Heroes of the Diamond: Negro Leagues
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Hunt Auctions.
This is a group of exceptional athletes who overcame everything from hatred and low pay to rotten working conditions and no respect to do the one thing they wanted to do more than anything else--play baseball.
This is Negro league baseball.
During the 1920s, '30s and for most of the'40s Negro players could only dream about playing big league baseball alongside white players.
It wasn't about skill. It was about color. Negro leagues lived in the shadow of white leagues.
The Negro teams started out making baseballs out of old rags and tin cans. Broomsticks served as bats and bottle caps became makeshift balls in batting practice.
Players like Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, John Henry Lloyd, Oscar Charleston, and Jackie Robinson honed their skills the hard way. They were great because they played against other great Negro players. They could have rewritten the record books if many of them had had the chance to play in the big leagues.
By the late-1800s Negro players began to disappear from professional baseball teams. White owners got together in secret and decided to eliminate Negroes from professional baseball.
It was a "gentleman's agreement" which stood for almost 60 years.
So Negro players started their own professional teams. They didn't always have enough equipment or matching uniforms. They traveled from game to game scattered among cars and buses. Sometimes they even hitched rides in the back of trucks. They might ride all day and night just in time to play a game and then play on some of the worst fields imaginable.
They loved the game so much they looked past the problems.
Negro baseball was fast, flashy and bold. Always exciting to watch fans showed up early just to see the warm up. Negro players played like they invented the game, like it was the last game they might ever play. Pinned on the edge of their seats, fans couldn't get enough.
The biggest draw in the Negro Leagues was pitcher Satchel Paige.
Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, signed Paige in 1948 on the pitcher's 42nd birthday. Critics thought it was a joke to hire the oldest "rookie" in the history of the majors calling it a publicity stunt.
"If Satch were white, of course he would have been in the majors 25 years earlier and the question would not have been before the house," Veeck said.
Paige made more money than any other African-American player of his time, as much as $40,000 a year.
"The best I've ever faced, and the fastest," Joe DiMaggio said.
In 1971, Paige became the first of the Negro league stars to be elected into the Hall of Fame.
After Jackie Robinson crossed over to the majors in 1947 the Negro leagues declined. Major league owners signed many more of the players but paid the Negro league owners next to nothing for them. Fans moved on to watch their favorites in the big leagues.
On Nov. 14 Hunt Auctions featured a selection of Negro league items in its Louisville Slugger Auction.
Here are some current values.
Autographed Photo; 1953 Kansas City Monarchs Negro American League Championship; 8 inches by 10 inches; $288.
Program; 1943 "Satchel Paige Day" Negro League Program; July 18, 1943; $690.
Souvenir Pennant; New York Black Yankees; red felt; circa 1940s; $518.
Advertising Broadside; Kansas City Monarchs vs. Harlem Stars Negro League; circa 1940s; 15 inches by 23 1/2 inches; $1,610.
Bronze Statue; Josh Gibson; by Harry Webber; pictured in fluid game action; 25 inches high; numbered 1/25; $10,350.