While playing shortstop for the Jacksonville Eagles, teenager Modie Risher would see Jackie Robinson standing on first base and “you knew he was comin’, he was fast,” Risher says.
It was the mid-1940s, and both young men were playing in the old Negro Baseball League. Risher, a three-sport star at Burke High School, played every position but pitcher. Some newspaper accounts described Risher as a “chatterbox.”
In a few months, Risher will celebrate his 84th birthday, and though his memory might be fuzzy on details, he still can chatter.
As far as Risher is concerned, Robinson wasn’t even the best player in their league. He always thought Satchel Paige was more gifted, and he never saw anyone hit a baseball harder or farther than Josh Gibson. Some of these players also were a little full of themselves. Risher saw Paige tell his outfielders to sit down one day because nobody would be able to hit any of what he was throwing across the plate.
But while Robinson wasn’t the best player, he was the perfect player to break baseball’s color barrier. Even today, Risher is not comfortable re- laying some of the things people would yell at him and his teammates as they climbed off their bus. He was barely out of high school, but his education was just beginning.
Mama knows best
Risher sent most of his money to his mom in Charleston. She cleaned houses to provide for their family. She became suspicious of the amount of money her son was sending her. “She thought I was stealing,” says Risher from his Ashley Avenue home. She sent me a letter saying, “Pack your bags, you’re going to college.”
Risher says that moment changed his life. He obeyed his mama, played three sports at Allen University in Columbia and graduated four years later. His dreams of following some teammates from the Negro League to the majors evaporated. But the way he sees it, being obedient to his mom was a blessing. “I could’ve been a flop, and would’ve had nothing.”
From a distance, he heard about Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. He knew barriers were falling, but he decided to make a difference in his own hometown.
For the next 33 years, he taught and coached at Burke High. He had a reputation as a disciplinarian. He didn’t take “stuff,” as they say. But he also fought for those kids.
When the city kept turning the lights off on the only practice field for inner-city kids, he kept turning them back on. When his team wasn’t invited to an annual local high school tournament, he created his own tournament.
He remembers Robinson “being there for the entire black race.” It appeared Risher was here for every kid who wanted to play sports in downtown Charleston.
He and his wife, DeLaris, have been married for 53 years. He admits that he “chased her until she caught me.” Risher jokes they’re the perfect couple, “bcause she can’t hear and I can’t see.” (I told you he was chatty.) They have two children and two grandchildren, who are in college.
Risher still sees things most others don’t despite being blind for 20 years. I wondered if he and DeLaris might attend the Robinson film “42.” He’s been thinking about it.
He recalls Robinson as a bit of a loner, but he knows nobody else could have taken those insults and abuse. Robinson was hired to change people’s minds. Risher tried to make changes with children in mind. We’re all better for both being where they were, when they were.
Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.