I think in the annals of American history, perhaps the ultimate good news, bad news situation is Negro League baseball.
The good news, of course, is that for roughly the first half of the 20th century, black entrepreneurs and visionaries like Rube Foster and Gus Greenlee organized a fantastic article of baseball featuring stars such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Double Duty Radcliffe, Martin Dihigo, Ray Dandridge and Buck Leonard. That, of course, is a very partial list; a longer one would also include Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella, among many others.
The bad news, of course, is that the only reason those guys needed the Negro Leagues is because systematic bigotry kept them out of organized white baseball, i.e. the American and National leagues. They were plenty good enough to compete against the players recognized as the nation’s best; their skin was just deemed the wrong color by the people who ran baseball, and that’s a tragedy.
Unless you live on the moon, you probably are aware that Sunday, April 15, was Jackie Robinson Day, commemorating the date in 1947 that Robinson broke the big leagues’ color barrier as the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers; Robinson would later earn acclaim as one of the game’s top second baseman, but that day he was in the lineup at first.
Anyway, the principal at Oak Grove Elementary School in Albany, Rich Sipe, is like yours truly a big fan of baseball, including baseball history, and one week each April he uses the story of Robinson and the Negro Leagues to teach his students about things like courage, tolerance, perseverance, toughness, etc.
Jackie Robinson Week at Oak Grove kicked off Monday morning with an assembly, and I was on hand at Rich’s behest to talk about the Negro Leagues and what those players had to endure. Speaking to the kids was a blast.
I donned my Kansas City Monarchs jersey — that was the Negro League team Jackie played for — and Brooklyn Dodgers cap and brought a couple other props as well: A 1940s glove, and a Jackie Robinson model Louisville Slugger.
Here I am, just after talking to the roughly 300 students:
Btw, if you look close you will see in the background, just off my left ear, an old-school basketball scoreboard straight out of “Hoosiers” or the Chip Hilton Sports Series. I asked Rich if it still worked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“If the district ever is going to get rid of that, I want it,” I said.
Rich, of course, also spoke at the assembly, seeing how he runs the school and all. Here he is, reading a book about Jackie, and in the foreground is another guest, Mac the Knight, mascot of the Corvallis Knights:
I outfitted Rich in a Pittsburgh Crawfords jersey for the occasion. The Crawfords were owned by Greenlee, king of the numbers racket in Pittsburgh in the 1930s; it was a legal business back then.
Rich, meanwhile, was kind enough to pass along to me a 1940s Wilson first baseman’s mitt that another friend of his had picked up, I think at a garage sale, and given to him just because he knew he liked baseball. Rich, knowing I collect vintage gloves, offered it to me. Thanks again, Rich. I’d have come out to your school anyway, but the glove is super sweet.