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Collecting Negro League Baseball

By JAY R. NEILL

Autograph May 2009

Buck O'Neil signed ticket to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

On February 14, 1920 Rube Foster organized the Negro National League—the first African-American professional baseball league. Foster was described as an unsurpassed visionary and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

The NNL foundered in 1931 due to financial pressures of the Great Depression, but the second NNL, organized in 1933 by Pittsburgh bar owner Gus Greenlee, went on to become the dominant force in black baseball through 1949.

Then, on April 18, 1946, Major League Baseball’s color barrier cracked when Jackie Robinson signed to the Dodgers organization and played a season with the Montreal Royals in the International League. After that season in Montreal, Robinson joined the parent club and played his first Major League game in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Charley Pride signed cards

In the four years following Robinson’s debut, the most talented Negro League players were recruited for the Major Leagues. Black team owners saw a devastating decline in attendance as the fans followed their heroes to the Major League stadiums and the NNL disbanded after the 1949 season. Even though the Negro American League continued to play until 1958, the quality of play had diminished steadily as black baseball’s best talent was recruited to the major and minor leagues.

Although the integration of professional baseball was a significant step in the integration of American society, it had one negative aspect. During the 1930s and ’40s, Negro League baseball had become one of the largest and most successful black-owned businesses in America. With its decline, the black community lost a profitable industry.

Over the past decade, the contributions of the Negro League have been increasingly recognized. There are currently 35 members who were inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame primarily because of their contribution to baseball in the Negro Leagues.

Former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent said in a 2003 USA Today interview, “It’s my view that they saved baseball. … If they hadn’t persevered in those leagues, the black community wouldn’t have produced Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, guys who made a huge contribution to the game.”

The article continues with Vincent posing the question: “I always say, ‘Why aren’t they bitter? Why aren’t they angry?’”

Buck O’Neil, who spent seven decades in baseball and was not inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, professed no regret for his lost chance to play in the majors. “Waste no tears on me,” he said in his autobiography. “I didn’t come along too early. I was right on time.”

Nate Smalls signed index card

It’s been more than 50 years since baseball’s Negro Leagues were disbanded, making even the youngest of former players now approaching their 70s. These men are true living legends who deserve honor and respect. Now is the time to reach out to these players and let them know how much they are and will always be appreciated.

Collecting Negro League Players

Jackie Robinson married Rachel Isum in 1946, the same year he was recruited by the Dodgers organization, and the couple became co-pioneers in the desegregation of baseball. Rachel Robinson’s many accomplishments include being a mother, corporate leader, activist and professor. After Jackie’s passing in 1972 at the age of just 53, Rachel established The Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973.

Newspaper clipping of Jackie Robinson signed by his widow Rachel Robinson

I wrote to Rachel in care of The Jackie Robinson Foundation and included a SASE, two baseball cards, a newspaper clipping of Jackie and a $10 donation for the foundation. She signed the cards, dedicated the clipping as requested and even added an inspirational message, returning everything in less than two weeks.

While the Negro League’s era came to an end in 1958, the Indianapolis Clowns continued to play exhibition games into the 1980s, but as a humorous barnstorming show. Nate “BoBo” Smalls is the last of the Negro League barnstorming players. He pitched for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1965 to 1986. BoBo is the only person to throw four baseballs to four different people at the same time. I asked BoBo to name the highlight of his baseball career and he said, “Pitching six one hitter’s in 1967.”

I sent him a SASE, and three custom index cards, which he signed and included two baseball cards of his own. He also included information on his website, www.bobosmalls.com, where you can read more about his story and purchase merchandise.

John Wilson Sr. is a great example of hard work and perseverance. A gifted athlete, he played for the Chicago American Giants in 1949, then went on to play basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters from 1949 to 1954. “Jumpin’” Johnny is a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and spent 20 years as a coach and Athletics Director at Malcolm X College in Chicago, Ill. Johnny was named one of the Top 50 Athletes of the Century in Indiana and is the subject of the book Jump, Johnny Jump! by Dick Burdette.

“Jumpin’” Johnny let me in on one of his proudest baseball highlights: “Playing in Indianapolis, which is 38 miles from Anderson, my hometown. With my mother and about 2,000 hometown friends watching, I went four for five.” I sent a SASE and three index cards. He signed all three index cards, answered several questions and included a 3.5×5 photo of himself with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Signed index card with "Jumpin'" Johnny Wilson

If there is one man that set the standard for embracing and representing the former Negro League players it was the late Buck O’Neil. From 1937-1954, O’Neil was a Negro League standout and became a Kansas City Monarch legend. He was the first African-American Major League Baseball coach, breaking that barrier in 1960 with the Chicago Cubs, and he posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on December 7, 1996 from President George W. Bush.

Many found that O’Neil was baseball’s greatest living historian concerning both the Negro Leagues and baseball’s segregated past. In 1994, he was a commentator for Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball.

ALS and signed card by John "Mule" Miles

I was fortunate enough to meet the gracious O’Neil in 1997 and again in 2001, before he died in 2006 at 94. He signed his book I Was Right on Time for me through the mail, but today his signatures are readily available through reputable sources at reasonable prices. Long term demand will ultimately outweigh supply, making now the ideal time to add this legend to any collection.

Country Music Hall of Fame member Charley Pride is an excellent through-the-mail signer. While being best known for his hit song “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” Pride was also a member of the Memphis Red Sox (1953, 1958) and the Birmingham Black Barons (1954) of the Negro American League. He unofficially started his music career singing and playing guitar on long bus rides between ballparks. As country music’s first and only African-American star, Pride has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide.

Pride’s former Memphis teammate Charlie Davis sent me a wonderful photo of him with Pride that Pride kindly signed for me. Pride frequently responds in less than a month with an 8×10 photo when a SASE is included. I sent Pride a SASE with an 8×10 in his Memphis Red Sox uniform and two index cards, which he inscribed and returned. From baseball to music, to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he is a pioneer to be admired.

John “Mule” Miles is another Negro League legend who is an excellent through-the-mail signer. He was an outfielder for the Chicago American Giants from 1946 to 1948. He wrote to me that “Hitting 11 home runs in 11 consecutive games” was the highlight of his career. The feat not only would have broken the Major League record for consecutive games with a home run, but the record would still stand today. Miles’ nickname came from former manager Jim Taylor, who commented that Miles “Hits as hard as a mule kicks.” He would go on to play Minor League Baseball until retiring from the game in 1952. To this day “Mule” still works to inspire youth and encourage all people. Besides his baseball career, Miles entered into military service in 1942 and was an aircraft mechanic, attending the special Aircraft Mechanic Journeyman Rating School in Tuskegee, Ala., to assist the first African-American flying training program, the Black Wings.

I sent Miles three custom index cards and a SASE. He responded in just eight days, signing all three cards, answering my questions and including a fact sheet about his career.

Signed card by Chuck Harmon

In 1996 I had the opportunity to meet Chuck Harmon for the first time. Chuck stands out to me not only for his excellent baseball career, but he is truly one of the kindest human beings that I have met in my life. Chuck was the first African-American to play for baseball’s oldest franchise, the Cincinnati Reds. On April 17, 1954, he broke Cincinnati’s long standing color barrier and was followed in the same game by Nino Escalara, another black Cincinnati Redleg from Puerto Rico. Chuck spent five days with the 1947 Indianapolis Clowns under the assumed name of Charlie Fine to protect his amateur standing. In addition to being an outstanding baseball player he was an All-American in basketball at the University of Toledo. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and correspond with Mr. Harmon numerous times over the years. Shortly before my twin sons were born nearly six years ago, I sent Chuck a letter telling him of my pending fatherhood and the day before my sons were born, an 8.5×11 photo arrived from him inscribed “Best Wishes to The Twins.”

Chuck has regularly signed in-person at Cincinnati Reds games throughout the years. I sent Chuck a SASE with his 1954 and 1956 Topps baseball cards, which he signed.

Other players who still sign through the mail include: Monte Irvin, Hank Aaron, Hank Mason, George Altman, Billy Harrell, Paul Casanova, Joe Durham. Minnie Minoso, Donald Troy, Sam Allen, Charlie Davis, Arthur Simmons, Jim Zapp, Carl Long, Robert Scott and many more.

These baseball heroes entertained a nation, many served our country in WW II and they all helped to change race relations forever in America. All of these men have a story that deserves to be told and can be remembered through their autographs.

History on Display

Negro Leagues

Baseball Museum

1616 E. 18th St., Kansas City, Mo. Admission: $6.

The 10,000-square-foot museum pays tribute to such Negro League stars as Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston and Leon Day, and has an indoor field that visitors are allowed to walk on with statues of 10 of the greatest players in playing poses. Most of the displays follow a timeline that traces Negro League history and innovations, such as having lights for night games in 1930, five years before the Major Leagues. Two historical videos are shown throughout the day. Retro jerseys and caps are on sale in the gift shop. A jazz museum is in the same building.

Yogi Berra Museum

and Learning Center

8 Quarry Road, Little Falls,

N.J., 973-655-2378.

Admission: $6 for adults,

$4 for students and children.

The museum, on the campus of Montclair State University, has acquired a major collection of Negro League memorabilia from music producer Jack Berg and eventually will house it in the Larry Doby Gallery. The museum also gives presentations for students and makes available history-related pamphlets on such topics as Baseball and Social Justice and What Is Sportsmanship?

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

25 Main St., Cooperstown,

N.Y., 607-547-7200.

Admission: $16.50 for adults, $6 for children 7-12,

free for children under 7.

With the addition of the Barry Halper collection in 1999, the Hall of Fame added to its already considerable Negro Leagues memorabilia. The Halper collection includes uniforms worn by Negro Leaguers Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, and Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers cap, complete with the plastic liner Robinson wore to protect him from beanballs. Also on display are the Hall of Fame plaques of such Negro Leaguers as “Smokey” Joe Williams, Judy Johnson, Monte Irvin and Ray Dandridge and the sunglasses worn by “Cool Papa” Bell.