February marks Black History Month as well as the start of baseball spring training. Let’s mark these occasions with a lineup of anecdotes about African Americans and our national pastime.
- Before integration, African American ballplayers plied their trade in the Negro Leagues, a loose consortium of circuits stretching from the northeast westward to Kansas City and into the southern US. The Negro Leagues operated in one form or another from 1920-1950.
- Satch — Perhaps the Negro Leagues’ most famous pitcher, the ageless Leroy “Satchel” Paige pitched for more than a dozen Negro, Latin American and big league clubs from 1926-65. A born showman, Paige had an elaborate windup and a flair for drama; he once struck out the side with no fielders behind him. The oft-quoted Paige’s most famous observation: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
- Cool Papa — James Bell may have been the fastest man ever to play professional baseball. Paige said of the fleet centerfielder, “Cool Papa could jump out of bed, turn off the lights and be back under the covers before it got dark.”
- Steel City’s Winning Pair — Pittsburgh was home to two of the most successful Negro League teams, the Crawfords (2 league titles) and the Homestead Grays (11).
- Crowd pleasers — Negro League clubs routinely played in Major League parks when the local team was away. In cities like Washington, Detroit and Chicago, the Negro League games often drew larger crowds than their big league landlords.
- Here’s to you, Jackie Robinson — Jackie Robinson shattered Major League Baseball’s infamous color barrier in 1947. Signed by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the feisty Robinson helped lead Brooklyn to six pennants in ten years. In 1962, Robinson was the first African American elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
- Hoot — Born a sickly child, Nebraska native Bob Gibson became one of the most dominant pitchers of the 1960s for the St. Louis Cardinals. Gibson won 251 games and recorded a record seven consecutive wins in World Series play. A ferocious competitor who despised batters, Gibson once chased away his own catcher, snarling, “McCarver, get off my mound. The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it.”
- Chicken on the Hill — Willie Stargell’s long home runs made him a hero of Pittsburgh Pirates fans. But Stargell kept the fans fed, too. At one time Stargell owned a fried chicken restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. One day, as Stargell stepped into the batter’s box, Pirates radio announcer Bob Prince implored Stargell to “Spread Some Chicken on the Hill and send me the bill”. Willie indeed hit a home run, fans poured into the joint for their free chicken, and Prince paid the tab.
- Mr. Cub — Nobody played baseball with more pure joy than Ernie Banks, who glanced at the sunshine over Chicago’s Wrigley Field and declared, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two.”
- Nicknames — Who are: The Wizard of Oz? Big Hurt? Toy Cannon? Oil Can? Mr. October? Secretary of Defense? Crime Dog? Answers: Ozzie Smith, Frank Thomas, Jimmy Wynn, Dennis Boyd, Reggie Jackson, Garry Maddox and Fred McGriff.
- The Negro League Baseball Museum is located in Kansas City, Missouri.
Dan Skantar is Director of Content Services for JP Enterprises