Passion Fueled Baseball's Black Pioneers Negro League Players Paved Way for the Game in Times of Social Chaos

By Andino, Alliniece T. | The Florida Times Union, April 13, 2001 | Go to article overview

Passion Fueled Baseball's Black Pioneers Negro League Players Paved Way for the Game in Times of Social Chaos


Andino, Alliniece T., The Florida Times Union


Byline: Alliniece T. Andino, Times-Union staff writer

For the love of the game, they traveled weeks on buses, sleeping on board because they were refused lodging in towns where they played.

For the love of the game, some players performed for less than $10 a day.

For the love of the game, they kept hitting the diamonds when in pain and when injured.

One chapter in American baseball excluded black players from the fields of dreams, but these players are receiving their due decades later. The Durkeeville Historical Society and Edward Waters College will pay tribute to Negro League players tomorrow because of how little they have been exalted for what they endured.

"I just think that they were pioneers," said Dolores Sapp, a historical society board member.

Some of those pioneers live in Jacksonville and still care about the sport they helped propel. They welcome others into their remembrances of the old days. And they have a little to say about the million-dollar contracts of today's ballplayers.

Herbert Barnhill, 87, was a Jacksonville Red Cap in more ways than one. Players on the Red Caps actually worked as train porters from September to March and then played in the league during baseball season, Barnhill said. His years as a catcher for four Negro League teams, including the Red Caps, is why his right thumb is permanently bent backward at a 90-degree angle.

Barnhill, who played between 1936 and 1946, told of a game when the legendary Satchel Paige was pitching. The bases were loaded with no outs, and Paige called in all of the outfielders. Then Paige struck out the next three batters.

"He had good control. You could sit in a rocking chair and catch him with one hand," Barnhill reminisced.

One of Barnhill's own highlights was when he pushed aside a batter to tag out Jackie Robinson at home plate.

"He wasn't the best player, but he was the smartest," Barnhill said of Robinson, the first African-American to play for a Major League team after six decades of segregation.

A "gentlemen's agreement" in 1887 excluded blacks from white teams until Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Barnhill recalled how even after that, black players were still subjected to racial slurs, and team managers wouldn't touch their jerseys; they would use sticks instead to handle them.

Barnhill remembered when the New York Yankees played the White Sox in Chicago in 1943, at the same time the Kansas City Monarchs played the Homestead Grays. About 45,000 fans flocked to see the faster-paced, more daring Negro League game; only 20,000 spectators were at the White Sox game, he said.

After that, black players were told they couldn't play in the same town as the majors anymore.

More than 4,000 men played in the arena of black baseball, according to James A. Riley, director of research at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Feeding from the enthusiasm of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, when there was a resurgence of African-American artistry and culture, black-owned businesses thrived. The Negro League became one of those roaring businesses.

"Whites had their league and the blacks had to have their own," said Art "Junior" Hamilton, a former Indianapolis Clowns and Detroit Stars catcher.

The Negro National League, the first black league, was organized in 1920. In 1923, the Eastern Colored League was founded. Both organizations prospered for several years but later financial woes closed them down.

A new Negro National League was formed in 1933 and the Negro American League was chartered in 1937, Riley wrote in a history of the leagues. Negro Leagues continued until Major League teams integrated and stripped them of top black players.

Of the 213 players listed in the Baseball Hall of Fame, 24 played in the Negro Leagues.

Hamilton described those days on the road as "tougher than tough, tough times. …

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