MLB: Celebrating black history month and the Negro Leagues, black players then and now

William Parlee

All around MLB, as in the rest of America, Black History Month is being celebrated if you are a baseball fan. You can’t think about black history without thinking about The Negro Leagues and the great players who played during those days. I remember discovering when I was much younger that there was a Negro league and there were famous players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Gus Greenlee.  During the Golden Age of black ball 1920-1950), the Negro leagues had as many as seven leagues that primarily hired black players and, to a lesser degree, Latins.

Those leagues deteriorated little by little for three reasons.  First, World War II took a disproportionate number of young blacks out of baseball, leaving mostly older players.  Lack of fans in the stands and the eventual integration of black players like Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. Black owners also found out that selling their best players to the majors was financially lucrative, so for these and other reasons, the Negro Leagues disappeared into oblivion.

But in celebration of Black History Month, let’s take a look at the records of some of these baseball greats:

Satchel Paige:

Leroy Robert Paige pitched in the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues in a baseball career that spanned 50 years. He passed away in 1982 at the age of 76. From 1924 to 1926, he played semi-pro ball for the Mobile Tigers. He began his professional career in 1926 with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Southern League. He made a name for himself, being a right-hand pitcher that was like no other. Paige would sometimes have his infielders sit down behind him and then routinely strike out the side.

His big day came in 1948 when at the age of 42, he made his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians. He was the very first black pitcher in the American League. He played for the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns, and the Kansas City Athletics during his career. In his six years in the majors, he had a record of 28-31 and a very respectable ERA of 3.29. His record may have been better if he was just a starter, but he started games for all his teams, came in in relief, and closed games. He pitched right up to the age of 48, something that is unheard of today. In 1971 Satchel Paige was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Josh Gibson:

Unlike Satchel Paige, Gibson never played in the Major Leagues, but in the Negro Leagues, he was as famous as any player during his time. He was an excellent catcher, but he was mostly known for his ability to hit home runs, lots of them. He is said to have hit 800 home runs in his career. He never could enter the Majors because there was a gentleman’s agreement that would not allow blacks in the major leagues during the time he played.

During his playing career, he played for the Azules de Veracruz of the Mexican League, but 13 of his 15 years was with the National Negro League playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. With his play, he was often referred to as the “Black Babe Ruth,” some referred to Babe Ruth as the “White Josh Gibson.” Gibson died early in life at just 35 from a Brain tumor and stroke. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. His plaque reads: “Considered the greatest slugger in the National Negro Leagues.”

Oscar Charleston:

An intense focused, and intelligent man, Charleston was among the most renowned players of his time, tremendous power and contact hitter, and one of the finest defensive center fielders of all-time. His career batting average was .348, and he regularly finished among league leaders in both home runs and stolen bases. He was also known for his combative nature, getting into many brawls, including at least one memorable fight with an array of Cuban soldiers.

In 1932, Charleston became player-manager of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and presided over what some baseball historians consider the best Negro League team ever. His roster included Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Judy Johnson. The team went 99-36, and Charleston himself batted .363. A powerful hitter, Oscar won at least four batting titles and several home-run crowns. He is among the top five Negro Leaguers in batting average (.339) and home runs and the all-time leader in stolen bases. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Presently there are 35 players from the Negro Leagues that are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When integration in  MLB started, it was slow as teams like the New York Yankees looked for black talent acceptable to fans, players like Elston Howard, who was nice, quiet, and a gentleman. It gained him complete acceptance from every Yankee.  That’s because he was black, yes, but white-like.  Many black players had to stay in different hotels than the white players, but the Yankees, upon hiring Howard, would only use hotels that allowed blacks.

Because Howard was fully accepted, he would go on to play twelve seasons with the Yankees. He was an All-Star 12 times, a Gold Glove Award winner twice, an MVP nominee five times, winning the MVP award. On August 3rd, 1967, Elston was traded to the Red Sox. He played a year and a half with the Sox before retiring. But before retiring, he would get to play his last World Series in his home town St. Louis. However, the Cards would beat the Sox. Howard retired quite wealthy for a black player as he had loads of endorsements later in his career.

With the acceptance of MLB black players, their numbers grew steadily from the 50s to the 80s. Still, something happened, and their numbers declined to the point that there are practically no black players in the Major Leagues (62), while the Latinos took their place to the point there are as many Latinos as whites in the game.  There are two significant reasons for this.  South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean area have cultures that foster sports.

Why so few Blacks in American baseball? One of the factors appears to be the overall decline in youth playing baseball. In 2002, nine million kids between the ages of 7 and 17 played baseball, as reported in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article citing National Sporting Goods Association figures. That figure had declined by 41% by 2013. With participation in decline, youth leagues and teams have been forced to shut down or merge, restricting access for poorer youths, making the sport whiter and more affluent.  Another reason is that inner-city kids, mostly black, have no place to nurture their talents.

When you look at different MLB teams, the lack of black players is alarming.  The Oakland Athletics have the most with four.  With the retirement of CC Sabathia and the exit of Cameron Maybin, the New York Yankees now only have one, Aaron Hicks, and the multi-cultural Aaron Judge.  The Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres have no black players, while the remaining teams have one or two.  CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, and some other black players are working to change this by enhancing the ability for inner-city kids to play ball by providing fields and equipment.

Baseball as a whole does not encourage players to take political stands or deal with controversial subjects that are more accepted in other sports.  For example, many football players took a knee to show solidarity with those reacting to social injustice.  Only one MLB player took a knee (Oakland’s Bruce Maxwell), and he is no longer in baseball.  Baseball is only focused on winning, and discourse is generally not accepted, making it difficult for black players to speak out on the present national protests over injustices blacks suffer at the hands of police.  You would expect outrage by black players over the recent deaths of unarmed black men, but it just doesn’t happen for the most part.

Ken Rosenthal and Doug Glanville of the Athletic recently have had conversations with retired players. The latter are freer to express their feelings without the fear of rejection or retaliation for their families. Even the most prominent African American baseball stars rarely speak out on sensitive matters during their playing careers. The sport’s culture discourages individuality in any form, and a player who publicly addresses racism often faces a backlash.

Adam Jones was the Orioles’ 2016 Roberto Clemente Award nominee, a five-time All-Star, and four-time Gold Glove, winner. The award recognizes a player “who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy, and positive contributions, both on and off the field,” according to Major League Baseball. Regardless when Jones spoke out against racial injustice in 2017, he was subjected to having peanuts thrown at him and being called the “N” word throughout a game at Fenway Park in Boston.

“I just go out and play baseball,” Jones said. “It’s unfortunate that people need to resort to those type of epithets to degrade another human being. I’m trying to make a living for myself and for my family.”

Once out of the spotlight, former MLB players are more inclined to speak out against injustice, as the Athletic reporters found out.  The Zoom conversations included:

• Glanville, a nine-year major-league veteran who works for various media outlets in addition to The Athletic and serves both on the Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) and Connecticut State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

• Jimmy Rollins, a three-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, and former National League MVP who now works as a studio analyst for TBS and broadcaster for the Phillies.

• Ryan Howard, a three-time All-Star and former NL MVP and Rookie of the Year who spent last season as a studio analyst for ESPN before leaving to focus on his business endeavors, including his sports investment firm, SeventySix Capital.

• Dontrelle Willis, a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year, works as a studio analyst for Fox Sports.

• Torii Hunter, a five-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove winner who works as a special assistant to baseball operations for the Twins.

• LaTroy Hawkins, a 21-year major leaguer who works as a special assistant to baseball operations for the Twins.

This is dramatically edited and with only summaries of some of the comments here.  If you want the whole discussion, go here.

Jimmy Rollins started by saying:

“Obviously, we’ve all been there. It’s just the culture of baseball. It’s not a clubhouse or a home where you’re actually very comfortable walking in saying those things or bringing up those things outside of your little group, three or four guys you can talk about it within the clubhouse or on the field during stretching. It really doesn’t leave that group.”

“As a player, you’re always trying to keep that clubhouse even-keeled and focused on the game. But there are plenty of times you’re going out there with something else on your mind. And having a couple of guys on the team is always good so that you can bounce that off them, so you don’t have to let it explode throughout the clubhouse if somebody does something that rubs you the wrong way.”

Dontrelle Willis added: I agree with you, J-Roll. For me, Jackie Robinson definitely set the tone as far as how to behave through racial adversity. One, because you don’t want to ruin the situation for the next person, for your kids. You don’t want to ruin the chance for someone to play at the highest level.

We’re always taught as a culture to be the bigger person. Have class. Understand the situation, not just for yourself. I always tried to be the bigger person, be a captain, be a leader. But now as I have children growing up and have seen all these things, I have more of a responsibility to myself and to my family to really teach them what’s going on in the real world, so they can have the tools and strength to live the best life they can.

As I said, this is just a smidge of the comments, but all the MLB players interviewed in the Zoom conversation echoed the same feelings.  White players don’t have to deal with this, whereas blacks deal with fear to some degree on the field and in their everyday life, just walking down the street. Until our culture changes and realizes we are all humans, maybe of different colors and from various societies, but all the same, with the same needs of acceptance, little will change.

I have seen a great change in my lifetime, but for those that have their air cut off by a kneeling knee, that change is not fast enough.  We need leaders that will tackle the big problems and stop injustice due to differences in skin color.  We can no longer turn a blind eye to racism in America.

EmpireSportsMedia.com’s Columnist William Parlee is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.  Follow me on Twitter @parleewilliam.