Baseball: A Way of Life For Blacks

By Bruce Huff

 

It was that dang catcher’s glove. The visit through yesteryear at the magnificent Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City had already bathed me in a shower of delicious nostalgia. Memories of my youth when aspirations of becoming the next Bill Dickey or Yogi Berra returned with a rush. And then, appearing like the holy grail of catchers past, THE GLOVE, the mitt, the decker, shone brightly through its home in a plexiglass display case. A big, pillow-like piece of cowhide with a hollowed-out hole in the centre, the pocket, enticing me closer. That it was accompanied by a large picture of its owner, the great Roy Campanella, was only secondary to finding this treasure. Campy, who died at 71 in 1993, spent his last years as a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident. He had played for the Washington Elite Giants before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers and becoming only the second black player to join the Major Leagues after Jackie Robinson made his historic 1947 breakout. Robinson, a Californian, had played infield for the Kansas City Monarchs the year before.

The glove? Yes, it was the same Rawlings model that I bought with dollars  earned by delivering groceries on my bike and cutting neighbour’s lawns. The same glove that enraptured me when I listened to Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster Harry Heilmann’s melodious opening – “brought to you  by Brewster, the Goebel Rooster” – over WJR, the “Great Voice of the Great Lakes.” On a clear night I might be lucky and catch Dizzy Dean murdering the English language on KMOX in St. Louis.

The vintage glove was a far cry from those used by today’s backstoppers. No big web to snare foul tips. No strategic padding to help lessen those nagging stone bruises. No need for sponges or beef steak to soothe the pain.

Campanella’s museum niche only fortifies the fact that baseball was a way of life for blacks, particularly in the first six decades of the last century. Every town had a team with organized leagues and pickup games.  Kids played on scruffy vacant lots with makeshift bats and balls. Or they played streetball with a stick as a bat. Importantly, the Black History Month events in February and the attention awarded the museum helped to illustrate the role baseball played in the black players’ culture in the United States and Canada. The museum chronologically charts the progress of  the Negro leagues with informative placards and interactive exhibits. Its walls are lined with pictures of players, owners and officials as one moves through the history of black baseball. In one area there are lockers set up for some of the legends. One can see game-worn uniforms, cleats, gloves and artifacts from such stars as Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, the “Black Babe Ruth” who is considered the greatest player NEVER to play in the Major Leagues.

There is even a mockup barbershop, a typical hotel room, period clothing and attire and displays of night life. Not to be overlooked is a display featuring Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, and a picture of his famed Joe Louis Punchers who came to London in 1947 and defeated Russ Evon’s fastball all-stars 4-0 before 5,000 at Labatt Park. However, the jewel in the 10,000-square -foot facility  is the “Field of Legends,” a carpeted indoor mini playing field adorned by 12 life-sized bronze statues of figures from Negro League history. It is accessible only at the end of the tour. One can walk onto the field which is complete with an  outfield fence, floodlights and a scoreboard. You can say hello to Gibson crouching behind the plate, a man who allegedly hit more than 80 home runs in one season. Buck Leonard, a teammate of Gibson with the Washington Homestead Grays is at first base. Pop Lloyd at second, Judy Johnson at short, and Ray Dandridge at third complete the infield. In the outfield are Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Leon Day.

On the mound is perhaps the most famous Negro Leaguer of all time, Satchel Paige, who threw for 10 different teams, most successfully with the Kansas City Monarchs. Ol’ Satch became the Major League’s rookie of the year at age 42 with the Cleveland Indians. At the plate is Martin Dihigo, the only man to be inducted into halls of fame in three countries – Mexico, Cuba and the U.S.A. Other statues commemorate Rube Foster, the Negro National League founder, and the popular Buck O’Neil, a former Kansas City Monarch and museum board member until his death in 2006. Among other tributes are those given to slugger Hank Aaron who turned 83 on Feb. 5 (Indianapolis Clowns),  OF Larry Doby (Newark Eagles) the American League’s first black player, and 1B Monte Irvin (Newark) of the New York Giants.

When Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier it opened the door for Negro Leaguers to follow into the white man’s world and ultimately led to the demise of all-black baseball. Many of the players found work in the Intercounty (IBL). The two most outstanding examples were outfielders Jimmy (Seabiscuit) Wilkes (Newark Eagles, Houston  Eagles, Indianapolis Clowns) who landed in Brantford, and Wilmer (The Great) Fields (Homestead) who divided his IBL time between Oshawa and Brantford. Wilkes became a life-long Brantford resident and after his playing days he turned to a 23-year career as an IBL umpire. He died at 83 in 2008. Others who came north were  pitcher Ted Alexander (Homestead, K.C.) and catcher Shanty Clifford (Homestead) both of whom toiled for the London Majors. Doc Glenn caught for St. Thomas Elgins and Barney Brown pitched for Galt both coming from the Philadelphia Stars. Pitcher Gentry (Jeep) Jessop (Chicago American Giants) and outfielder Ed Steele (Birmingham Black Barons) did duty with Galt as did Larry Cunningham (Houston Eagles) and OF Jeff Shelton (St. Louis Stars).

It should be understood that the museum is a tribute to the Negro Leagues only. It is not a black baseball hall of fame nor is there a section referring to Canadian black icons such as Fergie Jenkins, Freddie Thomas, Stan (Gabby) Anderson, Earl (Flat) Chase or the hundreds of others who made headlines including the 1934 Chatham Coloured All-Stars who are enshrined in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. However, there is one distinct Canadian connection and that is a terrific collection of nearly 200 autographed baseballs donated by Geddy Lee of the band Rush in 2008. Signatures of Hank Aaron and Cool Papa Bell are among these treasures.

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