Friday, June 09, 2006

Gordon Hopkins Sr., 71, Negro leagues ballplayer

Philadelphia Inquirer | By Gayle Ronan Sims Inquirer Staff Writer

Gordon "Hoppy" Hopkins Sr., 71, a former second baseman in the Negro American Baseball League who played with such greats as Hank Aaron and Willie Mays before they joined the majors, died of heart failure last Friday at home in West Philadelphia.

A native of rural Montgomery County, Md., he fell in love with baseball as a boy, watching his uncle kick up dust with his spikes. He spent summer afternoons watching the Sandy Spring Stars and Washington Potomacs play near his house.

"At age 8 or 9, I was going to the games," he told the Washington Times in 1999. "I knew all the players. I never paid to get into a game."

As a teen, he played with the House of David ball club, a Michigan-based religious team.

He played infield from 1952 to 1954 with the Indianapolis Clowns, sharing the dugout with Aaron, who began his career with the Clowns. In 1953, Mr. Hopkins batted .400 in a postseason barnstorming tour of star players. He played with one of the few women in the Negro leagues, Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, who pitched for the Clowns. And he played against Mays when the future Hall of Famer was with the Birmingham Black Barons.

At 5-foot-9, Mr. Hopkins was nicknamed "Flash Gordon" because he was fast.

"He ran so fast that infielders sometimes would not even try to throw him out at first base," his son Paul said, adding that his father was fond of saying: "I love that diamond dust that flies when I slide into second."

Mr. Hopkins never made much money playing ball, no more than $150 a week. But he loved the game just the same, his son said. "One summer night, my father told me, he hit a bases-loaded triple, and a fan gave him $20 and a standing ovation. He never forgot that."

Mr. Hopkins joined the Marines in 1955, and played ball on the military teams, including the All Navy Game and All Marines Championship Team at Parris Island, S.C., and in Puerto Rico.

When he was discharged in 1958, he moved to Germantown to take care of a sickly aunt, his son said.

By then, however, his baseball career was over. Soon after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, major-league baseball began recruiting the best black players, and the Negro leagues began their decline. Mr. Hopkins never again played professionally.

Mr. Hopkins, who dropped out of high school early to play baseball, decided to continue his education. He graduated from Bok Vocational High School in 1960, specializing in cabinetmaking. That year, he married the girl next door, Barbara Benton. After she died in 1969, Mr. Hopkins moved to Maryland. He returned to the region in 2003, settling in West Philadelphia.

For most of his adult life, Mr. Hopkins made custom cabinets and traveled the country signing memorabilia, promoting the history of the Negro leagues and fighting for medical benefits for former players. Until his death, he was secretary for Yesterday's Negro League Baseball Players Foundation, based in Milwaukee.

Mr. Hopkins was honored in 1991 by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., as one of the living legends of Negro leagues baseball. And in 2002, he was inducted into the Milwaukee Brewers' Walls of Honor, a memorial in Miller Park honoring Negro leagues baseball.

Mr. Hopkins played the tenor saxophone and enjoyed jazz. He also was a gifted golfer and often played with Earl Woods, his son said.

In addition to his son Paul, Mr. Hopkins is survived by sons Gordon Jr. and Gregory and one granddaughter.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. today at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, 230 Coulter St., Germantown. Burial will be in Fairview Cemetery, Willow Grove.

Donations may be made to the Gordon "Hoppy" Hopkins Foundation, Diamond Dust Enterprises, 534 W. Queen Lane, Philadelphia 19144. The foundation works to provide medical assistance for former players of the Negro leagues.


Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

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