Negro League pioneers 'helped build bridge'
By PAUL HAGEN
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Buck O'Neil wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame and that, certainly, is a subject that can be debated.
Still, on a gloriously sunny day at the Clark Sports Center when 17 pioneers of black baseball were honored with plaques in baseball's shrine, it was O'Neil, the 94-year-old chairman of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, who led off and set the tone for the day.
"These people helped build the bridge across the chasm of prejudice, not just crossed it like people like me did," he intoned yesterday. "People say, 'I know you hate what was done to you and your folks.
"No. I can't hate any human being because my God never made anyone ugly. I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. Cancer killed my wife 10 years ago. I hate AIDS. But I can't hate another human being."
An exhaustive study produced the list of players and executives, including the first female Hall of Famer, Effa Manley. And while such recognition was no doubt overdue, that didn't lessen the enthusiasm of the surviving family members who gathered in this quaint upstate New York village.
"It's a wonderful thing," said Arthur Foote Jr., the great great nephew of Frank Grant, who is often called the greatest black ballplayer of the 19th century. "There were many great players and, without this, they may never have gotten the recognition they deserved.
"I knew something about the Negro Leagues but not as much as I should. I'm 42 years old and grew up more in the era of Bruce Sutter [the lone player elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America this year]."
Grant was one of five pre-Negro League players enshrined, along with Pete Hill, Jose Mendez, Louis Santop and Ben Taylor.
Ray Mackey is the great nephew of Biz Mackey, the great catcher who represented Negro League players along with Ray Brown, Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Mule Suttles, Cristobal Torriente and Jud Wilson.
"My favorite story is that Biz and my grandfather went through a lot of adversity," he said. "It was the Depression. Times were tough. They'd pick cotton all day and afterward play ball until they couldn't see anymore. He had determination. My great uncle stood up and said, 'I'm going to succeed.' He was so determined. And that's still a motivation to me."
Manley, who was born in Philadelphia and graduated from William Penn High School, was the only woman honored among a group of executives that also included Alex Pompez, Cum Posey, J.L. Wilkinson and Sol White.
She was represented on the dais by her niece, Connie Brooks, who a day earlier took great exception to the story - told by Manley herself in her later years - that she was white as the result of a liaison between her Caucasian mother and a white man.
According to Brooks, Effa's mother was half German and half Native American. "So Effa was a product of that," he said. "She was a little bit of everything. She belonged to everybody and she used that to her advantage."
Still, she was thrilled that her aunt was being recognized for her contributions running the Newark Eagles as well as her crusades for civil rights.
"I'm very proud and honored," Brooks said. "It's been a long journey for all of us. I knew her worth, but was wondering if the world would ever find out."
Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson, called upon the nation to use yesterday's ceremony as a reminder "that it is incumbent upon us to continue to recognize the inequities in our society."
She also offered the opinion that yesterday's tribute would not have been possible without O'Neil's contributions, which may have been a reference to the fact that he had not been included among those who were given baseball's highest honor yesterday.
O'Neil, however, seemed happy enough to salute those who were admitted to the Hall of Fame.
"The Negro Leagues were not like Hollywood portrayed. No," he said. "The Negro Leagues were the third-largest black business in America. Forty percent of the players were college men who, at the end of the season, would go back to teaching or coaching or classes.
"That was Negro League baseball and I was proud to have been a Negro League player."
Just as proud, it seemed, as the families of the 17 inductees were yesterday.