able to put it into words.''

Jackson wore a light yellow suit and a gray baseball cap that read "Negro League" on the front and was covered with the emblems of many teams from the league that changed civil rights in America.

The popularity of the Negro League and the talent of its amazing ball players opened doors in America's race relations that had never been jarred. Players such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard and others forced baseball to end segregation in an era when few cared about pro basketball or football and baseball was everything in America.

The Negro League forced white America to take notice, and the courage and determination of players such as Jackson created a new day in the country that finally integrated the national pastime in 1947 when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a major league contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

A documentary of Gibson's life, which included interviews with Jackson, was shown before Jackson spoke to the audience.

"It's a shame the (African-American) players couldn't have contributed earlier,'' said Carter, his voice filled with sadness. "It's good for all of us (to have this evening to honor Jackson and the Negro League). If you love baseball now, it's good to be reminded of how great the Negro League players were, and the role many of the Southern players had in the Negro Leagues.

"There were many (like Jackson and Gibson, who is also from Georgia),'' he said. "Hank Aaron is a friend of mine and has talked about how grateful he is for what Josh Gibson meant to him. There were so many Southern players. Of course, Jackie Robinson is from Cairo.''

Carter was moved by Jackson, and so was the audience, many of whom met Jackson afterward.

Jackson's road to Plains was a long one, playing for teams such as the Miami Globetrotters, Florida Cuban Giants, the Lucky Stars and the Danny Dodgers -- obscure teams in forgotten leagues in an era that's a part of baseball and this country's very fabric.

He started off as a boxer at the age of 14, but when he was 19 he got his nose broken.

"I wanted to be a boxer, but I guess God didn't want me to be one so I got my nose broken,'' said Jackson, who fell in love with baseball early in his life and was still on the diamond in his late 50s.

"I was managing a team in Fort Lauderdale, and I put myself in the game and pitched an eight-inning no-hitter when I was 59,'' Jackson said. "I always loved baseball and managed teams up into the 1970s.''

He started out playing second base, but was so fast he would often roam into the outfield to catch fly balls.

"My coach told me that I was going to go out there (in the outfield) too far and would miss a fly ball,'' Jackson said. "Finally one day I did, and my coach told me to just stay there. That's how I became a center fielder.''

The first team Jackson played for was called the Mack Junkins Tar Buckets.

"The man who owned the team was named Mack Junkins,'' he said. "And we were the Tar Buckets, because when the ball hit our glove it stayed there.''

Jackson played in hundreds of games and remembers making running catches in right field, left field and center field.

"I could run down balls in all the fields,'' he said. "I would just get to everything from one side of the outfield to the other, but the play I remember the most is when we were playing the Belle Glade Redwings, and I was playing left field. They had a runner at first and second, and the guy hit a drive to center field. I ran all the way over there and made a shoe-string catch. They couldn't believe I got to the ball. Both of the runners had taken off, and I threw it to second and he threw it to first for a triple play. I've seen a lot of triple plays over the years, but they are all in the infield. I've never seen another triple play from the outfield. That's the play I won't forget.''

Jackson roamed the outfield and pitched for four decades, and remembers the feeling that there was no way to reach the big leagues.

"I remember going to see the Boston Braves in spring training when I was playing in (the Negro League),'' he said. "We couldn't play against them, but we could watch them, and I watched their outfielders run after balls they couldn't get to. I was thinking, 'they can't even get to those balls, and I would have those fly balls in my hip pocket.' "

But he wasn't bitter at the time.

"Back in those days I just never thought about (the Major Leagues) at that time,'' he said. "I just love playing baseball. It was something I loved and wanted to do.

"I never thought I would get past first base (in baseball), but I have gotten so much,'' he said. "And here I am with the president and doing what I'm doing today. I never thought I would be in the Negro League Hall of Fame or have a stamp. It's amazing to me, just amazing.''

Jackson was playing for a semi-pro team when Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

"It changed everything,'' said Jackson, who was later hired as a scout by the Philadelphia Phillies. He played, managed and scouted, and believes today's young players do appreciate the era he played in and what it meant to the civil rights movement.

"I definitely believe they appreciate it,'' he said. "They give me respect, and I have been honored so much. I believe people do appreciate it.''

Jackson does have charisma and more.

"Every time he opens his mouth it's wisdom,'' said Sherryl Snead, who is Jackson's former paster. "He's an inspiration.''

Jackson has a long road ahead of him, even at 93.

"My father lived to be 106, and my grandfather lived to be 101,'' said Jackson, who signed several autographs afterward and joked and mingled with his newest fans.

"It's amazing to me that this has happened for my father,'' said Jackson's son, Lavelt, 32. "My dad has always been a great guy, a genuine guy. I appreciate everything he (and others) had to bear for us.''

It was that kind of night in Plains, and as Carter said -- a night to remember.

All you had to do is look at Jackson. Light was everywhere ...