By Dennis J. Freeman
Compton-Negro League Baseball will not be forgotten. But there are some former big league stars who want to make sure the players and their contributions to the sport will not be left behind.
This past weekend all-time baseball greats Maury Wills, “Sweet” Lou Johnson, Al Downing, Dave Stewart, Tommy Davis and Jim “Mudcat” Grant made their way to Compton to help promote baseball to the black community by participating in numerous activities, including Major League Baseball’s annual Urban Invitational and a ceremony dedicated to Negro League ballplayers.
One thing is for sure is that the old-timers are not about to let go of the past. They certainly don’t want this generation of computer geeks, electronic game hawks and instant gratification crowd to lose what they’ve worked and sacrificed for.
Johnson, best known for his Game 7 home run of the 1965 World Series, which lifted the Los Angeles Dodgers to the title that year, said today’s young people owe some gratitude to the pioneers who came before them.
“They owe us something,” Johnson said at a ceremony honoring Negro League stars in Compton. “They don’t know what it is. It’s not money. It is integrity. It’s success. We have fought for them. They don’t have to fight anymore. What they do have to do is stand up and be recognized and do it with pride.”
That pride is based on knowing where you come from. With the fast dwindling numbers of African Americans playing baseball in the major leagues, the iconic stature of the Negro Leagues could be in jeopardy of slipping into obscurity.
That won’t happen if John Young has anything to say about it. Young, founder of Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI), and a former major league player and scout, said it is imperative for him and others to keep the memory of the Negro Leagues alive.
“My fear is that they’re going to be forgotten,” Young said. “This is like a very important part of history. The Negro Baseball League was the second-largest business in the black community. These were some of the greatest athletes in the world. I have nightmares wondering if they’re going to be forgotten. The way to keep the legacy alive is through the children.
“The time was so exciting. You look at all the players now who have benefitted it…The Negro Leagues kept baseball alive. It was a segregated sport. The feats of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, made it possible for Jimmy Rollins (Philadelphia Phillies) and C.C. Sabathia (New York Yankees) to do what they’re doing. It was a pride that the black community had. It was such a fabric in baseball. It was huge.”
When one thinks of the Negro Leagues-names like Rube Foster, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearnes, Buck Leonard, Pete Hill, Willard Brown, Cool Papa Bell, Buck O’Neil and Effa Manley come to mind. Nearly three dozen individuals who played in the Negro Leagues have made it into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
The wizardry and excitement of the Negro Leagues brought pride and joy to the black community. Without assistance from a television set, catching a Negro Leagues’ game would be a thrill for so many people.
Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace Al Downing recalls how big the Negro Leagues were when he was a kid and what those players meant to the black community. Growing up in the Jim Crow era, Downing made his own mark in baseball history by serving up Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. Aaron’s home-run moved the former Atlanta Braves star past New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list.
Aaron, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League, was the last player from the league to make it in the major leagues. Downing said the accomplishments of black baseball players outside of the feats of Aaron, Willie Mays, have been largely ignored.
“It’s been totally forgotten,” said Downing. “It was forgotten long before ESPN. It was forgotten once the league was dissipated in 1965. Initially, I guess, that major league thought that maybe one or two guys would come out of the Negro League. We, as it were, you had one or two guys per team. They just dissipated the talents in the Negro Leagues.
“Mainstream America did not pay attention to the fact that all of these players had come from the Negro Leagues, almost like they sprouted from everywhere. As a young man growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, the Negro Leagues was our major leagues. They were our Babe Ruths, our Lou Gehrigs and whoever. The Negro Leagues were the springboard for everything.”