Commentary: How Integration Killed the Black Baseball Fan

While desegregation has been a plus, it has made baseball and its history an afterthought.

Posted: 02/05/2014 12:42 PM EST

Change isn’t something we ought to be afraid of. Even if we are, what can we do to stop it?

That’s what we should remember this month as some of us celebrate the 94th anniversary of the Negro Leagues’ founding in Kansas City.

Forged from a loose confederation of baseball teams, the Negro Leagues opened for business in 1920. That’s when Rube Foster convinced owners of various teams of Black ballplayers that it was in everyone’s interest if teams modeled the Major Leagues.

For 27 years, “Black baseball” proved a magnet that held communities across America together. It gave us iconic figures like Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Rube and many Hall of Famers who would have been headliners in the big leagues.

But their Black skin closed those opportunities to these men. They had to settle for playing in leagues and in stadiums where the only thing that was white was the baseball. These were, however, merry times for baseball in cities that had Negro League teams.

It’s those times aa well as hardball heroes like Rube and Satchel and Buck and Josh that Black History Month celebrates and Americans remember. And it’s better to remember those good times than the residue of an inner-city institution that integration killed.

The sport died because we longed for acceptance — then and now — in a broader world. We were never satisfied with the successes we had in our communities — Black communities where corner stores, schools and churches thrived, where all sorts of Black cultural and social institutions thrived.

They thrive no more.

They began to wither away on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues. His breaking the color barrier made the league that Foster founded unnecessary. Thirteen years later, “Black baseball” was mainly tall tales and stories for historians.

By then, public schools were desegregated, and doors to segregated colleges were being kicked in, too; and stars from the Negro Leagues like Rube, Satchel, Buck, Cool Papa and more had retired or died, and the Majors had brought us stars named Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and Latinos like Juan Marichal, Minnie Minoso and Roberto Clemente, whose dark skin had kept them out of the big leagues, too.

Yet years have made the Aarons of the 1950s and 1960s no more memorable than the men from the Negro Leagues. Baseball doesn’t hold the allure it used to for Black folks.

That’s what change sometimes does. It takes us to a different place, though not always a better place.

In some ways, integration has been the latter, and we can see that in what it did to the Negro Leagues. It might be gone, but for Black History Month at least, we should make sure change hasn’t made us forget Rube, Satchel, Buck, Josh and that league of their own.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Follow Justice B. Hill on Twitter: @jbernardh

 (Photo: Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

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