Tragedy or Triumph?

Over the weekend, I was in Kansas City with my dear friend and brother, Bob Kendrick, to celebrate Buck O’Neil’s 107th birthday. Whenever Bob and I get together, we tell many of the same Buck stories; I think that helps us keep him alive. This time, we told those stories for a whole bunch of people who kindly showed up to support the museum. Thank you to all who came. It meant the world to us.

One of the coolest parts of the weekend, I must say, was that three great guys from Sky Sports out of the UK had come to Kansas City to do a documentary on the story of the Negro leagues. It was a surprising choice, even to them, but they were thrilled, and they kindly asked to interview me. We talked for probably a half hour, 45 minutes, something like that, and then the utterly delightful Mike Wedderburn, who has been one of the presenters for Good Morning Sports Fans since 1999, asked me something fascinating.

“In the end,” he asked, “were the Negro leagues ultimately a tragedy, or were they something more?”

It’s the fundamental question, isn’t it?

The Negro leagues officially began in the Kansas City Paseo YMCA in 1920; they were the creation of an extraordinary baseball player and force of nature named Rube Foster. But various and assorted leagues all across the country, with exclusively black players, well, those are as old as baseball itself. That is a tragedy. There were black baseball teams and black baseball leagues because of segregation, because of racism, because of hatred, because of fear, because of the worst principles in American history.

Yes, the Negro leagues are a tragedy. They were filled with players who were denied the chance to play in the major leagues, denied the chance to play in the minor leagues, denied the chance to find out just how they measured up against those players featured in the newspapers. Their statistics were mostly lost. Their greatest plays went largely unchronicled.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene, The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

-- Thomas Grey

For many Negro leaguers, playing professional baseball was a miserable experience. Buck O’Neil talked often about how playing for the Kansas City Monarchs was like playing for the Yankees, with huge crowds and enormous respect at every turn. But it has to be said that when he shared the stage with other Negro leaguers, it was made clear that his experience was not their experience. Their busses broke down. Paychecks bounced. Teams folded. They were denied a place to sleep, denied food to eat, they were forced to play doubleheaders and tripleheaders in town after town, day after day, on fields strewn with rocks and in front of small and sometimes hateful crowds.

But no matter their individual experiences, the unambiguous and unmistakable reality of Negro leaguers is that they were banned because of the color of their skin. Excuses were made. White executives and players and sportswriters said that Negro leaguers lacked the intelligence to play major league baseball. They lacked the commitment. They lacked the humanity. The Negro leagues, those white executives and players and sportswriters said, were a novelty act, a side-show feature.

Or, even worse, they acted as if the Negro leagues didn't exist.

How can you describe the pain of playing in the Negro leagues, KNOWING that you were good enough to play in the major leagues, knowing that you were good enough to be a star in the major leagues, knowing that the only thing between you and glory was …

From August Wilson’s play, Fences:

BONO: "Times have changed, Troy. You just come along too early."

TROY: "There ought not never have been no time called too early! Now you take that fellow, what’s the fellow they had playing right field for the Yankees back then? You know who I’m talking about, Bono. Used to play right field for the Yankees."

ROSE: "Selkirk?"

TROY: "Selkirk! That’s it. Man batting .269, understand? Two-sixty-nine. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs. Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees.”

That barrier, that stupid illogical barrier, it broke a lot of players. It would have broken me. Yes, the Negro leagues were a tragedy; that’s where the story begins.

But we know that. What Mike was asking was this: Were they something more?

Yes. They were something more. It’s something that anyone who has been to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum can see, can feel, but until Mike asked that question I have to admit: I’d not thought about it quite that way. Why were the Negro leagues more than just a tragedy, more than just a great American shame?

And here’s what I’ve come up with: The Negro leagues began amid a deep-seated racism that dates back to long before America even became America. Baseball didn't start any of it. Baseball was swept up in the segregation and bigotry and hatred that had long shaped the country.

But baseball, the game itself, spoke to African Americans the same way it spoke to white Americans, the same way it spoke to Latin Americans, the same way it speaks now to people all over the world. Black Americans wanted to play the game. They wanted to watch the game being played well. They wanted to gather together and celebrate this odd but wonderful game that we invented, this game of three strikes and four balls and 90 feet between the bases.

And they did.

They played baseball. Was it in the shadows? Well, it depends on your perspective. The Negro league teams played ball in small and big towns all over America, and in many of those places they played the best baseball that people would ever see. In many of those places, guys like Oscar Charleston and Bullet Rogan, Mule Suttles and Turkey Stearnes, Buck Leonard and Judy Johnson, Willie Wells and Willard Brown, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, these were the players who inspired dreams.

And the fact that they were black was … well, maybe they opened a few minds. Maybe they began to change the landscape a little bit. Maybe some white fan sat in the stands and watched Josh Gibson hit, and he or she instinctively wondered: “How many home runs would he hit in the major leagues?”

Maybe a few people wondered that. Maybe a sportswriter wrote about the injustice of Satchel Paige not being in the major leagues -- not just an injustice for Ol’ Satch himself, but also an injustice for baseball fans across America. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” Buck always used to say. “Feel sorry for all those people who didn’t get to see us play.”

It took years -- it always takes too long -- but in time, more and more people did begin to ask the question: Why is this happening?

You say this Monte Irvin guy can play? Well, why won’t my team sign him? Maybe my team NEEDS Monte Irvin. Maybe Monte Irvin is the difference between second place and a pennant. Shoot, I’d be OK if my team signed Monte Irvin.

It took years -- it always takes too long -- but major league teams began having tryouts for black players. Maybe those were for show, at least at first, but the idea was building. Then, when African Americans fought in World War II, and the hypocrisy had become blinding, the idea had become too powerful to bottle up.

V-E Day -- Germany’s formal surrender -- happened on May 8, 1945.

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey had their famous “I want a player who’s got the guts NOT to fight back” meeting on Aug. 28, 1945.

Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, to end the war for good.

Rickey announced that he had signed Jackie Robinson on Oct. 23, 1945.

And so it seemed to many to happen fast, but it didn’t happen fast at all. It took more than a half century. Segregation is baseball’s most disgraceful legacy, but it must be said, too, that Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers long before much of America had caught up. As Buck used to say, Martin Luther King was 16 years old. It was almost a decade before the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, a full decade before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, more than a decade before the nine students attended classes at Little Rock Central, 18 years (to the day) before “I had a dream,” and two decades before Selma.

Baseball was late, yes, but in the long fight for equality in America, baseball was early, too.

And I think that’s the gift of the Negro leagues. I think that’s why, in the end, they're so much more than a tragic story. They're the story of ultimate triumph in the face of hatred and fear.

There’s something that people rarely talk about: There was a lot of pain when the Negro leagues folded. Baseball was one of the biggest black businesses in America. After the leagues faded and eventually shut down, black communities were hurt. Businesses went under. Thriving centers in black neighborhoods lost some of their vitality. This is the greatest irony of all. For the Negro leagues to triumph, they had to disappear.