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Monday, January 06, 2014

Frank Deford: A Long Toss Back to the Heyday of Negro League Baseball

“Decades after watching Negro League baseball games as a child in his hometown of Baltimore, Frank Deford reflects on the meaning of the American History Museum’s Negro League ball. “Now I look back and realize the evil of the system,” he says, “but at the time, I wasn’t old enough to question it.”

Five years ago, at a sports dinner in Atlantic City, I sat next to Bob Feller and Monte Irvin and listened to these two old gentlemen talk about facing each other. It was fascinating—rather like hearing a Union officer and his Confederate counterpart in, say, 1928, reminiscing about some Civil War battle—for what Feller and Irvin were recollecting were the times they had barnstormed against each other when so-called Organized Baseball was still segregated. I leaned closer, bent an ear, telling myself: Listen carefully, Frank, because this is oral history, this is one of the last times old black and white players will ever be able to speak across that divide of time and race.

And, in fact, Feller has passed on since then, although Irvin lives yet, age 94, one of the last survivors of the Negro Leagues—that shadow baseball government that managed to thrive for about a quarter of a century, allowing African-Americans the chance to play the national pastime for pay (if not for much). The heyday of the Negro Leagues was the ’30s, the cynosure of most seasons the East-West All-Star Game, which was usually played in Chicago at Comiskey Park, home of the white White Sox. Indeed, in 1941, just before America entered the war, that fabled season when Ted Williams batted .406 and Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games, the Negro League All-Star Game drew a crowd of more than 50,000 fans. Buck Leonard hit a home run, driving in three runs in the game. He was one of the very best baseball players alive, a stocky 5-foot-10, 185-pound first baseman.

...No major-league team signed Buck Leonard, for he was too old by then—not just a veteran, but a vestige of a lost world. Several years later, in 1966, when Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he dared speak publicly of baseball’s shameful past, citing his regret that “the great Negro players…are not here because they weren’t given the chance.” That lit a candle of regret, and six years later the first players who had starred in the Negro Leagues were elected to Cooperstown. Buck Leonard was in the inaugural class.

The scuffed home run ball he had saved from the ’37 All-Star game remained at his home in Rocky Mount, until, in 1981, he donated what had become a horsehide artifact to the Smithsonian. Leonard himself lived until 1997, when he died at the age of 90, nearly four decades after the Negro Leagues had disappeared from all our diamonds.



Repoz Posted: January 06, 2014 at 05:00 AM | 4 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history

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   1. BDC Posted: January 06, 2014 at 09:47 AM (#4631211)
“Now I look back and realize the evil of the system,” he says, “but at the time, I wasn’t old enough to question it.”

It's interesting, though, that sports, because they're so artificial and recreational, were not only one of the less evil aspects of segregation times, but provided a venue for a lot of progressive actions. It is evil that Monte Irvin couldn't earn a big-league salary and travel in sleeper cars (like Bob Feller) till halfway through his career. But he (or his colleagues) could barnstorm against Bob Feller (or his), and show audiences that black and white people were equally smart and talented at a profession. Meanwhile, on those sleeper trains, black Pullman porters and maids were subjected to radically worse working conditions than white engineers and conductors, despite working side by side on the same service – and that was one of the better industries for black employees, with one of the stronger unions.

Balance is important. I would note the evils that faced ballplayers in segregated leagues; but I'd stress the hope and the strong positive example that sports played in integrating America even more.
   2. Morty Causa Posted: January 06, 2014 at 10:31 AM (#4631249)
People make exceptions for entertainment when it comes to tolerating the "other". Even now, here in the South, where college football reigns supreme, and so does the Dixecrat/Tea Party types, what is the color/race of the players that proliferate on those great college football teams with a history? And who are, nevertheless, rabid fans of those teams?

And it isn't just sports? Billie Holliday may not have been able to get a room at certain hotels when her tour brought her through the South, but many of those racists listened to her music and bought her records. Same with comedians in the '50s and '60s. They didn't want their kids in their schools, but they watched them on Ed Sullivan and laughed their heads off.
   3. BDC Posted: January 06, 2014 at 10:54 AM (#4631268)
True, Morty. Sports are a little different from other entertainments, though, in that they offer a competition where the racist may see his "folk" lose. Hence the color line in Southern college sports in segregation times where not only were various leagues segregated, but the white-school powers would refuse to schedule games against black or even integrated teams.

Here, too, baseball was on the progressive side. The black barnstorming teams played in rotten conditions and didn't make the money that white pros did, for sure (the occasional, indeed unique, Satchel Paige aside). But they played white opponents, sometimes even in the deepest South, and usually won. It was a kind of reality theater that played its (limited) role in eroding segregation. This is hardly to ignore that there were racists in white baseball, and that many injustices proliferated. But it was a stark contrast to the segregation that prevailed in industry, the military, and everyday life.

Boxing is another sport that integrated early (and hardly without a hitch). Track and field, too: but baseball held a special status. By contrast, some college teams remained segregated into my lifetime. (My father taught at Loyola -Chicago in the 60s, and the guys who played against Mississippi State in 1963 – a key game in establishing the principle of integrated college competition, two decades after Jackie Robinson played for UCLA, five after Paul Robeson played for Rutgers – were his students.) It's amazing how far we've come in the last 50 years.
   4. Morty Causa Posted: January 06, 2014 at 11:05 AM (#4631276)
Good points.

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