by Sue Austreng
On a dusty mid-summer’s day back in 1947, Jackie Robinson buttoned-up his No. 42 Brooklyn Dodger’s jersey, laced up his cleats and stepped onto Ebbets Field.
History was made that day when Robinson became the first African American baseball player to take the field as a major leaguer.
But Robinson wasn’t the first black man to play ball in an organized baseball league. No, Negro Baseball League players had taken the field, hit the home runs and turned the double plays for already nearly 30 years by the time Robinson stepped on to Ebbets Field.
In fact, major league scouts recruited Robinson from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs.
The Negro Baseball League was established in the 1920s, giving talented and energetic African American ball players a chance to be part of America’s favorite pastime. And they enjoyed the competitive camaraderie until the league folded in 1960. By that time, Major League Baseball had opened its doors to African American players, no longer rejecting the talents and energies of those athletes.
“These guys set the table for us,” Ken Griffey Jr., now-retired African American all star centerfielder, said in a Negro Baseball League documentary written by Byron Motley.
Motley, Negro Baseball League historian and the son of the only living Negro League umpire, stepped up to the plate at Anoka-Ramsey Community College Feb. 22, delivering an impassioned pitch about the Negro League.
“The Negro League was home to some of the game’s greatest athletes – athletes who played with pride, hope and courage. They were some of the greatest athletes ever to play the game,” Motley said.
In fact, the Monarchs was the dominant franchise in the Negro League, Motley said. The Kansas City team won 27 world championships during its 40-year lifespan, he said.
The Negro League also included teams like the Atlanta Black Crackers, the Baltimore Black Sox and the New York Black Yankees.
Andrew “Rube” Foster created the Negro Baseball League Feb. 13, 1920. It was a league that allowed energetic playing time, nationwide travel and a paltry income (some $1,000 a month) for its players.
Although Negro League ball players had to take off-season jobs in order to support their families and pay the bills, their major league counterparts enjoyed lucrative salaries and plenty of perks.
However, it was Negro League players who produced some of the game’s greatest athletes and some of its essential equipment, Motley said.
After narrowly escaping too many “brush back” pitches, Willy Wills invented the batting helmet, wearing a coal miner’s helmet when he stepped up to the plate.
Soon, all Negro League players took to wearing batting helmets. Before long another Negro League player invented shin guards to protect the legs from razor sharp cleats. Now, batting helmets and shin guards are part and parcel to the game of Major League Baseball.
Essential equipment wasn’t the only thing produced by the Negro Baseball League. It produced more than just one history-making athlete.
Leroy “Satchel” Paige pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs, the New York Black Yankees and the Memphis Red Sox before being recruited for Major League Baseball to pitch for the Cleveland Indians.
“At the age of 42, Satchel Paige pitched for the Cleveland Indians, had a 6-1 record and helped the Indians win the World Series. If he was that good at 42 years old, think how good he was in his younger years,” Motley said.
Home run hitter Josh Gibson played for the Negro League’s Pittsburgh Crawfords and once hit the ball out of Yankee Stadium.
“Babe Ruth never did that, but Josh Gibson did,” Motley said. “They called him the black Babe Ruth, but maybe they should have called Babe Ruth the white Josh Gibson, he was that good.”
James “Cool Papa” Bell was another Negro League player who would have made it into the record books, that is if record books were kept in the Negro Baseball League.
“Cool Papa was so fast, if they kept records I’m sure he would have had the stolen base record. They said he was so fast he could turn out the lights and be in bed before the room got dark. That’s fast,” Motley said.
The Negro League was also home field for three outstanding female African American baseball players.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Connie Morgan and Toni Stone took the Negro Baseball League fields right alongside their male counterparts.
In fact, Stone grew up in St. Paul and replaced Hank Aaron at second base for the Indianapolis Clowns when Aaron was called up to the major leagues in 1952.
“Toni Stone replaced Hank Aaron. You know she was good if they picked her to replace Hank Aaron,” Motley said.
Negro League roots go deep: legendary Major League Baseball player Willie Mays’ father played centerfield in the Negro League, Motley said.
Motley, who has dedicated more than a decade of his life to the research and gathering of Negro Baseball League history, is the co-author with his father of the book, “Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants and Stars; An Umpire’s True Tales of Incredible Moments, Legendary Players and Wild Adventures in Negro League Baseball.”
That book, published five years ago, will be returning to bookstores soon, Motley said, and can be pre-ordered on amazon.com.
The author/historian has also written a screenplay about the Negro Leagues and said that the PBS television network is slated to air his documentary, “The Negro Baseball Leagues – An American Legacy.”
Date and time of the PBS broadcast has not yet been determined, Motley said.
Producer/director Penny Marshall has signed on to make his Negro Baseball League screenplay into a movie for the big screen, he said.
To learn more about the Negro Baseball League, visit www.negroleaguebaseball.com or stop by the Negro League Baseball Museum located in Kansas City, Mo. More about the museum can be found at www.nlbm.com.
Sue Austreng is at [email protected]