For half a century, Black ballplayers wanted to play in the major leagues, but they had no place for them. So they were left to form a league of their own — a league with Black owners, Black managers and Black ballplayers who rivaled those in the bigs.
“Ultimately, it was the only sports league we ever owned,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
Kendrick would be the first to tell people that the Black stars shined as brightly as any major league star and they deserved the same recognition. Assimilation might have led to the destruction of their leagues. It shouldn’t, however, have led baseball fans to see it as an inferior league. Its story and stars such as Rube Foster, Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson deserved the media attention and public adulation that went to Walter Johnson, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Cochrane.
They will soon receive their due. And they’ll get it in the place that matters most to fans: the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame officials have embarked on a plan to update their Black baseball exhibit, called Pride and Passion. They have assembled a five-person committee of Negro Leagues historians and baseball experts to guide the expansion, said Jon Shestakofsky, vice president of communication and education for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“I think, from our standpoint, we’ve been looking at the exhibit that we’ve had in place for 25 years or so,” Shestakofsky said. “And knowing that it needed to change, we’d actually had some conversations about how best to go about updating it.
“I think when MLB did make its change, it just furthered our process a little bit to ensure that we were moving in the right direction.”
The change that Shestakofsky referenced was significant. In 2020, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the statistical records of Black baseball would count just like those of major leaguers.
“I’ve said this on a number of occasions,” Kendrick said. “What commissioner Manfred did was what others could have done and didn’t do.”
The MLB and the Hall of Fame operate separately, so what Manfred did had no bearing on the Hall, a nonprofit, educational institution, and its decision to paint a broader picture of Black baseball.
When MLB did make its change, Shestakofsky said, it just further pushed the Hall to ensure it was moving in the right direction. It wanted to build an accurate timeline for Black baseball.
The Hall of Fame had recognized aspects of Black baseball even before its exhibition existed. Recognition of its stars dated to the induction in 1971 of right-hander Satchel Paige, the first Hall electee of the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues.
In its exhibit, the Hall plans to spotlight some of the lesser known players who shaped the Negro Leagues and its forerunners. For every ballplayer of Satchel’s standing, teams suited up complementary talents such as catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and pitcher Hilton Smith, and boasted forward-thinking owners such as Foster and Gus Greenlee.
Their stories need to be told, just as the stories of Monte Irvin, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and their careers in the Negro Leagues need a mention beyond what they did in the bigs. The narratives about those stars start in the Negro Leagues, a fact some fans of the game have forgotten, if they ever knew.
Shestakofsky said the Hall didn’t have the expertise in-house to ensure it told those stories with honesty, thoughtfulness and authenticity, prompting officials to reach beyond its offices for help.
The help the Hall of Fame assembled is made up of Leslie Heaphy, Larry Lester and Rob Ruck, three respected historians who were part of a 2006 committee that selected Mule Suttles, José Méndez, Effa Manley, Cum Posey and 13 other figures from Black baseball for induction into the Hall.
The mission of the committee is simple: to show that Black people always played baseball.
“We want to take the exhibition all the way back to the pre-Civil War, back during slavery,” said Lester, a co-founder of the Negro Leagues Museum. “I mean, we’ve had that information. It’s never been shared.”
Misconceptions about Black baseball run deep. Lester, Heaphy, Ruck, Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips, who wrote I Just Want Them to Remember Me: Black Baseball in America, were assigned to consult with the Hall and to correct any historical errors.
Committee members went to Cooperstown, New York, last week to continue their discussions. The Hall welcomes their willingness to pitch in.
“Obviously, we need to look outside of ourselves to make sure we’re doing this the right way,” Shestakofsky said. “So, we put together two different groups in addition to our internal team, which is pretty expansive when you consider that we’re only a staff of about 80 full-time people.”
The second committee has 40 members, and it includes several Hall of Famers, such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Andre Dawson, plus baseball experts such as sportswriter Claire Smith and Tony Reagins, the chief baseball development officer for the MLB.
Whatever the expanded exhibit looks like, it will consist of aspects of storytelling that were unavailable to curators at the turn of the millennium, Shestakofsky said. Their ability to tell riveting stories through animation will make exhibits less static and more interactive.
Shestakofsky pointed out that the Hall has no plans to rush the expansion of the Negro Leagues display. It does have a time frame.
“Yeah, I think we’re pretty locked into the debut date, April 2024,” he said. “We’ll be looking to open the exhibit then.”