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Hall helping preserve Negro Leagues legacy

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The past can't be prologue if it goes forgotten.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum did its part to keep an oft-ignored chapter of the sport's history alive on Wednesday, when it staged an interesting combination of presentations in recognition of Black History Month.

John B. Odell, the museum's curator of history and research, led a delegation of fans through the Hall's Pride & Passion exhibit, which was instituted in 1997 in honor of the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's Major League debut. Later in the day, Stephen Light, the Hall's manager of museum programs, carefully displayed some vintage artifacts from that era.

The effort, Light said, was part of the Hall of Fame's three-fold mission to preserve history, honor excellence and connect the different generations of players and fans. Perhaps no era of the game is more shrouded in mystery than the Negro Leagues, and Odell acknowledged that even the Hall of Fame was a little late in appreciating that part of history.

That all changed in 1997, when the Hall's organizers updated a one-panel exhibit simply titled "Negro Leagues." That project, intended to honor Robinson's historic breaking of the sport's color barrier in '47, wound up casting the game in a new light and preserving the legacy of a legion of players who may have otherwise fallen through the cracks of history.

"Everybody knows in some shadowy way about the Negro Leagues," said Odell. "But what we learned as we were doing more research is that for 50 years prior to that, African-Americans had been playing baseball. They started off playing in integrated baseball, and that was an interesting thing that helped us. African-Americans and white ballplayers played together in the 1800s on integrated teams, especially in the Minor Leagues. It wasn't easy, and there are any number of stories about African-Americans enduring some abuse. But there were integrated teams that were playing until around the 1880's."

Odell, speaking to a group of Hall visitors and standing in front of a timeline of African-American baseball history, began weaving a rich story full of complex societal issues and little-known baseball facts. He spoke of the informal "gentleman's agreement" that barred blacks from playing in the Major Leagues, and of the eventual blossoming of the Negro Leagues, which comprised several offshoots and grew to be one of the largest industries involving the nation's burgeoning African-American culture.

Still, even during its peak of cultural relevance -- which ran from the 1920's into the '40's -- the Negro Leagues were a diverse and often underfunded operation. Odell mentioned the Negro World Series, which was held intermittently due to the randomly swinging economics of the teams involved, and told of the wildly popular annual East-West All-Star Game.

And then, switching gears, he spoke rationally and reasonably about the reasons why that chapter of the game had gone uncelebrated for so many decades. Peering around the exhibit -- which features game-worn jerseys by iconic players like Robinson, Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and Buck Leonard -- Odell said that such memorabilia is hard to find.

"The Negro Leagues never had as much money as MLB did, so they had a tendency to use, re-use, recycle and finally wear out a lot of the equipment," he said. "The second thing is that it wasn't until very recently -- within our lifetimes -- that people began to look back and think, 'Oh, you know what they were doing was really very valuable and was every bit as valuable as what the Major Leagues were doing.' The National Baseball Hall of Fame started up in 1939, but it wasn't in 1939 that we started collecting Negro League artifacts. It wasn't until decades later, and that was the same for collectors and historians. It took a long time for baseball to recognize the contributions that African-Americans were making to the game. It's a sad but true statement."

That all changed with two men locked in a marriage of opportunity and idealism. Former Dodgers executive Branch Rickey has long been celebrated for signing Robinson, an act that Odell said may have been more complicated than it appeared. Rickey may have had to deal with the entrenched racism of the day, but he did it for a wide variety of reasons.

"One of the great enigmas about Branch Rickey is why he did it, because depending on the audience that he was talking to, he gave different reasons for it," said Odell. "The truth of the matter is that Branch Rickey had as many different reasons for doing it, as we all have for all of the different things that we do. Some of it was financial, because he could sign a better African-American player cheaper than he could sign a white ballplayer. ...He also wanted to win. He recognized that there were African-American ballplayers out there who were better than the Brooklyn Dodgers he had on his team.

"And then also, he had his own experiences with discrimination. He had been a college baseball coach, and one of the ballplayers on his team who was African-American was denied entrance to the team hotel. It was not until Branch Rickey said, 'He'll have to stay with me. He can stay in my own room,' [that it was resolved]. He told this story about the ballplayer wishing that he was white so he could stay in the hotel with everyone else, and Rickey recognized the injustice of that."

Robinson, of course, turned Rickey's principled stand into one of the most celebrated personnel decisions in the history of sports. Baseball, in fact, transformed itself ahead of the nation's Civil Rights movement, but it certainly didn't happen overnight.

"A very long and slow process," is how Odell phrased it, and indeed it took 13 years for every team to be integrated and nearly 25 years before the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first all-minority lineup. And it was hardly due to lack of influence, as African-American players accounted for nine Rookie of the Year awards and nine Most Valuable Player trophies in that span.

Strangely, that huge success spelled an ignominious end to the venue that birthed it. Fan attention was diverted slowly, and with Major League opportunity calling, the former workforce for the Negro Leagues was basically eradicated. That, in turn, made the Major Leagues stronger and helped turned the Negro Leagues into a footnote in the annals of the game.

"When Jackie Robinson left for the Major Leagues, African-Americans began really following the Major Leagues and following Jackie Robinson a great deal," said Odell, explaining the unintended consequence. "As ballclubs began picking out the best and the brightest from the Negro Leagues, the leagues themselves began to founder. And within really five years of Robinson breaking the color line, you find very few references to black baseball, although it continued until around 1960, which is when the Negro American League finally ended formally. But it really dropped off with Robinson breaking the color line."

Things began to change in 1990, when a group of former players founded the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. That inspired renewed interest in the era, and the Hall of Fame followed suit in '97 with Pride & Passion, which has been kept intact but moved to a more permanent display area on the second floor of the Cooperstown shrine.

Light, speaking two hours after Odell, gave a hands-on introduction to some of the Hall of Fame's artifacts. Wearing a pair of white gloves to help preserve the items in hand, he gave a brief overview of the Hall's extensive collection, which includes nearly 2.8 million documents and 12,000 hours of video footage in the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center.

Light also said that the Hall of Fame has 38,000 baseball-related artifacts and that only 10 percent of them are on display. The remainder are housed in acid-free boxes under acid-free paper and kept in a climate-controlled vault. Even the lighting is tightly regulated, and Light said that everything the Hall maintains is subject to the same diligent care.

"A lot of people ask what's the most valuable artifact in our collection. We try to preserve everything equally," said Light of the museum's vast storehouse of collectibles. "If something comes in today, we try to keep it in the same state it was when we got it. It switches from being a piece of sporting goods to an artifact as soon as it gets here."

On this day, Light chose to present a glove owned by Hall of Famer James "Cool Papa" Bell and a game-used jersey most likely worn by former player and manager Chet Brewer. The jersey was a rare item representing the Kansas City Royals, an all-black barnstorming team that played in the now defunct California Winter League.

Light also showed a rare photo of Robinson dressed in a similar Royals jersey and told an anecdote about how his involvement had nearly been lost to time. Robinson briefly played for the Kansas City Royals in 1945 and for the Montreal Royals in '46 after signing with the Dodgers, and when the picture was discovered, people initially assumed it was a jersey for the latter team.

Subsequent investigation proved that to be false, and programs like the Hall's celebration of Black History Month will make sure the true story gets out to the world one anecdote and one baseball fan at a time.