|The Best Baseball We Never Saw||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on February 24, 2003
Not only did I miss the great pennant races, and the subway series back when the Dodgers and Giants still played in New York, but I missed (actually I was just too young to remember) baseball in DC, and way too many of the legends of the game. I missed Ruth, and Gehrig, Williams, and Mantle, Greenberg and Fox, Speaker and Cobb, Hornsby and Sissler and even the great Walter Johnson.
I missed out on watching Connie Mack lead the Philadelphia A’s for half a century, and Bobby Thompson’s “shot heard round the world.” I missed Don Larson’s perfect game. I missed Joe Nuxhall becoming the youngest pitcher in Major League history. In fact I missed many things, including Robinson’s groundbreaking season in 1947 when he shattered the color barrier.
However what I missed is trivial compared to what all of us lost out on before that, and every day we’re losing more and more of an important part of our baseball legacy. Before the color barrier was broken, the negro leagues existed in the shadows of the Majors for almost as long as organized baseball had been played - and players as talented at the Hall of Fame names I mentioned above played in them.
These men came from different backgrounds, although perhaps not as different as today's players, yet they were united in their love for the game. That love was a very strong one. It had to be - making a living in the Negro Leagues was a challenge unto itself. These players rarely had the structure of even a minor league organization. They traveled the country in dilapidated buses, were discriminated against in many of the places they traveled, and often found that nothing but the worst accommodations and food were available to them, if they were available at all.
Most of the teams in the Negro leagues were “barnstormers.“ This means that they traveled the country for months at a time taking on all comers for a set fee or a percentage of the gate. They played in backwater towns and cities before television and radio really brought the big leagues into everyone’s homes. They commonly played teams of local boys, farmers, and working men, or played against semi-pro teams.
In the winter, they played against Major Leaguers who put on barnstorming tours of their own. Not surprisingly, the negro players held their own and won many of the games. It was here that they most often heard the Major Leaguers say “if only you were white, you’d have a job in the Majors,” and similar remarks. That's not to say that all Negro Leaguers could have made it, but many certainly would have, and starting in 1947 many of them did.
They had hard lives, often arriving in a town in the middle of the night, sleeping on the baseball field itself, or in a parasite infested, “black only” hotel. Many times they carried their own food, because they couldn’t be sure that they would be fed or even served in many places they visited. It was especially true when the teams went south during the summer. You would think that the negro leaguers would have avoided those areas, but they didn’t. They could make money by playing there, and they needed to eke out a livelihood.
Many major leaguers would have balked at the idea of playing under those conditions, and a lot would have given up on the game and found a job in the factories. I’m sure that happened in the Negro Leagues. Still, like many of us, they had a passion for the game, one that drove them to chase their dreams, and compelled them to play despite the difficulties.
Winters eventually became the high point for many of the Negro Leaguers. In the Winter, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and South America became absolute hotbeds of baseball. Both Major League and Negro League stars were actively courted to come and play ball outside of the US. The pay was many times higher than what the Negro Leaguers made back home, and for many of them it was the most money they had ever made in the game.
More importantly, they were treated like royalty and without discrimination. The fans were rabid in their devotion to the game, and talented men who gave their all were very appreciated. It’s not surprising that when the Negro leagues finally fell apart, many of the former players retired to these nations.
The Negro Leagues were about quality baseball. They were watched and enjoyed not only by black audiences, but also by whites. Just as in the Majors, there were several circuits that ran for a while and died, but many of the great teams just carried on, falling back into barnstorming when the leagues died out. They carried with them innovation, and they tried things which had never really been done before. The first ever night game was played by Negro teams who brought a lighting system on trucks with them when they played.
In some ways, the Negro leagues were about showmanship too. It’s a point many detractors have said cheapened the game, or proved that the Negro League players needed gimmicks to draw in the fans which they couldn’t do with talent alone. To an extent that may be true - not many teams could afford to field a team as talented as the better major league teams (though there were a few). However, If they could afford such a roster, who would they have played against? The organization just wasn’t there. So there were teams based on one or two legitimate stars who hammed it up to draw in fans. This does not change the fact that there were many great negro teams which devoted themselves to being the best that there was.
Pittsburgh and the surrounding area was home to some of the best teams the Negro League ever fielded. The top teams were the Homestead Grays and the Crawfords. The rosters of these teams have names like, Paige, Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, Campanella, Robinson, Judy Johnson, Martin Dihigo, John Henry Lloyd and Oscar Charleston - all of whom today are in the Hall of Fame. There were many others who should be there but have been forgotten by time.
It’s estimated that only somewhere between 20-200 of these Negro League players are still alive. I hope to meet some of them and discuss the game, and what they went through more than 50 years ago. Their leagues and livelihoods died out when the color barrier broke. Some of them were lucky enough to get to the big show. Others returned home to what jobs they could find. These men are treasures who know a history we have forgotten, a history where records were rarely kept. We’ll be lucky if they’ll take the time to share it with us.
All of us have a feeling of nostalgia when it comes to thinking about baseball of the past. We think about how much guys like Snyder, Gehrig, Williams and others really loved the game, and what it meant to them. Few of us have ever known much about these players who toiled in obscurity, or about the sacrifices they made, family wise, financially, and personally to chase their dreams of playing baseball. I wish I could have seen Satchel pitch, or Gibson hit. I wish I could have watched as men really played for the love of the game. If only I had been born 50 years earlier.