by John Wakelin, Special to the Roundup
Editor’s note: We asked John Wakelin to write the following account of the little-known story of the Negro Leagues in baseball, after learning that his rare collection of baseball cards for the leagues and their players will be on display this month in the Payson Public Library.
While hard to believe, there was a time when you could not play major or minor league baseball in America if you were black. For me, this revelation came to light after reading former Boston Celtic great Bill Russell’s autobiography “Go Up for Glory.”
While at the University of San Francisco, Russell’s team won the NCAA championship in 1956. This he followed up with a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics held in Melbourne, Australia and then the 1957 NBA championship with the Boston Celtics.
As a result of his accomplishments, Russell was invited to the White House to visit with President Eisenhower. After his visit, he drove home with family, but couldn’t find a restaurant or restroom along the way without enduring insults because he was black.
In his own words, “It was great that I could be a national champion. It was great that I could meet with the president of the United States in the White House. But from Washington to Louisiana and all the way back across the Deep South, I was just another black boy, just so much dirt, with no rights, with no element of human courtesy or decency shown to me or mine.”
How could this be? In America? What about baseball? To my horror, the same story.
We remember Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Jim Gilliam, Monte Irvin, Jackie Robinson, Elston Howard and Minnie Minoso.
But most don’t know about the Birmingham Black Barons, Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles, Kansas City Monarchs, Baltimore Elite Giants, the Indianapolis Clowns or the New York Cubans. They all played for these teams in the Negro Leagues before the end of segregation in 1946 allowed them to finally play in the white man’s minor and major league baseball leagues.
In the spring of 1943, Jorge Pasquel, one of the creators and owners of the Mexican Leagues wanted two Negro League players — Theolic “Fireball” Smith and Quincy Trouppe –- to come play for him on his Veracruz team. Their job classifications at a defense plant prevented them from leaving the country. Jorge contacted his friend, Miguel Aleman, Interior Secretary for Mexico. In the book, “South of the Color Barrier” by John Virtue, we learn that “the representative from Mexico told me that they had loaned the United States 80,000 workers to fill the manpower shortage caused by the war, and that all they had asked in return were two ballplayers — Quincy Trouppe and Theolic Smith.”
Many remember Curt Flood of the St Louis Cardinals. He was instrumental in bringing free agency to Major League Baseball. In the book, “A Well Paid Slave,” author Brad Snyder tells the story of Flood’s days with Savannah in the minors of the Carolina League.
“Flood peeled his only uniform and threw it into a pile with those of his white teammates. The team trainer yelled ... extricated Flood’s uniform and jockstrap from the pile with a long stick with a nail on it and sent his clothes to the black laundry 20 minutes away. Flood cried as he sat naked waiting for his uniform to arrive ... he could not even wait in the same section of the clubhouse as his white teammates.”
If you get the chance, go see the movies “The Butler” or “42.” It’s sad but true. Or stop by the Payson Public Library across from the periodicals section and see the display, the books, the baseball cards and the pictures of these brave men who crossed the line of segregation and brought us the game of baseball that we treasure today from days gone by. At the end of the day, all they wanted to do was play ball!