Monday, February 17, 2020

Black History Month: 100th Anniversary of the Negro Leagues

When I was born, my baby crib included--besides me--four Teddy bears. The unique feature of these bears was not their looks, since they varied in color and size, but rather their names. My parents named my Teddy bears after the Cleveland Indians starting rotation, which include three pitchers who would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

One of these pitchers was fireballer Bob Feller. (The other three were Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia.) Feller, who was my favorite, had a white torso with black arms, legs and head. I can still picture myself carrying him around by that skinny, black arm.

Feller was one of many great ballplayers who had their careers interrupted by doing service in the U.S. military in World War II. Despite three years lost during his prime, he was the winningest pitcher in Cleveland Indians history.

I mention all this because of his role in becoming a bridge toward the integration of Major League baseball.

After the war, Feller came up with the idea of assembling a team of players for a barnstorming road tour in the off-season. Perhaps he was in it for the money, but the hunger for baseball was strong and if he could deliver an all-star show people would fill the stands to watch their heroes.

For opponents, he contacted the well-connected star pitcher of the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige. Feller had seen Paige pitch back in the Thirties and knew he could muster up a team that would be competitive against the white pros of Major League Baseball. Feller chartered DC-3 planes to ferry the players to the 34 games he arranged. He also hired a doctor, a trainer, a lawyer and a publicity man.
Pittsburgh Crawfords. Satchell Paige third from left, back row. (Public domain)
While segregation was a shameful period in baseball history, the Negro Leagues were a resounding success and an immense source of pride for black America. Though Jackie Robinson is famous for having been first to cross the color barrier, I thought Satchel Paige was the coolest of the cool, and the Cleveland Indians became among the first to be peppered with black players from the Negro League.

I've not seen a lot written about it, but this year happens to be 100th Anniversary of the Negro Leagues. According to this story by Rob Ruck in the Chicago Reporter, on February 13, 1920,  "teams from eight cities formally created the Negro National League. Three decades of stellar play followed, as the league affirmed black competence and grace on the field, while forging a collective identity that brought together Northern-born blacks and their Southern brethren. And though Major League Baseball was segregated from the 1890s until 1947, these teams played countless interracial games in communities across the nation."

Ken Burns' fabulous documentary series on baseball was profoundly important because of the respect he showed for the Negro League and that other side of baseball history, some of it shameful, lest it be forgotten.

Larry Tye's 2010 story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted how those exhibitions featuring Bob Feller and Satchel Paige helped advance integration in baseball. No doubt this contributed to the Indians becoming leaders in welcoming people of color into the locker room.

Everyone remembers the name of Jackie Robinson, the first player to cross the color barrier, just as everyone remember Neil Armstrong, the first to walk on the moon, and George Washington, the first president. The second Negro League player to wear a Major League Baseball uniform was Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians. The year I was born he led the majors in runs scored and home runs.

Interestingly, my observation above (about being second means being forgotten) was first stated by Bob Feller himself.

Second black player to play in the Majors.
Of Doby, Bob Feller later said, "He was a great American, served the country in World War II, and he was a great ballplayer. He was kind of like Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was the second African-American in the majors behind Jackie Robinson. He was just as good of a ballplayer, an exciting player, and a very good teammate."

The years after Larry Doby joined the team the Indians added more Black stars, Satchel Paige and Minnie Minoso. I remember seeing Minnie Minoso when I was a kid. Sometimes I liked players just because they had cool names. My grandfather used to take his grandsons (my brother Ron and I) to numerous Indians games in the 50s. There are baskets of memorable moments stored in our craniums.

I feel a measure of pride knowing that of the first 20 Negro League players to cross over into the Majors from 1947-1951, six were recruited by the Cleveland Indians. The New York Yankees did not recruit a black ballplayer until 1955, Elston Howard being their first.

I don't recall how old I was when I saw Elston Howard for the first time, but I remember him. I saw numerous Yankees-Indians double headers in the 1950s when the Indians were perennial also rans. (They did win the pennant in 1954,) What I remember was a game in which we had box seats directly behind home plate. Elston Howard was the Yankees catcher that day, and I remember observing how big he seemed.

He was also a powerful hitter, and in each game of that doubleheader he slammed a game-winning home run over the center field fence. They were impressive blasts, Cleveland having one of the longer center field fences.

These memories were all stirred when I saw the book at the top of this page on a shelf a Zenith Books last week. If you live here in Duluth, check it out.

Related Links
The Short Story of Satchel Paige
by Roman Mikhail on Medium

Satchel Paige Quotes

Major League Baseball: Some Things Have Changed, Some Haven't

More Memories of the Great American Pastime

Bob Feller dreamed up the idea of barnstorming with the Negro team during his long shifts manning anti-aircraft guns on the USS Alabama during World War II. He knew that getting other major-leaguers to join him would be easy, and he signed up the best. It was a unique time in baseball history, just before the color barrier came tumbling down. It would still be years before African Americans could live where they wanted. The Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination wasn't passed until 1964.

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