In 1940, a Black minister held his eight-year-old son’s hand as they strolled through the turnstiles entering Ebbets Field. The child’s eyes opened wide as he absorbed the view of the bright lights, the dazzling white uniforms of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the sweet scent of newly manicured grass, and the buzz of nearly 32,000 fans.
At that moment, young Les Taylor pledged he would become a part of baseball. His family had survived the Great Depression, so he had a youthful understanding of hardship and some requirements of life ahead of him. But he promised himself he would find the time to play and improve his skills at the game he loved.
He returned to his home in Plainfield, New Jersey. Little League wasn’t yet available for America’s youth, so Les sought every opportunity to enjoy baseball in sandlot and pickup games. He was hooked, and baseball surrounded him. Through his father’s church, he got to know Joe Black, who earned National League Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 1952, then started and won a World Series game for the Brooklyn Dodgers that same year. While Les played tournament ball with the Georgia Crackers, he competed against Jake Wood, who later developed into the starting second baseman for the Detroit Tigers. Jake was the first Black player who came up through Detroit’s farm system when he began the 1961 season with the Motor City team.
As life often does, it interrupted his pursuit of baseball when he entered the Army. After serving his term, he attended North Carolina Central University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in social science. By 1959, the Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles, leaving Ebbets Field vacant. Still, he felt the tugging allure of Brooklyn. It was there he married his college sweetheart, Carnell, and the couple settled near the former home of his beloved Dodgers, where they raised their four children over the next thirty-five years. For Les, even though a big league team was no longer in town, he always sensed baseball was in the air. Perhaps the spirits of early Dodger greats, such as Dazzy Vance and Branch Rickey, or the souls of some of the initial Black Major League players like Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, found their way back to their baseball home.
During that time, Les Taylor evolved from playing baseball to softball. He perfected the Brooklyn two-step, a hitter’s maneuver to take two quick strides to meet a sinking softball at a better height to send hard line drives into the outfield. Now, over a half-century later, he still has the occasion to use that same swing today.
He continued to play softball as often as possible, even while he held down two jobs and helped his wife, Carnell, raise their family. Les used his college degree and innate ability to guide people as he advanced in his career in social services. He became a teacher for the New York City Board of Education. As a second job, for eighteen years he was the Director of Pink Houses Senior Center. Of course, he still carved out time for softball, and was an active player and manager in the Social Services League.
He retired in 1992, purchased a home in the northern Atlanta suburbs where he and Carnell relocated in 1995. Shortly after they moved in, his wife sent him on an errand to a hardware store and Les stopped at a Publix supermarket on his way back. It was there he spotted a bulletin board with a note seeking anyone over fifty who might be interested in playing softball, stating they should inquire at nearby Hobgood Park. Once there, he discovered a few older guys playing a pickup game on a Little League diamond, and learned their names were Jerry and Bill King, not related. They invited him to play, and those days were the beginnings of the Cherokee Senior Softball Association (CSSA), and Les became instrumental in its development.
As Les helped that league grow, he was also active in traveling softball, where he played for many teams. It was there he met and played with Dorman Lane, a player with outstanding baseball knowledge who taught the intricacies of softball management to Les.
During his years on those traveling teams, Les felt he was privileged to play with and with several outstanding players, including Carl Brown, who remains active in the CSSA. While Les was a member of the Georgia Crackers Softball Team for over five years, he often encountered Howard Schoen, star second baseman of the Georgia Peaches.
2001 was a banner year for this young-at-heart senior player. His traveling team, with Carl Brown a member, competed in the AAA level of the 65+ tournaments. That year, his team won the three separate World Series of the ASA, USA and USSSA, a Triple Crown of senior softball. In the final game of what became the team’s third championship, Les drove in six runs with a double and a triple. In addition, the CSSA recognized Les’ overall contributions and performance for their organization, and honored him with the Arnold Fowler Award.
So here we are in 2023, and one can still watch this softball legend play in two leagues of the CSSA at Hobgood Park, twenty-eight years after its formation. Beyond that, think back to when Les began in organized softball, and realize he has passed his 60th year in uniform.
Following the lead of their preacher grandfather, two of Les’ four children have joined the ranks of the ministry. While three of his children live in the New York area and one in Detroit, it is a testimony to his devotion to his family that at least one of his offspring will often visit Les and Carnell here in Georgia. That sixty-three-year marriage has remained strong, with the four children adding ten grandchildren and three great grandchildren to the Taylor clan.
Throughout it all, with the occasional hiccup for human ailments, Les Taylor remains dedicated to the sport, which became part of his essence when the lights of Ebbets Fields illuminated his smiling face in 1940. Even now, at age 90, Les Taylor sits in the dugout after yet another contest and gazes out at the diamond with a wide grin. With a slight twinkle in his eye, he’ll look up at you and say, “Let’s play another one.”
Author’s note: It has been an honor to play with Les for the past two years. I can see his love for the game still glitters in his eyes. At age 91, he still hits the softball better than many players who are 30 years his junior. Amazing. He knows more about the game than I shall ever know, no matter how much I try to learn. Thank you, Les, for being a teammate, coach, inspirational leader, and friend of thousands of players.