The Negro Leagues: Baseball's Greatest Treasure

Derek HartCorrespondent IFebruary 23, 2010

GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 22: Manager Dusty Baker of the Cincinnati Reds speaks with the media during a press conference at the Cincinnati Reds Development Complex on February 22, 2010 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Considering that baseball's spring training camps have just opened, and that this is Black History Month, it would be a mortal sin not to call attention to an institution that is a significant part of the game's lore.

This is a part of baseball history that's as big as Babe Ruth and Yankee Stadium, something that for the first half of the 20th century served a portion of America that was criminally excluded from Major League Baseball due to racial bigotry: the Negro Leagues.

Founded in 1920 out of all-black barnstorming teams by Andrew "Rube" Foster and lasting for more than 30 years, African American ballplayers plied their trade in this segregated bastion of professional baseball, due to the racism displayed by the white major league owners and many of the white players—60 percent of them coming from the Jim Crow South—in drawing a "color line" that barred blacks from being Yankees, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers, or members of any of the other big league clubs.

That is why anytime someone makes a list of the all-time greatest players, I always see such a list as completely bogus and the person who made the list as ignorant if there are no Negro Leaguers on it, because some of the greatest baseball players that ever lived played on teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs, the Newark Eagles, and the Homestead Grays.

Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson are the names that come to the mind of baseball fans whenever the Negro Leagues are brought up in conversation.

Being that Paige, who won an estimated 2,000 games over a 40-year career, was the best pitcher to ever take a mound and that Gibson, the catcher who hit over 950 home runs, including 75 in one year, was the best hitter to ever stand in a batter's box (at least in my view), it's for good reason that those two legends are the best known of that era.

They had plenty of rivals, however, standouts such as:

Buck Leonard, billed as "the black Lou Gehrig," Gibson's teammate who played first base on the Grays,

Oscar Charleston, a top-notch center fielder and devastating hitter for over 20 years,

Martin Dihigo, perhaps the most diverse star of all time as during one season he led the league in both pitching and hitting at the same time, and,

James "Cool Papa" Bell, an outfielder and base stealing master from the Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords that was so fast, it was said that he could turn off a bedroom light and be under the covers before the room got dark.

Like the rest of Black America during that period, Negro Leaguers had to endure separate and unequal conditions from their white counterparts: lengthy rides on sub-par buses, hotels refusing to house them, restaurants refusing to serve them (or at best, grudgingly letting them go around to the back to eat), gas stations not letting them use the restrooms, ballparks not allowing them to use their their showers after games, things like that.

Despite that bigotry, the black players not only held their own on the diamond, their play often surpassed that of the white major leaguers.

According to Ken Burns' Baseball documentary, it was calculated that over the years of black all-star teams playing white all-star teams in postseason exhibitions, the whites won 129 of those games, while the African Americans beat them 309 times.

If that doesn't prove the ability that the players in the Negro Leagues had, nothing does.

As for popularity, black ball games oftentimes outdrew their major league counterparts in attendance during the 1930s and '40s, as the Depression and World War II affected the big leagues in fan affordability and star power; while superstars such as Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams were overseas, guys like Paige and Gibson kept playing and drew the bulk of the fans, both black and white.

It was only after Jackie Robinson integrated the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 that the Crawfords, Grays, Monarchs, and the rest of the black teams faded away.

The Negro Leagues are indeed a part of baseball history that should never, ever be forgotten. As was said, if a list of all-time great baseball players has no one from that institution on it, such list has no credibility whatsoever.

In honor of Black History Month, I feel it's only appropriate that this vital part of African American history and culture should be paid homage.