A Pitch for Black History: Black Baseball Museum Rescues Our Past

Article excerpt

No African-American achievement of the Jim Crow years was more swiftly crushed by the good news of integration than the black baseball leagues of America. There may be no black owner of a major-league baseball team today, but for nearly a half century, African Americans owned and operated professional baseball leagues. Less famous than the ballplayers--"Cool Papa" Bell, Josh Gibson, "Buck" Leonard, "Pop" Lloyd and so many more--are the black men who owned the teams that built the leagues that showcased the stars. Those teams now largely are forgotten: the Kansas City Monarchs, the Homestead Grays, the Chicago American Giants, the Baltimore Black Sox, the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

Today, however, several missing chapters of America's sports history have been restored. Half a century after they faded and then folded, the black baseball leagues and their stars have a museum of their own. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (1601 East 18th Street, Kansas City, MO 64108, (816) 221-1920) opened to the public in 1991 in a city steeped in black baseball tradition--Kansas City is the birthplace of the Negro leagues and was the home of their best-known team, the Monarchs.

The museum awaits the scheduled 1994 completion of a $20 million complex in a downtown historic district that will become the institution's permanent home. In the meantime, the good work of rescuing the black past and bringing it to our attention--a feat accomplished by a group of baseball-crazed historians, former players, business executives and government officials--goes on apace.

Don Motley, the museum's executive director and a former big-league scout, already has helped initiate a program for students. "A few months ago," he recalls, "a group of black high-school kids visited our museum, and I asked them who was the first black ballplayer in the major leagues. They said Babe Ruth! So do you see why our facility is necessary?"

In baseball, the glory must be supported by statistics. The museum's research center is doing an immense service by compiling and computerizing player and league records. Some of the material collected will aid in choosing worthy Negro-league candidates for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., according to Larry Lester, the museum's research director. "For example, [the late pitcher-outfielderl Wilber |Bullet' Rogan was a great player who belongs in the Hall of Fame," he says. "We will be able to show that he was a 16-game winner in 1924 and also batted .421 when playing as an outfielder. Those statistics have not been available until this year. It takes years to gather and compile them."

Lester, a computer programmer, compiles this information bank from box scores, columns and other vintage items dug up in old newspapers. The data base provides the stats to reinforce the oral histories of the swiftly vanishing breed of players, coaches (some 175) and baseball writers of the black past.

These nostalgic old-timers have tales to tell. Former Negro Leaguer John "Buck" O'Neil, who became the first black big-league coach, for the Chicago Cubs, remembers the days when Negro leaguers established themselves against the heralded major leaguers in occasional paying all-star exhibitions. "We won most of our game's against their all-stars," he says--and the stats bear him out. "But I don't think generally we were better. We were more involved. We wanted to prove to them we were the best in the world. The major leaguers saw the games as a way to make money."

For Bell, Gibson, Lloyd, Oscar Charleston and other titans of the Negro leagues, these competitions were their only chances to share the field with major leaguers--none of whom challenged the racial exclusivity of the "national" pastime, but many of whom openly avowed the equality of talent. O'Neil, who played against some of the greats, justly calls their exclusion a crime. …