A visit to remember
Negro Leagues veterans, a former Major League Baseball commissioner, and a noted journalist bring history to life
There are Hall of Fame players, and there are Hall of Fame people.
Sports writer Claire Smith makes this distinction as a way of pointing out that baseball can transcend the diamond, offering stories of decency, courage, and honor-individual stories which sometimes intersect with, and influence, the course of history.
Some of the most compelling of such stories came to life at Kenyon last April, when three veterans of baseball's Negro Leagues visited campus, along with Smith and former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent Jr., to talk about segregation and the struggle for integration in the national pastime. During three days of meetings with classes and student groups, culminating in a crowded public panel discussion in Bolton Theater, the visitors gave the College community first-hand accounts of an era that ended not so long ago.
Entitled "The Integration of Baseball: The Players' Stories," the visit proved compelling for students. "It was one of my most memorable experiences at Kenyon so far," wrote Peter Malanchuk '02, one of more than a dozen students who volunteered to guide the visitors from session to session. "Being able to talk to these men enabled me to better understand what they had to go through to play the game they loved so much. It was as if I was reliving a piece of U.S. history."
That sentiment was widely shared. "These veterans of the Negro Leagues were real heroes," President Robert A. Oden Jr. said, "heroes whose stories we need to hear, and to hear them personally."
Best-known among the ball players was Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League when he took the field for the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, just eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball with the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers. (The Dodgers had signed Robinson in 1945 but until 1947 he played on their minor-league team.) Doby, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998, originally played for the Newark Eagles in the Negro League.
With Doby were Joe Black, a standout pitcher for the Baltimore Elite Giants whose first year with the Dodgers in 1952 led to a rookie-of-the-year award, and Alfred "Slick" Surratt, an outfielder with the fabled Kansas City Monarchs who helped found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
The visit was organized by Vincent, who, as commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992, extended medical benefits and pensions to former Negro Leagues players, even those who never moved over to the majors. A friend of Oden, Vincent received an honorary degree from Kenyon in 1999, when he served as the Commencement speaker.
Smith, a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, provided historical perspective on the wrenching change that integration represented in a society whose institutionalized racism amounted to an American form of apartheid. During the 1940s, baseball was "the true national pastime," Smith noted. "It was as big as baseball, football, and basketball are, taken all together, today." Integration was bound to be a highly charged move.
Jackie Robinson was chosen to break the barrier in part because he offered "an acceptable middle-class image," according to Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff, who has written extensively about baseball and who gave a lecture about the Negro Leagues to introduce the visit. Emphazing the ways in which black baseball developed its own style and was very much rooted in African-American cultural life, Rutkoff distributed copies of articles from African-American newspapers showing that the black community was very much aware of Robinson's selection as a political act.
"Jackie was not the best black player," Joe Black told Roy Wortman's American history class. "He was not right at the top with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. He was chosen because he was college-educated, he had played integrated sports, and he had good social habits."
In response to a student's question, Black acknowledged that among other black players there was a little resentment of Robinson at first. But it was short-lived. "We would read the paper every day to see what Jackie did. We saw all the abuse he took. We thought Jackie would deck somebody, and then nobody else would have a chance. Because of his success and his cool head, the rest of us got a chance sooner; he took years off for us."
Black, who would later room with Robinson as a Dodger, recalled his own bitter disillusionment as a talented high-school athlete when a major-league agent told him, "Colored guys don't play baseball." Black noticed for the first time that all of the players in his baseball scrapbooks were white. He tore up the books, saving only a picture of his hero, Hank Greenberg (father of Alva Greenberg '74 and grandfather of Benjamin Gahagan '02 and William Gahagan '03).
"I started to hate; I hated white people, and I stopped talking to my white friends," Black said. "My mother told me, 'You can't be mad with them, it's not their fault.'" Black credits his professors and fellow students at Morgan State University in Baltimore with introducing him to an independent black culture in which he could take pride. "My professors made me believe I could be somebody," he said.
Doby endured the same indignities as Robinson. A league-leading hitter with the Newark Eagles, Doby had high praise for Indians owner Bill Veeck, who hired him. (William Veeck Jr. had been a member of Kenyon's Class of 1936, but he left the College during his sophomore year, after his father died.)
But Doby's first day with the team was mortifying: introduced to his teammates, he made his way around the locker room, passing ten players before one would shake his hand. On the field it was the same. At first, nobody would throw the ball around with him to warm up.
Even as the numbers of African-American players in the major leagues began to rise, the persistence of segregation in society created hardships for them. Traveling with their teams, in some cities the black players were not allowed to eat at the same restaurants or stay at the same hotels as their white teammates. "In Washington, D.C., in Baltimore, and in St. Louis, we stayed with families," Doby recalled. "The toughest part was spring training, in the South. We had to live with families the whole time. When you have your kids with you and they can't go to the playground, that's hard."
As late as the 1960s, according to Smith, the St. Louis Cardinals couldn't find accommodations for their integrated team during spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida. "So they bought their own motel," she said. "It became a curiosity. Floridians would pull up in their cars to watch Cardinals families having barbecues, swimming, and sitting together."
The most common question for the players was: How could you stand it? How did you manage to put up with the taunts, belittling, and pressure?
"They wanted to deal with your mind," said Doby of the name-calling and provocation. "You can't let that happen, because it will distract you. You can't function if you're bitter and you hate-there's no way." He added: "The intimidation made us better people and better players."
Black said, "You turned the other cheek." The black players were aware that if they let themselves be provoked, the progress of integration might suffer. "If you fought, you would hurt the opportunities for others."
In addition, the players controlled their own emotions because they recognized that hatred was corrosive. "I was taught by my parents," said Doby, "that you can't be successful and you can't be happy if you had hate and bitterness inside. You have to make the negative positive, it's that simple."
For many at Kenyon, the striking lack of bitterness was best exemplified by Surratt, whose good humor and comic anecdotes suggested a temperament seemingly immune to discouragement. After growing up in segregated Arkansas, Surratt served in the Pacific during World War II but returned to an America in which it was taboo for a black baseball player to join the big leagues.
"I could bunt, man; I could put the ball in a teacup," Surratt laughed. "I was so fast, I could hit one up the middle and get hit in the head with the ball sliding into second base." He added, more seriously, "With my speed and my bat, I just wanted an opportunity."
From 1949 to 1951, Surratt played outfield for the Kansas City Monarchs, a famous black baseball franchise that operated from 1915 to 1960. Some of his anecdotes were about the great pitcher Satchel Paige, who was his roommate for a time. Paige was so well known that once, when he and Surratt were stopped for speeding by a white policeman in Louisiana, the policeman ended up asking for Paige's autograph instead of handing out a ticket.
Surratt, who went on to a career with Ford Motor Company, joined with other veterans of the Monarchs to create the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 1991. At first, he recalled, the organization was so poorly funded that the founders took turns paying the rent for the building that housed the museum. Surratt now serves as assistant secretary of the museum.
Over the course of the three-day visit, the players met with four history classes, with members of the baseball and softball teams, and with the Black Student Union. In addition, Smith discussed race and gender issues with students in a course on African-American women's fiction and talked about newspaper reporting with students who were interested in careers in journalism. Special lunches and dinners were organized so that the visitors could interact with faculty members, other students, and Kenyon trustees, who were on campus for their spring meeting.
The culmination of the visit was the panel discussion in Bolton Theater, filled nearly to capacity with members of the campus community as well as residents of the Mount Vernon area and people who had come from the Columbus and Cleveland areas. It was an audience that broke into spontaneous applause at the first mention of Doby's name. And an audience reluctant to leave: after the last question was answered, fans and families crowded the stage to ask for autographs.
"People were extraordinarily generous and receptive and gracious," said Vincent of the Kenyon visit. Noting that he had organized similiar visits at both Carleton and Williams colleges, he said, "This is the best experience the players had."
Kenyon students were equally enthusiastic. "They had such an intimate understanding of what the integration of baseball meant at the time it was happening," wrote Adam Sapp '02, reflecting on the visit. "Not often do you meet people who are so utterly aware of their historic importance without the benefit of looking back. They understood it then just as well as we understand it now."
"It's difficult enough to understand that this type of blatant racism took place, and not too long ago," wrote Jessica Bellama '02. "But that they harbor no ill will and have been able to forgive and move past this horrible history is awe-inspiring."
Awe, a word overused in recent years, seems apt here. Today, athletes inspire wonder for their feats on the field or court, but in the larger realm of society their stories often are entwined with money or with the seamier aspects of celebrity. "It's a generation of privilege," as Claire Smith put it during the Bolton Theater session.
The men who integrated baseball were different, she said. Tested deeply, free of bitterness, they are "a generation of true honor."
Do you have feedback on this page?