I love baseball. I know, shocking right? I’ve always been conflicted when thinking about or looking back on the Negro Leagues. Here in Pittsburgh we have arguably the richest history there is, home to the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the mighty Homestead Grays who we just saw the Pirates honor last night.
I’ve been conflicted because of something my grandfather said to me as a very young child. See, I was a HUGE Tony Pena fan and one day I said he was the best catcher in baseball, which prompted him to tell me about Josh Gibson, the greatest BASEBALL PLAYER he’d ever seen, who also happened to be a catcher.
The internet wasn’t a thing yet, so I asked him when he played for the Pirates and he told me, no, no, he played for the Homestead Grays and went on to tell me about the Negro Leagues.
You have to understand, I’m like 8 at the time, I have very little understanding of segregation. Like I knew who Jackie Robinson was, but maybe not what made him so important, and I knew almost nothing about the existence of another league, filled with stars like Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard.
Then he dropped a bomb on me. He used to watch them play, and all about how good they were. Which prompted me to ask, if they weren’t allowed to play with white people, why were white people allowed to watch them play?
He had nothing.
You have to understand, my grandpa loved to tell stories, he’d talk about almost anything but the war, and now this.
I didn’t understand, and again, I was like 8 so I was onto Transformers and G.I. Joe again before giving it a second thought.
That said, I’ve never really moved past it all together. It’s a fundamental question that I had no idea I’d asked. An 8 year old who had rarely seen a black person who wasn’t on TV, I had no insight into what these men went through. No idea that my little question was dynamite to the very existence of a league my Grandfather was just praising.
Zero clue I had painted him into a corner. There was no way for him to explain that. As I watch teams in modern baseball celebrate the history of the Negro leagues and even add their stats into the official MLB record it still troubles me.
I’m much older now, and of course I now see the complexities involved. I understand why things like this happened, but I’ll never understand why anyone was able to make themselves ok with it.
I can’t see how you could watch these guys play, know they could beat the tar out of half of MLB and still feel they didn’t deserve to be on the same field. Again, I’m not ignorant to the complexities of the time, but I have a hard time celebrating the fact this league existed.
I respect the hell out of them for playing, largely for the love of the game, and I certainly don’t want what they did to fade into history.
Maybe making me, and I’m sure others think like this is exactly what should happen. Being forced to face the past mistakes that have been made, is something that hopefully reminds us that what we think is fine today might not always be. Maybe it forces us to see things we haven’t wanted to think about.
I also think it shows that we as a people have improved. Surely there is more to do, but we can’t sit here and act like nothing has gotten better. 80 years ago we couldn’t even play a game together.
I’m proud of the legacy of these men, I’m proud of the connection they have to Pittsburgh, I’m not proud this league had to exist, and that’s the point.