This Marine legend went from the beaches of Iwo Jima to the fields of the Negro League
The Rev. Dr. William "Bill" Greason's voice echoed from the curved white ceiling of Bethel Baptist Church. Direct and robustly musical, Greason's message pulsed around his congregation.
"I didn't buy this breath," he said. "Somebody gave it to me."
Greason, 90, still measures in at a lanky 5'10" and, other than a smattering of grey, resembles his 1948 Birmingham Black Barons rookie card. His eyes retain their youthful charm and twinkle with wisdom and humor.
He is slow to talk about himself and his accomplishments, but his story is one that begs to be told.
The tale of Bill Greason begins long before he was scouted as a baseball wunderkind by the Negro American League, and contains more substance than a beefy ERA.
Greason was born in 1924 and grew up in Atlanta, Ga., on Auburn Avenue, across the street from playmate Martin Luther King, Jr. Auburn Avenue, also known as Sweet Auburn, was a historically black neighborhood deep in the heart of the segregated South.
Greason explained that he and his four siblings were aware of racial inequality, but were not defined by their circumstances or overcome by anger.
"My parents taught us 'you are somebody,' Greason said. "Don't let anybody make you feel that you're not. If anybody doesn't like the color of your skin, tell them to talk to God. But your character — that's on you."
Greason's character and sense of identity fortified him when he joined the Armed Forces in 1943 after graduating from high school.
In the midst of World War II, Greason was called to enlist and serve among the first black Marine recruits, The Montford Point Marines. These exceptional men had been denied access to full democratic freedom at home and were prepared to die for their country, yet Greason and his comrades continued to experience prejudice from their white counterparts during service.
"We were told in the beginning that we weren't wanted in there," Greason said. "So we had to prove ourselves."
This is exactly what they did. In what became one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, Greason and fellow Marines took to the shores of Iwo Jima, Japan to win a decisive victory for the United States, despite heavy casualties.
On Nov. 23, 2011, President Barack Obama signed legislation to award a collective Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines, the highest civilian honor.
"As the Congressional Gold Medal for the Montford Point Marines is issued, it is a special privilege to extend our fullest appreciation to Reverend William Greason and salute his exceptional life and service to his community and his country," said U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus in a tribute to Greason in 2012.
"Surviving the island," Greason said, "was a miracle that had an everlasting impact."
"When I was on the island of Iwo Jima, with the Marines dying all around and two of my best friends were killed, I promised the Lord that if he saved me, if I was able to get off that island, anything He wanted me to do I would do it," he said.
Greason left Iwo Jima unscathed, but memories of the island remain with him and he is eager to share their lessons.
"It taught you something about life and how precious it is," Greason said. "You don't want to destroy anybody — you want to help wherever you can."
After occupational duty in Japan for 13 months, Greason returned stateside with a rekindled passion for life and a new talent: baseball.
Most of the literature on Greason's remarkable baseball career concerns itself with statistics: his 3.61 ERA and 193 strikeouts in 1953, the pennant he led the Black Barons to in '48, his snappy curving fastball and his nickname, "Double Duty," earned for his workhorse mentality on the mound and at the plate.
The numbers provide a chill, sterile glance — a press box view — of a history won in grit, nerve and determination.
When the undefeated Black Barons suffered their only loss to the Asheville Blues at the hands of 24-year-old Greason in 1948, player-manager Lorenzo "Piper" Davis was in the process of scouring the Negro League for raw talent to add to his unrivaled team. Recruiting Greason was a no- brainer.
Black players in America's favorite pastime had a special burden according to Greason.
"We were blessed to be part of this great history of Negro League Baseball," he said. "Wherever we would go and play, they recognized us as being gentlemen."
The Birmingham Black Barons and other Negro League teams seemed to understand that baseball, unlike other sports at the time, held national significance. They stepped up to bat and they represented not only themselves, but also the hope of equality for their entire race.
"We were taught to retain and maintain our dignity," Greason said. "We didn't disgrace our parents. We didn't disgrace the people we worked for. We didn't disgrace the city."
1948 proved to be the last year of the Negro League World Series, and though the Barons lost the championship in the final hour to the Homestead Grays, Greason's physical talent and emotional maturity preceded him.
He pitched two years in the Mexican League (1950–1951); eight in the minors (1952–1959), as the first black player for the Oklahoma City Indians; and five years in the winter leagues (1951; 1954- 1958), where he notably played against Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba.
After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, there was a major decline in support for the Negro Leagues. As the players were scouted into minor and major leagues, fans followed, ultimately sealing the Negro League's fate.
In 1954, after returning from serving in the Korean War, Greason was scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals as the team's first black pitcher. He was honored September 2014 with a Living Legend Award.
"It was a blessing in disguise," Greason said. "It gave our players opportunity to earn more money in 'organized ball' as they called it."
It is the entrepreneurial spirit of the Negro League players that Ora Jerald, executive director of the American Negro League Baseball Association, is striving to inspire in Birmingham youth.
Along with Greason and other Black Barons legends, Jerald established the legacy initiative Project HELP (History Entrepreneurs Leadership Program).
What started out as baseball camps and demonstrations developed into a pointed effort to prepare economically compromised children for brighter futures.
"The spirit of entrepreneurship and leadership is very much a part of the overall history of the Negro Leagues," Jerald said. "And the legacy then is to make sure that something profound is left in the lives and hearts of the children."
Jerald explained that the historical impact of Greason's life has helped inspire children beyond the baseball diamond.
"We've developed something that we think — entrepreneurship and leadership, certainly — is reflective of what the Negro League baseball history stands for and what it represented at the time when Greason was at his peak as a player," Jerald said.
In addition to Project HELP, Greason, in collaboration with members of his congregation at Bethel Baptist, has curated a museum depicting not only his life in baseball: uniforms, trophies and awards, but also the lives of outstanding community members, including Michael Holt.
"We want our community to see that your circumstances don't define who you are," said Holt, who spent 31 years in government service as the assistant director for Homeland Security.
The Rev. William "Bill" Greason Museum of Legends is currently open to the public and is most easily accessed on Sundays after church at Bethel Baptist.
When asked what he wishes his legacy to be, Greason smiles and says, "Humility. The way up is down. It's a paradox. Popularity wanes, but character is retained."
Wise words from a man with much to be proud of.
This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Market Magazine.