Even when Major League Baseball was as white as an Arctic landscape, Black ballplayers found places to play. They played baseball in rickety ballparks across the United States; they played it in leagues of their own; and they played it with their Latino brethren south of the border.
The Black-Latino kinship forged in these colorful Americas is the centerpiece of an exhibition the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is launching Saturday in Kansas City.
Titled Negro Leagues Beisbol, the museum will salute the cultural and historical links between “black baseball” and Spanish-speaking countries, said Bob Kendrick, museum president.
Kendrick said the exhibition will visit every Major League city before it ends its run, and wherever it goes, it will deliver one message: Like love, baseball speaks a universal language.
That seems clear from the history Black players from the Negro Leagues carved out of playing Winter Ball in countries such as Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. From Satchel Paige to Josh Gibson to Cool Papa Bell, Negro League stars went south and starred there as well.
In a sense, Paige, Gibson, Bell and other Black ballplayers shared a common bond with the Latino ballplayers. Both groups found Major Leagues teams unwelcoming, so Blacks and Latinos each built professional leagues.
As stars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx and Bob Feller were filling ballparks in the States, Black and Latino stars were doing the same in countries where color never got in their way. For whatever difference in skin color they had never ran headlong into Jim Crow laws while in Latin and South America.
Down there, no one cared about color. The only thing that mattered to fans, managers and a man’s teammates was one unpretentious question: “Can you play?”
Well, history has shown these men of color could play, and play as well as or better than white men who grabbed the headlines in daily newspapers across the United States.
Yet the excellence in which the game was played outside the big leagues has been lost on a generation of baseball fans. The stars in those countries are strangers to most; their legacies are kept alive in splendid tales and entertaining anecdotes on which baseball historians continue to put a fresh veneer.
Their legacies are kept alive, too, by the Kansas City museum and its celebration of beisbol, a celebration that highlights the brotherhood between Blacks and Latinos.
“Baseball has bridged the gap between race and cultures unlike any other sport,” Kendrick said. “Our new Negro Leagues Beisbol exhibit is an enlightening examination of a shared legacy.”
Whether baseball fans ever knew that legacy or simply forgot about it altogether doesn’t matter much. What matters is that one cultural and historical institution sees a story worth telling and has committed its resources to telling it.
From coast to coast, the museum will tell the story of beisbol anywhere that people who are open to the historical truth live, and as we know, baseball fans live everywhere in a sport that, despite its flaws, is a more global pastime now than ever before.
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(Photo: Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)