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Recognition of Negro Leagues brings Washington’s baseball legacy to light

Black stars helped the city build a rich tradition, but the sport still must overcome its racist past...

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Satchel Paige Meets Josh Gibson
Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were part of a 1942 exhibition against a Dizzy Dean-led all-star team that helped the Homestead Grays become popular in Washington. Major League Baseball is, for the first time, recognizing the career records of Paige, Gibson and other players from the Negro Leagues from 1920-1948.
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Baseball’s official recognition this week of hundreds of Black athletes who toiled in relative obscurity from 1920-1948 is certainly welcome news news for baseball scholars and historians. Although it is far too late and inconsequential, compared to the game’s other racial issues, the recognition of the Negro Leagues and their records as part of Major League Baseball is a significant measure.

For fans of the Washington Nationals and the two major league teams that preceded them, it’s certainly exciting to know that some of the greatest players in the game’s history are now officially a part of the city’s legacy. But serious fans — and to its credit, the Nationals organization — have long considered the Negro Leagues and their stars to be a part of the rich baseball tradition in the nation’s capital.

Since Nationals Park opened in 2008, the team’s Ring of Honor, between the lower suite and club levels, has included Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cumberland Posey and Jud Wilson, Hall of Famers from the Homestead Grays, Washington’s most prominent Negro League team.

A statue of Gibson, depicting the motion of his sweet swing in bronze, greets visitors to the park at the home plate gate, along with likenesses of Walter Johnson and Frank Howard. Gibson and Leonard are also longstanding members of the Washington D.C. Sports Hall of Fame (formerly known as the Hall of Stars). Bell was inducted in 2015.

The Grays, whose success in the 1930s and 40s was unequaled, even by the New York Yankees, are now officially in the conversation as possibly the game’s greatest dynasty. From 1937 to 1948, they would win ten Negro National League pennants, including nine in a row from 1937 to 1945. Three times, they won the Negro League World Series, which was not contested every year.

Founded in 1912, in Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, the Grays began splitting their games between Forbes Field and Washington’s Griffith Stadium in 1940. By 1943, they had developed an enthusiastic, loyal following among the burgeoning Black population of the city, including residents of the neighborhood around Griffith Stadium and historically Black Howard University. That led the Grays to play most of their games in Washington.

Grays fans really started packing the park, and the local newspapers started paying attention, after a May 31, 1942 exhibition, a rare contest between all-Black and all-White teams. The Grays borrowed pitcher Satchel Paige from the Kansas City Monarchs to take on a team led by retired star Dizzy Dean and Senators’ shortstop Cecil Travis, on leave from Army duty in World War II. A crowd of more than 22,000 watched Paige mow down Dean’s team while the Grays hit Dean hard for an 8-1 victory.

The Grays and their fans represented a financial windfall for Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, whose own team struggled on the field and at the gate. The stadium was not officially segregated, but Black fans at Senators games were generally relegated to the right field pavilion. However, they were welcome throughout the park for Negro League games and other events, including an annual drill competition.

Legendary sports writer Sam Lacy of the Washington Tribune, and later the Baltimore and Washington Afro-American, fell in love with the game at Griffith Stadium while shagging fly balls and running errands for Walter Johnson, Chick Gandil, and Clyde Milan. In a 1937 interview, Griffith told Lacy he did not favor immediate integration but also predicted it would eventually happen. Historians disagree on Griffith’s motives.

Grays historian Brad Snyder writes that Griffith could have signed away Gibson and Leonard in 1943, but refused because the Grays were helping his bottom line. There are serious doubts about whether commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who enforced baseball’s unwritten ban on Black players, would have allowed such a move.

We do know that the Senators were among the last major league teams to integrate, signing the Cuban-born Carlos Paula in 1954. Six years later, Griffith’s nephew Calvin, who took over the Senators after his uncle’s death, moved the team to Minnesota, with motives later revealed as blatantly racist.

At least now, there is momentum in the right direction. Landis’s name was removed from the Most Valuable Player trophies this year, and Gibson’s name is one of those being considered to replace it. The move to recognize the careers of Negro League players brings some of their history and legacy back to light, but it also further highlights the ugliness that obscured it in the first place.

Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque states that he “hit almost 800 home runs” in his 16-year professional career. Yet because most newspapers refused to cover Negro League games and many of the exhibitions in which he played, it’s been up to historians to unearth box scores and other records that document only 238 of them. So Barry Bonds’ disputed career record of 762 and Hank Aaron’s career total of 755 will still stand.

That’s a strong sign that the racism that tainted baseball for almost 100 years and American society for hundreds more is still an issue for the sport. While Jackie Robinson is celebrated annually for breaking the color barrier in 1947, there is much less notice that no Black man managed a major league team until Cleveland named Frank Robinson player-manager in 1975.

No Black person had the responsibility of running a team until Bill Lucas was given those duties with Atlanta in 1976, and even then, he was denied the title of general manager. It wasn’t until 1981 that Bob Watson became the first Black person to hold the responsibility and the title.

Among baseball’s 30 big league teams today, there are only two Black field managers, Dave Roberts and Dusty Baker. Al Avila of Detroit, Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox and Farhan Zaidi of the San Francisco Giants are the only minority men who currently run their teams’ baseball operations. There are no black majority owners. Derek Jeter, with a 4 percent stake in the Marlins, has the highest profile of any Black person with a minority ownership share.

Baseball’s leaders did a good thing in recognizing a long-obscured and ugly part of the game’s past. But they still have more work ahead of them to secure a future of diversity and inclusion in the the sport that many still consider the national pastime. Even then, the wrongs of the past will never be righted.