KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Almost all of them are gone now, fading memories kept alive through grainy photos and dog-eared newspaper clippings their children and grandchildren keep near.
But now the black baseball players and their contributions to the culture and history of a country that once shunned them are being honored. The U.S. Postal Service released a set of stamps Thursday honoring early Negro Leagues players.
Photos: Black Sports Icons
"Make no mistake about it. All these athletes were trailblazers on and off the field," said Gregory D. Baker, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "Through their unsung civic endeavors, the (Negro) leagues and their players raised awareness and started a conversation about the standards of social justice in our country for all people regardless of race or gender."
The Negro Leagues were formed in 1920 by Rube Foster, a visionary black athlete, manager and businessman. In their heyday, they were both popular and profitable, drawing white and black fans alike to see such greats as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and "Cool Papa" Bell.
"The 2,600 men and women who played in the Negro Leagues embodied the essence of our country," Baker told several hundred people who packed the museum's legends room. "They celebrated the notion that regardless of where you come from or your financial or social status, each of us can make a difference."
Historians credit the Negro Leagues with playing a key role in advancing racial integration. Some say the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement can be traced to 1947 when Jackie Robinson, a young Negro Leagues star, broke the major league color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Ironically, Robinson's momentous breakthrough was also was the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. As young stars such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron signed on with the majors, Negro Leagues attendance waned. They went out of business in 1960 after a 40-year run that had a greater impact on American society than the players themselves probably ever realized.
Thurgood Marshall Jr., vice chairman of the Postal Service board of governors, said the legacy of the players will spread far and wide each time someone uses the stamps.
"Everyone who buys or receives these stamps will be reminded of the pioneering players, managers and officials who contributed so much to this great game," Marshall said.
One stamp depicts the umpire giving an emphatic "safe" sign as a player slides across home plate just ahead of the catcher's tag.
The other is a portrait of Foster, who formed the Negro National League in a historic building just a few blocks from the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City. Foster's statue stands in the legends room along with several others such as Gibson, the great Negro Leagues slugger, and Paige, the right-hander that hall-of-famer Bob Feller once described as the greatest pitcher he ever saw.
"Rube Foster was one of baseball's most powerful and enduring personalities," Marshall said. "As president of the Negro National League, he established its slogan — 'We are the ship, all else is the sea.'"
Several surviving Negro Leagues players, stooped and graying, were in attendance. So were Sean Gibson, grandson of the great Negro League slugger, and Linda Paige, Satchel's daughter. When Baker pointed them out, the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
"We're the descendants of Josh and Satchel Paige. So it's always good for the family to be honored," said Gibson, the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation in Pittsburgh. "We are very proud when they recognize the families."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.