When filmmaker Ken Burns released his documentary, Baseball, in 1994, he reported on the rich 100-year legacy of what is popularly known as the Negro Leagues, those segregated African-American baseball leagues that represent an important era in U.S. sports history.
This week, America’s pastime has a spotlight focused on baseball’s best as the San Francisco Giants and Anaheim Angels square off in the World Series. The Giants’ roster includes baseball’s top star, Barry Bonds, a second-generation African American Major Leaguer who is arguably the most talented performer in the sport’s history.
Negro Leagues researcher and historian Gary Ashwill says Burns’ PBS documentary didn’t go far enough in telling the story of the leagues that included scores of players who were every bit as talented as the Babe Ruths, Lou Gehrigs and Ty Cobbs of the then white-only Major Leagues. Ashwill, managing editor of Durham’s Southern Exposure magazine, tells a more in-depth story of the Negro Leagues in a 13,000-word expose that appears in the current issue of the magazine. In “Underground Pastime–The Hidden History of the Negro Leagues,” Ashwill makes the case that those leagues were more triumph than tragedy for an oppressed people who overcame long odds to build a sports system that had an international impact during its day. Ashwill, who is white, writes that black ballplayers “sustained a level of craftsmanship (some might call it artistry) that classes them with the creators of jazz or the writers of Harlem Renaissance as makers of African American culture during a time of especially harsh oppression.”
In an interview this week, Ashwill said the Burns documentary only recognizes the early black players as “potential stars … who didn’t get a chance to really fully shine” because they never played in the Major Leagues. The best players of the Negro Leagues “were certainly every bit as good as the best of white Major League’s,” Ashwill said. And their influence was as great or greater. They played longer seasons, in more cities and in more parts of the world, crossing racial, national and class boundaries, Ashwill writes. In fact, it is likely that tours of Japan by the Negro Leagues were more responsible for introducing baseball there than a celebrated 1934 tour by Major League stars.
The white version of Negro Leagues’ history simply defines “the tragedy” in terms of the missed opportunity for African Americans to play in the white Major Leagues. Ashwill says the tragedy may have come with the onset of integration, which ultimately led to the demise of the leagues that were an important cultural component of the lives of African Americans from roughly 1860 to 1960. “The Negro Leagues constituted one of the most important networks of a national black culture in the first half of the twentieth century, spanning the continent and prominently including Southern teams and leagues,” he writes. What tends to get lost in the history of the Negro Leagues, Ashwill says, is that a complete social system was built up around the leagues, which were among the nation’s biggest black-owned businesses prior to the integration of baseball.
And local professional baseball may still be paying a price for its segregationist past. Ashwill recounts a story about an August 1937 Durham Bulls game in which an overflow crowd came to the park to see a performance by Al Schacht, the famous baseball clown. When whites spilled over into the sections normally reserved for black fans, Bulls’ team officials “ordered black patrons to make room by moving into distant outfield bleachers.” Many blacks protested and left the ballpark angry. Today, Ashwill writes, Bulls’ crowds remain mostly white in a city that is half black.