Unfiltered series reflects on Negro Leagues

July 13th, 2021

Baseball has long been known as America’s pastime. But for much of Major League Baseball’s early history, it was only accessible to white Americans, leaving Black Americans to find their own way into the game.

To Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, the founding of the Negro Leagues holds meaning beyond the racial discrimination that kept Black players out of the Majors. It was also a display of the tenacity that Americans pride themselves on.

“That is the American spirit at its finest,” Kendrick said. “So while America was trying to prevent them in sharing in the joys of her so-called National Pastime, it was the American spirit that really allowed them to persevere and prevail.”

That was just one takeaway from “Legends & Legacies,” the most recent Unfiltered panel discussion presented by MLB Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at the Play Ball Park in Denver on Monday.

Moderated by MLB.com Rockies beat reporter Thomas Harding, Kendrick, Ken Griffey Jr. (senior advisor to the Commissioner of MLB), LaTroy Hawkins (special assistant, Twins), Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins (Hall of Fame pitcher) and CC Sabathia (vice president of The Players Alliance) discussed the legacy of the Negro Leagues and how it carries on to Black players today.

MLB officially recognized the Negro Leagues as part of the Majors on Dec. 16, 2020, but the Negro Leagues has long left an impression on Black players. Griffey Jr. said it is hard to think about the discrimination that the earliest generations of Black ballplayers faced, but he is grateful for their sacrifices, starting with the first player to integrate.

“Jackie Robinson being able to make sure that all of us could play, and then the guys coming after him not making a stink about certain things, being able to say, ‘Hey, we’re not doing this for us, we’re doing this for the generations that come after us,’” Griffey Jr. said. “And you can’t thank them enough for what they sacrificed for us to be able to play each and every day.”

Jenkins, who played alongside legendary Black players, said their attitude toward the game helped shape his career.

“Because of the fact that baseball entered my life, I got a chance to meet Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, I pitched against Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and roomed with Ernie Banks, and they all talked about how good baseball was to them,” Jenkins said. “And believe me, baseball was great for me.

“When I look back, if it wasn’t for these other individuals, I wouldn’t have been as successful as I was.”

For many of the panelists, it was not just the talent that Black players brought to the field, but also the sheer representation. Kendrick ran imaginary bases in his living room as a child when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth. Hawkins would imitate fellow panelist Jenkins’ windup in front of the TV.

“Being able to see people that looked like me successful, especially coming from a rough inner city … if Fergie can make it, and Leon Durham, then I had a chance,” Hawkins said. “They gave me inspiration.”

Because of those shared experiences, there’s a brotherhood among Black players, said Hawkins and Sabathia, who never shared a clubhouse but were close nonetheless. While it was great to have that connection within the league, they said, at times it felt isolating to be one of the few Black players on a team.

“It’s good to have that brotherhood amongst us, but I would like to see the numbers get up where you don’t have to have that from clubhouse to clubhouse,” Sabathia said.

“I can’t say I always felt I was on an island, but we felt different because nobody could really relate to us, and I don’t think we had a chance to be ourselves,” Hawkins added. “This generation, they get to be themselves, and that’s what I like about it.”

In the eyes of the panel, the future is bright. MLB’s efforts to grow the game in Black communities have been strong, they said, countering some of the financial barriers that often hinder the development of young Black players.

But for the panelists, baseball isn’t the end game. Their priority is making sure that young Black players have the tools to grow up and become successful, whether they stay on the diamond or walk a different path of life.

That, to Kendrick, is why the Negro Leagues remain so important today.

“It’s important that they are able to walk into an environment where they see people who look just like them who played this game as well as anyone ever played this game,” Kendrick said. “Not only did they play the game, they owned teams, and they were managers, and they were traveling secretaries, coaches, team physicians.

“They fulfilled every role that could be fulfilled in the business of this game.”