The most famous and influential baseball player in the earliest days of professional baseball, and when I said earliest days, that literally means a few years after the Civil War ended, was Cap Anson. Anson is said to be the first player to record 3,000 hits, although poor record keeping and a clear definition of “professional baseball” can put his mark between 2,995 hits to over 3,300. He was the game’s first superstar, and was a successful coach and minority owner for the Chicago Cubs, then known as the White Stockings.
That being said, a major part of Cap Anson’s legacy, today, probably his longest lasting influence on the game, is something much darker than success on the diamond. Anson was a vehement racist. In 1883, as a player/coach for the White Stockings, Anson’s team went up against the Toledo Blue Stockings, who featured black catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker. Anson was about to pull his team off the field before being threatened with forfeiture of the game and the gate receipts for the exhibition game. All this, despite the fact that Walker was injured and not playing!
Between 1884-87, black players in the Major Leagues was not that surprising, despite the obvious racial makeup of the country at the time. About 20 African Americans played in the league at the time. July 14, 1887 was an important and infamous day in the history of baseball. Again, Anson’s White Stockings faced off against the Newark Little Giants. A pitcher on the Giants, George Stovey, is considered the best African American pitcher of the 19th century, the Satchel Paige of his time. Anson instead, referred to Stovey by another name.
“Get that n*gger off the field” could be heard from the White Stockings dugout from Anson’s mouth. Anson, a big enough name, caused enough of a stir to have Stovey sit out the game. The next day, the owners of the International League agreed to not sign any more black players. The National League and American Association followed suit letting the players of color finish their careers without signing anymore black or brown players, and by 1897, the game was as white as snow for fifty years.
In that half a century, baseball saw some of its greatest players and performers take the stage on a more welcoming and colorful field. In Kansas City, Missouri, within seeing distance of Kauffman Stadium, lies a 10,000 square foot facility that pays tribute to black and brown skin players who played the highest form of baseball outside of the Majors, the Negro League Baseball Museum.
The best way to describe the museum is as a screaming reminder of both a glorious and celebrated past of the culture of black baseball and a vile reminder of the racist past that pushed them to the benches. Today, in a sport that has been attempting to generate more excitement towards their younger fans, the exciting play of Negro League Baseball was the hottest show in town, with stands filled with a passionate African American audience dressed in their best clothes to see the power generated from the bat of Josh Gibson, the showmanship and dominance on the mound from Satchel Paige and the blurry image of Cool Papa Bell running the bases.
There are stories in the history of the sport that could snag the average joe or jane like a ball hit to Oscar Charleston. Buck O’Neil regaling in his elder age about the sound that balls off the bats of Josh Gibson, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Bo Jackson to the Satchel Paige’s All Star team playing for their lives in Cuba are stories passed down in oral tradition, like a modern day Homeric tale to the local townspeople, hearing stories of a the past.
The story of the Negro League does not end with April 15, 1947 when Jackie Robinson played his first Major League game. It doesn’t end with the final Negro League game. It does not end in 1959, when, through force, the Boston Red Soxs became last team to integrate (maybe if they took the same progressive approach as their neighbor, the Celtics, they wouldn’t had to wait until 2004 to win a championship) or even today. With more and more Negro League players being recognized and honored with inductions in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY and individual teams scheduling games and days to honor teams and players, the Negro League story will be told as long as baseball is played in this country.