NLBPA.com referenced in this article.
Article copyright USA Today, July 7, 2003
Trying to make sure
Negro Leagues aren't forgotten
By Tom Weir, USA TODAY
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The pitcher was a week shy of his 101st birthday. The catcher was 91.
Understandably, the ceremonial first pitch flew neither far nor fast.
But that didn't mute the roaring appreciation from a recent crowd at Kauffman Stadium, which understood it was witnessing a special moment between two of the few remaining members of baseball's most rapidly shrinking fraternity.
The pitcher was Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, who turns 101 today, and the catcher was Buck O'Neil. They are what baseball historians refer to as "true" Negro Leaguers. They played in the era of segregation before Jackie Robinson broke the Major Leagues' color barrier in 1947, when Negro League baseball was the nation's third-largest black-owned business.
"When we see each other, I'm thinking this might be the last time I see (him), or (he) might not see me again," O'Neil says. "That's just a natural thing. It's something that's going to happen to all of us."
From 1920 until 1950, when the Negro Leagues began to falter financially after losing most of their stars to the majors, about 2,600 players competed in six leagues. Only 41 remain, according to Major League Baseball, which established a pension for the "true" Negro Leaguers in 1997.
Bob "The Rope" Boyd, 77, who on bus rides with the Memphis Red Sox in the '40s used to beg teammate Charlie Pride to quit singing the songs that would make him a country music legend. Boyd says, "We're all old-timers, so we're all going pretty fast."
That sad fact has hit the Negro Leaguers particularly hard this year, with the death in June of Larry Doby, 79. Doby integrated the American League with the Cleveland Indians three months after Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Max Manning, 84, whose thick glasses gave him the nickname of "Dr. Cyclops" during his 10 Negro League seasons, died barely a week after Doby. Manning was a World War II veteran who once was denied a tryout for the majors when the Detroit Tigers discovered he wasn't white.
Also dying this year: Stokes Hendrix Sr., 89, of the Nashville Elite Giants in February; Sherwood Brewer, 79, an early mentor to Hall of Famer Ernie Banks when they played for the Kansas City Monarchs; and Joseph Spencer Sr., 83, who played on three Negro League championship teams, in May.
Realizing the chance is quickly disappearing to get first-person histories from a culturally rich era that was essentially ignored by mainstream media, baseball historians have been working overtime the last few years.
"We consider the Negro Leagues to have been a major league," says Baseball Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey, adding that Negro League history is "probably the biggest gap" in Cooperstown's archives.
Accordingly, the Hall of Fame is conducting an MLB-funded, $250,000 study of African-American baseball that spans from games played by slaves in 1860 through the end of the Negro Leagues in 1960. It was commissioned in 2000 and when it's done in 2005, researchers promise to have the most thorough statistical record of the Negro Leagues, culled from statistics and accounts printed in the African-American press.
Researchers also are compiling statistics from games that matched barnstorming white stars — including Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller — against Negro Leaguers. Armed with those stats, those who have pressed for the inclusion of more Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame might be able to bolster their cases.
"We'll be able to compare in ways we've never done before," says Lawrence Hogan, a history professor at Union County College in Cranford, N.J., who's directing the study. "We'll have a good, solid statistical sense of that."
'Waste no tears' for them
Among those helping with the research is former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent, who personally has conducted interviews with about eight Negro Leaguers for Cooperstown.
Vincent's interest in Negro Leaguers was heightened after meeting Alfred "Slick" Surratt, a Negro Leaguer who was wounded at Guadalcanal in World War II but still was barred from playing in the majors when he returned home.
In 1991, at the urging of former broadcaster Joe Garagiola, Vincent arranged a trip to Cooperstown for about 75 Negro Leaguers.
"We talked about their contributions, and then I apologized to them at a formal dinner," Vincent says. "I really thought I was repeating an old line, but it turned out that was the first time someone (from MLB) had done that."
Vincent says when he handed out simple commemorative medallions of the event, "Probably a third of them were crying."
As for the historical contribution of the Negro Leagues, Vincent says, "It's my view that they saved baseball. ... If they hadn't persevered in those leagues, the black community wouldn't have produced Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, guys who made a huge contribution to the game."
All of which leaves Vincent with one enduring question about the Negro Leaguers: "I always say, 'Why aren't they bitter? Why aren't they angry?' "
Perhaps the best answer is a quote from O'Neil, which Hogan recites at every opportunity: "There's nothing like getting your body to do everything it has to do on a baseball field. It's as good as sex; it's as good as music. It fills you up. Waste no tears on me. I didn't come along too early. I was right on time."
Appreciating the recognition
With the Chicago Cubs in 1962, O'Neil became the first African-American to coach in the majors. He's been a driving force in preserving Negro League history, as a director and key fundraiser for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
The museum had its first exhibit in 1991, and in 1997 moved to the historic 18th and Vine District, near where the first Negro League was founded in 1920 by Rube Foster.
"I don't think anybody was angry because they didn't play in the Major Leagues," O'Neil says. "We were still playing some of the best baseball in this country."
What does get O'Neil angry, however, are what he calls historically inaccurate treatments of the Negro Leagues by Hollywood, in such movies as The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings and Soul of the Game.
"The things Hollywood has done; it's like we were a bunch of buffoons out there," O'Neil says. "I asked, 'Where did they get this information?' "
Many Negro Leaguers who played long enough to follow Robinson and Doby into the majors were past their primes or didn't get taken because many teams integrated only with star-caliber players.
Integrating MLB was a 12-year process, with the Boston Red Sox becoming the final team to have a black player, Pumpsie Green in 1959.
"Kids ask me why I didn't play in the majors," says Herman "Doc" Horn, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the '50s. "I'll say that unfortunately this great country we live in had some unfortunate rules, but don't ever forget that this is still the greatest country in the world. Get down on your knees and thank God you were raised here."
Connie Johnson, 80 and in a wheelchair after a recent stroke, was said by some to have thrown as hard as the legendary Satchel Paige at his peak. Johnson was an uncommonly old rookie at 30, when the Chicago White Sox called him up in 1953.
But Johnson has received respect the last few years as some major and minor league clubs hold Negro League appreciation days and autograph shows.
"This is awfully nice," Johnson said at the Kansas City Royals appreciation day June 29, where he was one of 12 Negro Leaguers who signed autographs and was introduced to the crowd before the Royals and St. Louis Cardinals took the field wearing retro Monarchs and St. Louis Stars uniforms. "It means an awful lot."
But on historic questions, Johnson defers to the century-old Radcliffe: "He was before my time. He was before everybody's time. He's the man."
Documentary catches up on stars
"Double Duty" was given the nickname when sportswriter Damon Runyan covered a Negro Leagues doubleheader at a filled Yankee Stadium in 1932. Runyan pronounced Radcliffe "worth the price of two admissions" after Radcliffe caught Paige in the opener, then pitched in the second game.
"As long as we were paid, it didn't make any difference where we played," says Radcliffe, who was decades ahead of major leaguers in being a free agent, playing for 47 teams from 1919-54 and managing 11.
In July and August, PBS will air Double Duty in major markets as part of its The Living Century series.
Viewers might want to take note of Radcliffe holding up his right hand, on which he says all five fingers were broken five times by foul balls while catching for Paige. The index and middle fingers spread apart at opposite angles, as if they were meant to throw a split-finger fastball. Radcliffe also says he put a beefsteak in his mitt for padding when catching Paige.
"You hear their stories, and it almost seems like fiction," says Double Duty executive producer Steven Latham, adding that the documentary presented his most difficult research project because of the scarcity of film footage.
One key find was the 16-millimeter film shot as a hobby by Negro Leaguer Quincy Trouppe Jr., and preserved by his son, poet Quincy Jr. Another was getting film that showed Radcliffe playing catch in Havana with Fidel Castro, in the '40s. That film came from a New Hampshire man who had purchased a random stack of reels at a yard sale 20 years ago.
"I think there's a new appreciation for the Negro Leagues now," Latham says. "People are appreciating that these guys had all the cards stacked against them."
That appreciation showed before the game at Kauffman Stadium, when about 1,000 mostly white fans stood in line two hours waiting for Negro Leaguer autographs.
"I think it's as important for the white kids as the black kids to know the history of baseball," said Troy Green of Lee Summitt, Mo., standing in line with his 12-year-old son, Jon. "The good and the bad."
Contributing: Mike Dodd, USA TODAY
More on the Negro Leagues
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
1616 E. 18th St., Kansas City, Mo., 816-221-1920. Admission: $6. The 10,000-square-foot museum pays tribute to such Negro League stars as Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston and Leon Day and has an indoor field visitors are allowed to walk on with statues of 10 of the greatest players in playing poses. Most of the displays follow a timeline that traces Negro League history and innovations, such as having lights for night games in 1930, five years before the major leagues. Two historical videos are shown throughout the day. Retro jerseys and caps are on sale in the gift shop. A jazz museum is in the same building.
Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center
8 Quarry Road, Little Falls, N.J., 973-655-2378. Admission: $6 for adults, $4 for students and children.
The museum, on the campus of Montclair State University, has acquired a major collection of Negro League memorabilia from music producer Jack Berg and eventually will house it in the Larry Doby Gallery, scheduled to be finished in 2005. Some items already are on display in a Pride Against Prejudice exhibit. The museum also gives presentations for students and makes available history-related pamphlets on such topics as Baseball and Social Justice and What Is Sportsmanship?
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
25 Main St., Cooperstown, N.Y., 607-547-7200. Admission: $9.50 for adults, $4 for children 7-12, free for children under 7.
With the addition of the Barry Halper collection in 1999, the Hall of Fame added to its already considerable Negro Leagues memorabilia. The Halper collection includes uniforms worn by Negro Leaguers Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, and Jackie Robinson's Dodgers cap, complete with the plastic liner Robinson wore to protect him from beanballs. Also on display are the Hall of Fame plaques of such Negro Leaguers as "Smokey" Joe Williams, Judy Johnson, Monte Irvin and Ray Dandridge and the sunglasses worn by "Cool Papa" Bell.
Negro League Baseball Players Association Web site: www.nlbpa.com
The site has biographies of all prominent players on its Athletes page, plus updates on Negro Leaguers, history of the leagues and sources for memorabilia.