As I write this, I am happily attired in a cream-colored Monarchs t-shirt, its signature red lettering outlined in black. Who were the Monarchs? The Kansas City Monarchs were a team that played in what they called the Negro Baseball Leagues, during a time when black ballplayers were prohibited from playing in what they called – and still call – the Major Leagues.
I’m interested in Negro League baseball. Every year, when solicited, I send money to support the Negro League museum (coincidentally housed in Kansas City). In return, I receive some kind of appreciative souvenir – a commemorative wooden ball, a miniature bat key chain, or the aforementioned team logoed Monarchs t-shirt.
Though Dr. M contributes to many charities, there are only two I contribute to directly: the Negro League museum, and the Jewish cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona. Although no Jews participated in Tombstone’s infamous “Gunfight At The O.K. Corral”, it is rumored that one of them may possibly have booked the venue.
I read a book once called In The Shadow Of The Senators, concerning a legendary Negro League team called the Homestead Grays. (The ball club relocated from Homestead, Pennsylvania to Washington D.C.)
The Grays played in the same stadium as the National League’s all white Washington Senators, scheduling their games when the Senators were out of town. It was not unusual for the Grays to regularly outdraw the Senators in attendance.
It’s not surprising. The Negro Leagues offered spectacular baseball, featuring all-time superstars like Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Josh Gibson and “Cool Papa” Bell. I wish I could have seen them in action. Though I have no idea whether white people ever attended Negro League games.
I also don’t know whether black fans frequented at Major League games. I am shamefully spotty on my racial history. I grew up in another country.
What I do know is that the “color line”, as they called it, was broken in 1948, when Jackie Robinson was promoted from their minor league affiliate in Montreal (a less volatile terrain for a black player to break in) and brought in to play for the “parent” team in the Majors, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
After that, more black ballplayers gradually made the move. Larry Doby was invited to play for the Indians. Ernie Banks joined the Cubs. The Yankees welcomed Elston Howard, though not until 1955.
As the integration of black players accelerated, Negro League baseball became increasingly marginalized. The institution was no longer necessary. At least not for original purpose.
The Negro leagues were created to showcase great ballplayers who were restricted from playing where their talent indicated they belonged. Then things changed. With the Major Leagues accepting black players, what was the rationale behind an alternate baseball league specifically created for a time when they didn’t?
The top black ballplayers made good money in segregated baseball, from their salaries as players, supplemented by side activities, such as special appearances and exhibition games. But they all coveted the stamp of approval bestowed by the mainstream culture, a stamp that could only be earned by crossing over into the Major Leagues.
The handwriting was on the wall. As black stars continued to defect to the Majors Leagues, Negro League baseball was unable sustain itself as a viable source of entertainment.
As the result of a good thing happening – America’s, albeit belated, moving forward on racial inclusion – a rich and once-vibrant institution inevitably had to disappear. I imagine there was a devoted fan base that had a passionate attachment to that institution. They must have hated to see it go.
Still, it’s important to remember: Negro League baseball was never the ideal option. The ideal option just wasn’t available.
And now it was.
My opinion? (Which, I’m aware, on racial matters, ranks somewhere between “Stay out of this” and “Who cares?”)
For what it’s worth…
There are these ultimate goals you’re shooting for. And when you finally attain them, that’s got to be a good thing. Allowing cherished but no longer needed institutions to fade away may be painful, but you’ve gotta make that deal, don’t you?
The era of Negro League Baseball inevitably had to end. But it needs to be remembered, for what it was, for why it was necessary, and, most importantly, for the magnificent entertainment those now-mostly-forgotten players delivered its the fans.
I am honored to play a small part in keeping that memory alive.