There was a time in our nation when going to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in the 1930’s and early 1940’s meant the only thing you might see that was white, was the color of the baseball used to play the game.
That’s because Major League Baseball’s segregation policies meant that some of the greatest players during the first part of the 20th century, players of color who also included many dark skinned Latino players, only played in the Cathedral in the Bronx.
This was a time when Negro League games were played.
The New York Black Yankees were a key part of the growth of baseball, often drawing crowds of 50,000 into the stadium, when the Yankees were on the road.
Baseball lore has it that scores of Yankees players were always lobbying for the color barrier to be broken.
That barrier was not broken until (first) Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then New Jersey’s Larry Doby with the Cleveland Indians, became the first players of color to integrate Major League Baseball (MLB).
The history of the Negro Leagues is literally brought to life in a new documentary, "The League," a film which is due out in theaters next week.
This documentary could not come at a better time. and it could not come at a better time.
This writer was able to view the film at the Tribeca Film festival.
At that time, there was also a question and answer session about "The League," moderated by the MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds, director Sam Pollard, and others.
It reminded me of what we do every day with our young players in and around the Yankees today, which is to never have them forget the legacy of those who came before them, and that includes the stars of the Negro leagues, many of whom never got the widespread recognition they deserved in their heyday.
Drawing from file footage and archived player interviews, the 103-minute film unpacks the "gentlemen’s agreement" struck among white major league owners at the turn of the 20th century to keep America’s pastime white, while celebrating the Black visionaries who nonetheless formed teams and leagues and found financial symbiosis in segregation.
With the arrival of the 1940s, baseball was the third largest economic institution in Black communities, the League notes.
"And the teams thrived because Black people had their own stores, their own restaurants, their own means of entertainment.
"All that money was circulating within the community," Pollard said.
"That’s a story that didn’t used to be told," he added.
It is a story that is even still unfolding as MLB continues to find ways to lift and celebrate these amazing athletes well after they are gone, and it is a story that hopefully will inspire more athletes of color to return to the game in the future.
While we see so many Latino stars showcased in MLB of today, the faces of Black ballplayers continue to dwindle; that is something that the Yankees are working diligently to change, through community-oriented work, in both New York and Tampa (their spring training home).
"The League" is must see not just for baseball fans, but for everyone interested in history, pop culture and race relations.
It celebrates heroes while making us understand the issues of a time not that long ago…lessons we need to be reminded of so that we do not repeat them in our challenging times of today.
Ray Negron is a sports executive with over 40 years of experience in baseball. His first job came from a chance encounter with George Steinbrenner as a youth. Mr. Negron is an American film producer, a best-selling author, and philanthropist. His memoir is entitled, "Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers." Read Ray Negron's Reports — More Here.
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