Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King is the only non-presidential individual to have his birthday marked as a federal holiday. Even more interesting, I think, is the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated in other countries, to varying degrees. Dr. King is, after all, synonymous with the peaceful message of basic equality, tolerance, and the respect of human dignity, regardless of race, religion, creed, and so on.
In the wider world, Dr. King is often seen as the symbol of human equality, and the plight for obtaining it. In the sphere of baseball, Jackie Robinson occupies that role. Robinson and King knew each other quite well, in fact, with their respective plights, tactics, and goals mirroring each other. Robinson was a supporter of King's goals and methods, as was King of Robinson. In fact, King once said, "Jackie Robinson made it possible for me in the first place. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did."
More so than steroids, amphetamines, gambling scandals, spitballs, and the variety of things that players have done that generally embarrassed the sport of baseball (looking at things from a "holier-than-thou" attitude that many in the media, and those influenced by the media, take), the color barrier that prevented Black and certain Latin players from playing on MLB teams is the biggest embarrassment that Major League Baseball has to deal with in it's long history.
It is true that baseball was not alone in the segregation of Blacks and Whites- almost all of American society, to varying degrees, engaged in passive or active segregation of some form. In 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players decreed that "any club including one or more colored persons" would be banned. When the NABBP metamorphasized into various other leagues, among them the International League, American League, National Leagues, these rules laxed, and occasionally, teams fielded colored players, but both official declarations and gentlemen's agreements reinstituted the color barrier, especially after influential players, such as Cap Anson publicly went on record as refusing to take the field playing with or against African-Americans and/or dark-skinned Hispanics. In later years, baseball commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis would go out of his way to ensure that the "separate but equal" doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson was in effect in Major League Baseball, and that Blacks and Whites did not play on the same teams, with or against each other.
Being unofficially banned from playing organized baseball in the MLB did not stop colored athletes of the era from playing on amateur and semi-pro teams that would have them, as well as forming their own leagues and teams. From the turn of the 1900s to the 1950s, various teams in various leagues- collectively known as the Negro Leagues- organized games, tournaments, and made thousands and thousands of dollars (as was the case with the MLB, more often than not, organizers and team owners saw the majority of these proceeds, with players only receiving relative chump change). Among the many Negro League teams, many stand out- the Kansas City Monarchs, the Baltimore Elite Giants, the Newark Eagles, the New York Black Yankees, the Homestead Grays, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, among others. These teams engaged in barnstorming tours with teams represented by and composed of numerous Major League players- Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller are among the most famous and celebrated MLB barnstormers- and proved beyond a reasonable doubt that colored ballplayers were in no means inferior to White ballplayers. Talent and ability were universal mores that were not limited by skin color.
Among the heyday of the Negro Leagues, numerous teams played, and various stars separated themselves as the cream of the blackball crop. In national newspapers, sadly, the Negro League teams and players rarely got much press coverage. At the same time, Black newspapers, often because of budget or space constraints, were unable to cover every game as well. This meant that, to this day, so much of what actually happened in so many games has been lost to the sands of time, and only survive in the minds of those who were there- an age group that is rapidly dwindling before our eyes. This lack of concrete information has caused so many Negro League greats to be forgotten. Be honest- how familiar are you with Oscar Charleston, a sensational defensive center fielder who was a true five-tool player, who was ranked by Bill James many years after his death as the fourth-best baseball player of all time? Or Judy Johnson, a third baseman with the defensive prowess of Brooks Robinson and the offensive prowess of George Brett? Or "Double Duty "Radcliffe, the oldest man to throw a pitch at a baseball game (he was 103 when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the White Sox in 2005), who both pitched and caught- and he excelled at both, as well as hitting? How about "Turkey" Stearnes, the sensational center fielder whose lifetime batting average (.350) was almost double his average playing weight (165 lbs.)? The list goes on and on. Three of those four, Johnson, Charleston, and Stearnes are Hall of Famers, to boot, inducted in 1975, 1976, and 2000, respectively.
As a sort of silver lining, in my own mind, this gives so much of Negro League baseball a mythic feel to it. Cool Papa Bell, for example, was said to have been so fast that "you can turn off the light and be under the covers before the room gets dark!" With this is no doubt an exaggeration on the part of Satchel Paige (another legendary and mythic persona in his own right) on behalf of Bell, it gives Bell's speed a sort of mythic, Herculean quality, one that might not exist had Bell's speed been better documented and measured. We all know that Jose Reyes is fast, can time the total time it takes for him to round the bases, but do flowery, anecdotal stories exist that paint his blazing speed in such light? Josh Gibson is said to have hit almost 800 home runs in his career, though only about 200 are actually documented. In one story, he is said to have hit a ball so far and high during a twilight game that it disappeared from view. The next day, when the same teams played around the same time, a ball supposedly fell from the sky somewhere, and was caught by an outfielder, prompting the umpire to call Gibson "out- in Pittsburgh, yesterday!" Some of his prolific power might have been fabricated, but those fabrications further perpetuate and fuel the myth of Josh Gibson, which, in turn, further perpetuates and fuels Major League Baseball, an often-times mythic entity in its own right.
The Negro Leagues began folding shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League, and Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League, casting aside the baseball social mores that prohibited teams from signing colored players, something most began doing en masse (with the famous exceptions being the Yankees and the Red Sox). By the end of the 1950s, the institution was dead- the sole exception were the Indianapolis Clowns, but by that point, they all but stopped fielding competitive teams in lieu of comic acts and entertainment- a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters. The end of the Negro Leagues was bittersweet, however. Their purpose was to give Black and Hispanic ballplayers who were unfairly barred from the Major Leagues an outlet to exhibit their talents. With the color barrier eliminated, and these men free to play in the MLB, there simply was no more reason for the Negro Leagues. The year 1971 would see a Major League ballclub, the Pittsburgh Pirates, field an all-Black/Hispanic starting lineup, on September 1st. Rennie Stennett, Gene Clines, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, and Jackie Hernandez, compromised the starting lineup, while Dock Ellis.
The Mets were formed and began operating long after the color barrier was broken, and by then, black ballplayers were no longer uncommon. Sadly, the Mets are not without unfortunate racial incidents of their own. The most famous- and most consequential- took place in 1966, when the New York Mets, in their first selection in the 1966 Amateur Draft, the second selection overall, selected catcher Steve Chilcott. The Kansas Athletics, who drafted next, selected outfielder Reggie Jackson. As we all know, Jackson would go on to become a Hall of Famer, while Chilcott never made it to the MLB, because of various injuries. According to Jackson, the Mets passed over Reggie because of the fact that they were concerned over character issues he had- mainly, the fact that he had a white girlfriend, as was known to prefer white women over black women. Joe McDonald, Director of Minor League Operations and Scouting at the time, stated that the Mets bypassed Jackson because they were drafting according to need, and at the time, they needed a catcher. Steve Chilcott, though his career never panned out, was highly regarded- he wouldn't have been such a high draft pick if he wasn't. At the same time, however, George Weiss, the Mets GM at the time, was known as a racist and bigot. Part of the reason that the Yankees (he was their Minor League coordinator in the late ‘50s) went into a steep decline after their dominance in the 1950s was because Weiss specifically did not want to draft and/or sign Black and/or Latin players (many of whom were stars in the Negro Leagues). It is more than likely that Weiss' bigoted attitudes influenced the Mets' decision to pass over Jackson. Had the Mets drafted Jackson, who knows what might have happened?
Various Black and Latin players donned the Mets uniform over the years. The first to do so were Charlie Neal and Felix Mantilla, who did so in 1962. The Amazin' Miracle Mets had a trio of Black players who were instrumental in the team winning its first World Series victory. Cleon Jones was the first to appear in a Mets uniform, debuting in 1963, but finally sticking as a starter in 1966. An All-Star in 1969, Jones is best remembered for being benched by Gil Hodges after not hustling after a ball (though, according to Jones, in reality, he had actually hurt his ankle, but let the team think that Gil had pulled him for that reason, to re-instill a sense of ‘duty' in all players on the team), as well as the shoe-polish ball. In 1991, Cleon Jones was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. Tommie Agee joined the club in 1968, and is best remembered for making a pair of amazing catches during Game 3 of the World Series (as well as hitting a home run off of Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer), as well as being the only Met player to ever hit a home run into Shea Stadium's left field upper deck (specifically, Section 48, about halfway up). Donn Clendenon joined the Mets a year later, and became the eventual 1969 World Series MVP with his tremendous .357/.438/1.071 slash line. Tommy Agee was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 2002.
The Mets of the 1980s featured a trio of Black players, who were instrumental to the team winning the World Series in 1986. Mookie Wilson was the first to debut, making brief appearances in 1980 and 1981 before becoming a full-time starter in 1982. Mookie set team records for stolen bases and triples, that would stand for years, but he's best remembered for the Bill Buckner play in Game 6 of the World Series- an at-bat where he deftly jumped out of the way of a wild pitch to allow the tying run to score, and then outran the most famous "little roller up along first" in Mets history as the Mets came back to win the game- and eventually, the series. In 1993, Mookie Wilson was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. Darryl Strawberry came next, debuting in a 1983 season that would earn him Rookie of the Year honors. The eventual six-time All Star would spend eight years with the Mets, and during that span, Darryl hit .263/.359/.520, while flashing excellent speed and a plus glove- qualities that should have netted him an MVP Award in 1988. In 2010, Darryl Strawberry was elected into the Mets Hall of Fame. Last, but certainly not least, was Doc Gooden, who debuted in 1984 with a record-setting Rookie of the Year campaign. As amazingly good as he was in 1984, Gooden outdid himself, pitching one of the most statistically dominating seasons in baseball history, good for the 1985 Cy Young Award. Twenty-four wins, sixteen complete games, eight shutouts, 276.2 innings pitched, 8.72 strikeouts per nine innings, a 2.13 FIP, a 1.53 ERA, and a 9.0 WAR. What more needs to be said?
Jose Reyes, current Mets superstar, likely would never have been afforded the ability to play professional baseball had the color line not been crossed. Carlos Beltran would likely have been in the same boat. Met legend Keith Hernandez probably would have made it to the MLB, though. The barrier preventing Hispanic players was a lot more amorphous, but as a general rule of thumb, the darker your skin was, and the heavier your accent was, the less likely it was for you to get a job on a Major League ball club- especially if you came from the Caribbean.
As an afterwards, it is important to remember the legacy of Buck O'Neil, the first baseman and manager of the Kansas City Monarchs. As a player, he played for twelve full seasons, losing 1945 and 1946 to military service. His stats were decent, but were far from mind-blowing. Likewise, his Negro Leagues managerial career could be summed up similarly. O'Neil was the driving force behind the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and the renewed light shined on the Negro Leagues. Going into the ‘90s, many Negro League stars had been enshrined in the Hall of Fame already. Many older or borderline players had been forgotten, however, and it was through Buck's intrepid perseverance that, asides for a renewed interest in the Negro Leagues, 17 deserving Negro League players, managers, and executives were elected into the Hall in 2006. Buck himself was not elected by the special committee, and many found that something of a travesty. As for Buck himself, he had this to say, "God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful". Buck O'Neil was an outstanding man with an infectious smile (seriously, take a listen at his speech made in Cooperstown in 2006), a profound knowledge of baseball, whose dedication to baseball off-the-field, especially in his later years, had an large impact on the game, and how we perceive and remember it. Buck O'Neil is a Hall of Famer in my book. If Walter O'Malley can be enshrined for becoming majority owner an already successful franchise, moving out west, and continuing being a successful franchise, and if George Steinbrenner can, as will likely happen, be enshrined for buying a failing franchise and pumping so much money into it that it could not possibly fail, I think there's room somewhere in Cooperstown for Buck O'Neil.
Further Recommended Reading:
Gay, Timothy- Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson (2010)
Lanctot, Neil- Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (2008)
O'Neil, Buck- I Was Right On Time (1997)
Peterson, Robert- Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (1992)
Posnanski, Joe- The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America (2007)
Rogosin, Donn- Invisible Men: Life in Baseball's Negro Leagues (2007)
Tygiel, Jules: Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball (2006)