MLB-MLBPA invests in future with donation to the Negro Leagues Family Alliance

June 19th, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When Tony Clark was a teenager in the Tigers’ Minor League farm system in 1991, he had the opportunity to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He spent more than four hours exploring the museum’s artifacts and learning about the legacies of some of the game’s greatest players.

Clark, now the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), was in the Hall’s Negro Leagues section.

“I highlight that because I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Clark said. “And so I learned about the opportunities that I had, I learned about those who paved the way before me and I appreciated -- if nothing else -- that I didn’t just have an opportunity to play in the big leagues, I had a responsibility as a result of the opportunity that I had, to ensure that those that came after me had it better than I had it.

“… Literally everything that I did, whether it was on the field or off the field, was the result of that visit and me understanding and appreciating the responsibility that I had to make those that came before me proud.”

Clark shared that story on Wednesday morning at the Negro Southern League Museum in downtown Birmingham, where the Negro Leagues Family Alliance (NLFA) hosted a bruncheon as part of the MLB at Rickwood Field festivities. As the NLFA shared in a video to open the event, the organization, which is comprised of the descendants of Negro Leaguers, was founded last year with a mission to “collectively amplify the legacies and history of Negro League players and ignite a passion for learning and sportsmanship in the next generation, bridging gaps and building a diverse, inclusive future for all.”

In support of that mission, the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation (YDF), through executive director Jean Lee Batrus, announced that it will be giving the NLFA a $500,000 grant. The YDF, whose flagship programs include the Hank Aaron Invitational and the HBCU Swingman Classic, is a joint initiative that seeks to make youth baseball and softball more accessible, create economic opportunities, strengthen communities, and build character on and off the field.

Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of Josh Gibson and one of the founding members of the NLFA, spoke on behalf of the Alliance. He introduced the rest of the organization’s attendees, with mention of their famous forefathers. The list included Brian Patterson (a relative of Hall of Famer Buck Leonard), Loretta Hill (Hall of Famer Pete Hill), Lydia Teasley (daughter of second-oldest living Negro League player Ron Teasley), Doug Foster (Hall of Famer Bill Foster and Negro National League founder Rube Foster), Dr. Harriet Kimbro-Hamilton (Henry Kimbro) and Brian Scudder (Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe).

Exactly three weeks ago, MLB announced that the statistics of Negro Leagues players will now be recognized in the record books. It was a watershed moment in sports history, and for the Gibson family, it meant that the new all-time leader in career batting average (.372), slugging percentage (.718) and OPS (1.177) would be one of their own.

“May 29, 2024, will go down in history for all of the family members here,” Sean Gibson said. “That is a day we will never forget.”

Here in Birmingham, Tuesday was another one of those days, as former Birmingham Black Baron Willie Mays passed away at the age of 93. While many of the event’s guests spoke about Mays’ impact on baseball, Mayor Randall Woodfin took it a step further, reminding those in attendance about one other honor the most awarded player in MLB history received in his lifetime. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama presented Mays with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Today is Juneteenth, a day that is designated to celebrate the independence of Black Americans, the day that best represents the breaking of barriers and being seen. … There’s no better way to celebrate him than the day designated to celebrate Black excellence,” Woodfin said. “If you paid attention to the former President when he gave Willie Mays the highest honor a civilian could get, he said that without Willie Mays, he would not have made history in the White House. And I think it's fair to echo those sentiments and simply say that Willie Mays brought to our world and our country a massive impact and change. With one bat, he knocked down so many walls.”

In so many ways, that is the story of the Negro Leagues. During a time when the sport was segregated, Black ballplayers banded together to advance the game that they loved and the society that would learn to love them.

Generations of Black players, some of the best athletes to ever play the game of baseball, have followed in their footsteps. That’s the legacy the Negro Leagues Family Alliance seeks to preserve, and it’s the reason why MLB is at Rickwood Field.

“I have talked to many of our players, and they understand -- just like Tony understands -- that they have been provided with the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues that prior generations were not, solely because of the color of their skin,” said MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem. “… If Thursday’s game spurs any number of children in this country with a desire to learn about the Negro Leagues, understand the shameful history of segregation in baseball and obviously our country at large, and be inspired by the great athletes who rose above discrimination to make a mark on our country, give back to their communities and support their families, this game is going to be a tremendous success.”