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04/13/12 2:00 PM ET

Hairston's love of the game set family precedent

Negro Leagues pioneer first African-American White Sox player

CHICAGO -- During the 1997 season, which marked the same year in which Sam Hairston would pass away on Oct. 31, the 77-year-old Negro League legend worked with Double-A Birmingham as part of the White Sox organization.

Hairston, who is being remembered as the White Sox first African-American player on Jackie Robinson Day, didn't serve as the Barons' manager or hitting coach, although he had previously held the latter title. His job was a more general assistant coach, which seemed fitting because he had a positive influence on every aspect of the team.

"Sammy was a presence more than a coach," said White Sox Minor League field coordinator Kirk Champion, who served as the Barons' pitching coach when Hairston was a bench coach and lockered next to his friend. "He wanted to be around the game and was always an enjoyable presence.

"You could ask him a question, and he had an answer. It was a good experience for the younger players, and he certainly could put things in perspective."

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Many White Sox fans count Minnie Minoso as the man to break the White Sox color barrier, just as Robinson so heroically did for all of baseball. The Cuban-born Minoso became the first black player to join the team.

It was Hairston who made his initial trip to the plate two months later than Minoso in 1951 as a pinch-hitter, borrowing a bat from Minoso to double in a run. Hairston finished his big league career with a .400 average, translating into 2-for-5 over four games, and just that one RBI.

But his storied run actually began in 1944 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, and also included a stop with the Indianapolis Clowns. Hairston won the Negro American League's Triple Crown in 1950 with a .424 average, 17 home runs and 71 RBIs in 70 games. His career eventually came to a close in 1960 at Colorado Springs, a Minor League affiliate of the White Sox at the time.

Never having a chance to match these lofty Negro Leagues numbers in the big leagues didn't leave a bitter feeling with Hairston, who was 31 when debuting with the White Sox. Baseball was a way to put food on the table for his family, although White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf spoke of an ever-so-slightly different picture of his friend in regards to that short stay with the White Sox.

"Sam had two hits in five at-bats and never came back, and he was considered a very good catcher," Reinsdorf said in a previous interview concerning Hairston's legacy. "He didn't talk about it in a bitter way, but he felt as if he didn't get a fair chance."

"You would listen to the stories he told, and he told them from the heart," Champion said. "He loved the game and loved the people he met through his travels."

Champion spoke about visits to Hairston's home where they would look at old pictures he had saved and how proud Hairston was of all the things he had done.

"He was one of the most enjoyable people I've ever been around," Champion said. "That was all just part of his life and he was willing to share it. Of course, we would all listen."

Jerry Hairston Sr., Sam's son, played all but 51 games of his 14-year big league career with the White Sox and was one of the game's top pinch-hitters. He is now a coaching assistant in the White Sox system and will be in attendance at U.S. Cellular Field on Sunday.

John Hairston, Jerry's brother, suited up briefly for the Cubs in the highly-publicized 1969 season, with Jerry Hairston Jr. currently playing for the Dodgers and his brother, Scott, practicing his craft for the Mets. Jerry Hairston Sr. once told the story about waiting at two or three in the morning for the bus carrying his dad to return home in the late 1950s and spoke about the strong influence his dad held over his ultimate career choice, simply by telling the exciting stories of his baseball days around the dinner table.

There also were tales of a catcher with laser-like accuracy, who was able to temporarily bridge the racial gap with his ability and class during trying times.

"The country was right in the middle of a lot of things, racially and socially, and he was able to live both sides of the color line," said Hairston Sr. in a previous interview on his father. "He knew about prejudice, but he experienced white America, just like he did black America.

"People associated with him on a different level. Sports allowed him to be where he wasn't certain people's best friend, but they appreciated his work and came out to see him. He was able to talk to them on a different level than most of black America, which was an education in itself.

"Real baseball fans, especially the white fans, saw the Negro Leagues and realized they were seeing baseball at a high level," Hairston added. "Some of them playing in the Negro Leagues were better than players in the Major Leagues. They didn't necessarily want integration to happen, but they knew this wasn't inferior baseball they were watching."

Reinsdorf described Hairston as a "wonderful, wonderful person" who "had a special aura about him." That aura was felt by his family, those who played with him and the young players he taught in Birmingham.

"Guys who Sammy would get frustrated with were the ones who would do something like throw a helmet in frustration," said Champion of Hairston, who worked home games with the Barons. "He would tell them, 'You'll get more at-bats.' He came in ready to go and enjoyed putting the uniform on every day.

"He always was trying to figure out what we could do to win today. If we lost five in a row, then Sam would say, 'OK, we'll win the next day.' He always had positive things for the players."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.