Baseball had a chance.
It was 1869. The Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia played the Philadelphia Olympics. Not a well-pitched game: Olympics 44, Pythian 23.
It was noteworthy, however, because Pythian were black and the Olympics were white, and against each other, they made for baseball’s first recorded interracial game.
“Two decades later, the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ of 1887 between white professional baseball teams excluded all black players from participation, leading to the eventual creation of the Negro Leagues,” wrote Stephen Segal in the journal “The Historian” in 2012. “Rather than continuing racial progress after 1869, blacks went backwards in terms of equality in organized baseball. The story of the Pythian Club exemplifies yet another example of how African American dreams of equality were shattered and unfulfilled during the period of Reconstruction.”
But you won’t hear that explained on Sunday as baseball marks the centennial birth of the Negro Leagues. Instead, Major League Baseball will cover it up with a 100th anniversary logo patch on players’ uniforms in Sunday’s games. Pat itself on the back for joining the players’ union in making a $1 million contribution to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Have some virtual conversations in pandemic-empty stadiums about some of the black men who made for great tales over a 60-year span playing just among themselves.
Few entities have done better than baseball at whitewashing an ignominious history. One need only look at how the game commodified Jackie Robinson into a national celebration in the 1990s, while wrongfully alluding to him as its first black player – Fleetwood Walker predated Robinson as the major’s first black player by six decades – and ignoring its policy that dashed countless black men’s dreams of playing big league baseball over three generations simply because of their heritage.
In this summer of America’s racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a white policeman, what baseball is doing Sunday in remembering the Negro Leagues doesn’t correct the record. It doesn’t measure up to the remedies to systemic racism in all corners of society, as protests have forced hiring practice changes, government budget reshuffling to better address the ravages of inequities and even the toppling of monuments to it all, like those of Confederate leaders, of Christopher Columbus and of the bigoted white founder and owner of Washington’s NFL franchise, which for 87 years boasted a racial slur as its name.
What baseball should do on Sunday is acknowledge its role in creating the segregated baseball league it is commemorating. It should tell the story of another baseball game on Aug. 10, 1883, between Chicago and Toledo, the former of which was run by the most influential baseball personality of the 19th century, Cap Anson, and the latter of which featured a black catcher, the aforementioned Walker.
One of several baseball historians and researchers to recount the contest, John Husman, dug up from the Toledo Blade what seems to be the lone surviving news report of the game for the Society for American Baseball Research.
“Walker, the colored catcher of the Toledo Club … was a source of contention between the home club and … the Chicago Club,” the paper reported.
” … The Toledo Club was … informed that there was objection in the Chicago Club to Toledo’s playing Walker. …The visitors … declared with the swagger for which they are noted, that they would play ball ‘with no d—-d n—-r.’ “
Anson relented and played against Walker that day, the story goes. But Husman noted that in the years after: “Anson made good his bold statement. Chicago was at Toledo again in 1884 but this time Walker did not play. The reason is not clear, but Chicago had requested assurance in writing that no black would play any position in the July 25 exhibition game.
Anson “was not entirely responsible for baseball’s more than half-century of segregation,” Husman concluded, “but he had a lot to do with it. The incident of August 10, 1883, in Toledo certainly brought the issue to the forefront and began an open, blatant, and successful effort to bar black players from Organized Baseball.”
Other historians have been even more certain about Anson sowing the seeds that created a field of nightmares for hopeful black baseball players, from which the Negro Leagues eventually sprang. Either way, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown has never seen fit to add Anson’s most indelible mark on its game to his plaque.
I’ve argued numerous times that it should, because this act didn’t just impact baseball. Every other sport followed baseball’s lead as America’s pastime and refused to let the progeny of enslaved Africans participate in its games. Baseball, like sport as a whole, was never a leader in social justice. It was a facilitator in social injustice, and never before has the time so clearly screamed for it to admit as much and edit its narrative.
The Hall informed me Saturday that after a meeting last month of its Board of Directors concerning Anson’s plaque, it decided to leave it as is.
“Rather, the Board voted to install language at the entrance of the Plaque Gallery that explains that the full impact that Members of the Hall of Fame have had on the sport are addressed within the Museum exhibits,” a museum spokesman wrote in an email. “The Board also asked that our Pride and Passion exhibit, which is dedicated to the African American Baseball Experience, be renamed and enhanced to fully address the history of racial segregation in baseball, including Cap Anson’s role in establishing the 60-year stretch of segregation that preceded Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the Color Barrier in 1947.”
This is a step in the right direction, after a summer in which we’ve witnessed NASCAR acknowledge its role in normalizing Confederate imagery when it decided, finally, to ban Confederate flags.
A summer in which a historical contextualization was added to HBO Max’s streaming of “Gone With the Wind,” which portrayed “the Antebellum South as a world of grace and beauty without acknowledging the brutalities of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based,” as the new explanation noted.
A summer in which several House Democrats wrote a letter to baseball supporting the retired star players who had called for the name of legendary baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to be pulled from the sport’s MVP trophies because Landis perpetuated baseball’s racial segregation during the first half of the last century.
The Ringer even reported Friday that Major League Baseball was exploring including individual Negro Leagues’ records in its official books. Still, that’s more appeasement than reconciliation.
How about just starting at the beginning? Answer the question: “Why did Black ballplayers need the Negro Leagues in the first place?”
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Blackistone is an ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.