'Spread the word': LaTroy on Negro Leagues

August 16th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- Any rookie who shared a clubhouse with LaTroy Hawkins during his playing career was required to set aside an afternoon on a road trip to Kansas City. It wasn't optional. You were going to lunch with Hawkins, and then you would take a group visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. That was that.

When Hawkins, now a special assistant for the Twins, began his playing career with Minnesota in the late '90s and early 2000s, he had spent many an afternoon walking those rooms with the legendary Buck O'Neil and Bob Kendrick, two of the most prominent figures in the establishment and maintenance of that shrine to the Negro Leagues.

Nobody can tell a story quite like Kendrick, Hawkins says.

The current president of the NLBM, Kendrick has this way of taking you back in time and immersing you in the backstory of every piece of memorabilia in those halls that Hawkins has walked more than 50 times. It's important to Hawkins that he passes on those stories to the next generation of players, because the history of Black baseball legends goes far beyond Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Hank Aaron.

Hawkins hopes to draw attention to the countless stars, legends and larger-than-life figures who aren't discussed in the greater baseball discourse but meant so much to the Black community back in those formative years of the sport, when those players were barred from the Majors.

"I've had text messages from a few guys over the last couple of months," Hawkins said. "'I remember when LaTroy took me there as a rookie. It was so impactful. It's something that I'll never forget, taking that tour and seeing all the great ballplayers that I never had a chance to see play and meet, and learning their stories.'

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"For me, that's what it's all about, just being able to spread the word. And not just to African Americans. Spreading word to my Caucasian brothers and sisters so they can know some Black history. Because we know a lot of white history. We don't know any Black history."

It's that last point that Hawkins emphasizes as he and the rest of Major League Baseball prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues on Sunday, when all managers, players, coaches and umpires will wear a symbolic patch during games, as teams and the league engage fans via social media and programming content.

In February, MLB and the MLB Players Association announced a joint donation of $1 million to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. On Sunday, Kendrick will join the Twins' radio booth for an interview, Hawkins will join the television booth, and Toni Stone, the first female professional baseball player, will be honored in the ballpark and in Fox Sports North's pregame show.

When Hawkins reflects on the Negro Leagues presently, he thinks somewhat wistfully about the uniquely African American history, culture and opportunity that was lost when the Majors opened their doors to Black players, absorbing the best of those players into a league -- and a history -- that had been dominated and written by white America. Today, Black players are still underrepresented in MLB despite the progress that has been made since the integration of the sport.

"It'd be very eye-opening for guys like Rube Foster, who worked so hard to start something, a league where minorities, specifically Black people, could play the game that they loved so much," Hawkins said. "They put all this hard work and tears into making it a great league, a huge entity in the African American community.

"And then to watch it just pretty much fall apart because of guys leaving to go play in the Major Leagues, that's the tough part."

To be clear, Hawkins doesn't mean this in a negative way. He knows, of course, the exodus fueled by Robinson, Larry Doby, Branch Rickey and others paved the way for his own baseball career, and those of countless Black athletes over the years.

There is a sense of loss, though, for not only the culture and history of those athletes, but also for opportunity for other underrepresented figures in baseball, Hawkins points out, like female owners Minnie Forbes, Olivia Taylor, Effa Manley and Hilda Borden-Shorter, who found a home -- and power -- in the Negro Leagues.

"It's just something that we really don't talk about," Hawkins said. "Major League Baseball did this great thing by allowing Jackie to sign his contract, but we look at that and it was a huge moment in professional sports, but it was the beginning of the end of Negro League baseball.

"Everybody wanted to play where they didn't want us. And I get that. Rightfully so, because when you're the best, you want to play against the best, or who they say is the best, what society, our country, who they were saying the best ballplayers were. And we were eager to show the world that we were pretty damn good ballplayers also, and I think it's just a story that -- it's talked about, but not a lot."

In his basement, Hawkins has a large photo on his wall of that iconic scene from Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, when Robinson stole home against Yogi Berra and the Yankees. Jackie is sliding with one leg out and one leg bent, and Berra tries to make a tag. In Hawkins' game room, he has a photo of O'Neil, Robinson, Paige, Josh Gibson and Hilton Smith looking down over his pool table. He shows them off to anyone who visits his house.

It's his way of paying tribute to those that came before, to make sure that there's some remnant close to him of those times: the barnstorming, the dressing up in Sunday best to attend a ballgame, the fans interacting with Negro Leagues stars in the colored sections of segregated communities over good food and jazz and blues music. To Hawkins, this 100th anniversary is a representation of the hope that they're never forgotten.

"I'd say that the key is to donate money to the Negro Leagues Museum so they can always keep their doors open and guys like Bob Kendrick can continue to be an advocate for the Negro League Museum," Hawkins said. "In terms of people who have Negro League memorabilia, hopefully they can donate them to the museum or put them on loan to the museum so we can have more. That's it. That's pretty much all they can do.

"I appreciate them recognizing the 100th year this year. That's drawn a lot of attention to the Negro Leagues."