Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cleaning Baseball Of Its Jim Crow Past

Baseball has been living a lie. Invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 to be "America's game," it proceeded to draw the most un-American lines - lines designed to exclude African-Americans from the game. In what they called a "gentleman's agreement," organized baseball erected a color bar against black men that lasted until 1946. And for the next 173 years, it has lied to itself, to the American people, and to the world. It is the kind of lie that has left baseball in a perpetual state of fear (of being found out). At times, like during all-star games between white Major Leaguers and Negro League players, "organized baseball" has had trouble breathing.

This past month, they celebrated 100 years of baseball in Boston's venerable Fenway Park - harking back to that glorious day in 1912 when the Boston Red Sox (formerly the Boston Americans) played the New York Highlanders, (re-named the "Yankees" in 1913). Glorious? It was Jim Crow baseball. It would be 47 years after that "glorious day" - nearly half of Fenway's existence - before the first black man, Elijah Green, was allowed to join the team in 1959. How do we celebrate injustice in this country without wincing with each "hurrah!"?

It is time the era of Jim Crow baseball was put in its play - separated from the myth that made legends of men like Ty Cobb, who practiced his bigotry with the same zeal with which he played the game; and men like commissioner Kenesaw Landis who, from 1920 to 1944, guarded the gates like fanged Cerberus.

Let us put an asterisk around all of Jim Crow baseball now - around it hallowed moments, its stars, their hallowed records. Speak no more of Cy Young and Ty Cobb, old Ebbets Field, Roger Hornsby, and Babe Ruth, lest you preference those remarks with an asterisk that states:  THESE MEN PLAYED BASEBALL DURING THE JIM CROW ERA WHEN AFRICAN-AMERICAN MEN WERE NOT ALLOWED TO COMPETE AGAINST THEM.

If some of the greatest ballplayers of the time were not allowed to compete (because they were the wrong color), how could any of the records compiled during that era not deserve an asterisk? How could Babe Ruth be the "greatest baseball player of all time," as ESPN's Tim Kurkjian recently proclaimed, when men his equal, or better, were not allowed to challenged him on the same field where he won his accolades?

It am not saying, "Throw out the 'Jim Crow' records." I am saying, put them in their proper context. You think that will diminish the game they played? Baseball did that when it committed its sins of apartheid.

Time to integrate Negro League baseball - its stars, their records - into the fabric of baseball history. If that means Cy Young is no longer baseball's winningest pitcher, so what? What is will really means is that he was only baseball's winningest pitcher until Smokey Joe Williams and Satchel Paige both passed him by over 50 years ago.

Once you've asterisked Jim Crow baseball, put Negro League baseball into its proper context. Negro League baseball was "organized," too. It was also more "American" than the Jim Crow baseball we persist in celebrating. Where Jim Crow base ball excluded African-Americans, Negro League baseball included all men - black, white, Hispanic. Even a woman made the roster of a Negro League club. She was Toni Stone; here father had played in the Negro Leagues. She began playing in the Negro League's minor league system, for the New Orleans Creoles in 1949. She made it to the Negro majors in 1953 where she played a single season for the Indianapolis Clowns, and hit .243. The following year, she retired.

So what if her stint in the league was an attempt at boosting gate receipts. She was given a shot. In other words, if you were able to play, you were given a chance to play in the Negro Leagues. In that way, Negro League baseball was a true reflection of what America aspired to be: "The land of opportunity."

There will be no integrity in baseball until it expunges its racist past by incorporating that which it has feared most - Negro League players. Yes, the record books will change - they will become more honest. And, look on the bright side: Once baseball has taken that grand step, it will have solved its Barry Bonds problem in a fell swoop - you know, the one neither A-Rod nor Pujols can solve because both men are running out of gas. Josh Gibson, with his 962 career home runs, will rescue baseball and its most cherished record from all taint of steroids. He will do it at the same time he helps cleanse baseball of the taint of Jim Crow.

A wise mans once said, "That which you fear shall haunt you until you confront it." It was the same way with slavery. After 250 years, the South predicted such a mass emancipation would disrupt all of American society. So? Was that any reason to keep a race of people enslaved longer? Of course not. It was not their fault that they had to be freed. Any disruptions that mass emancipation created was the price America had to pay for committing such crimes against humanity in the first place.

Same thing with Jim Crow baseball. any disruptions caused by opening baseball's doors to Negro League stars and their records, is the price baseball must pay for denying these men their full rights as American citizens in the beginning.

Of course, Major League baseball will resist. It is in its nature - an instinct honed over years of misplaced persecutions and unwarranted fears. They will say that they do not trust the validity of Negro League records. Why, then, should anyone trust the records of Jim Crow baseball?

Is Josh Gibson's 962 career home runs any more fantastic than Cy Young's 511 pitching victories compiled from 1890 - 1911? (Three of the greatest pitchers of the modern era - Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Roger Clemens - won only 311, 325, 341 games, respectively.) Neither is Gibson's 84 home runs in 1936 - the true single season record for home runs, (not Bonds 73) - any more incredible than Jack Chesbro winning 41 games in 1904, and Ed Walsh winning 40 games in a single season four years later.

The African-American community put its love of baseball into the hands of those Negro League players and scorekeepers, just as the white community put its love of the game into the hands of Major League Baseball. They are the same hands - American hands. It is the same love - American love.

Men and scorekeepers; scorekeepers and men. You cannot beat the man, so you attack the scorekeeper? Is that all you got, baseball; is that your last line of defense against your African-American brethren?

Enough! You are the scorekeeper - you kept score at the gates of Jim Crow. Now you want to blame your victims for not being the great scorekeeper you were. As Abe Lincoln would say, "That stunt won't scow."

Time to put Josh Gibson's and Buck Leonard's numbers alongside those of their contemporaries - Ruth, Gehrig, and Hornsby. So, too, must Satchel Paige's and Smokey Joe Williams' career pitching stats take their rightful place alongside those of Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and Grover Alexander Cleveland. These men not only played in a league the equal of the "Majors," but when it came to "put-up time" - in head-to-head matches, the Negro League players defeated the Major leaguers where it counted: on the field, between the lines.

Pitcher Smokey Joe Williams, alone, was 20-7 against Major league competition. Josh Gibson, who hit .347 over a 17 year career in the Negro Leagues, hit .426 against Major league pitching. So says your scorekeepers, scorekeeper.

The gig is up. Kenesaw Landis is dead; so is Jim Crow baseball. Time to scrape away the last vestiges of that sorry period in American sports history. Release baseball from that musty dungeon so that it can breathe; so that it can experience this rebirth. Time baseball claimed the integrity it has never had. Time it reclaimed its infinite mystique.

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