Sunday, January 15, 2006

Negro Leagues’ long road to the hall of fame: Black stars who paid dues now await them

By JEFF PASSAN |Kansas City Star| Someday, they told each other. Someday, segregation would die. It was 1971, and as much as they wanted to believe they were equals in the baseball world, Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin saw what was happening.

When Paige was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on June 10 that year, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced that Paige would be the first player in the new Negro Leagues wing of the museum.

Separated from the white players again.

The hypocrisy dawned on the Negro Leagues alumni. Only they didn’t fight it. Getting to the major leagues — that was the crusade they needed to win, and they did. Paige and Irvin, friends and contemporaries, allowed outraged newspaper columnists and others with the forums to wage this one.

“The naysayers realized this was bigger than anybody thought it would be,” Irvin said. “They couldn’t deny the fact that this good thing should be done.”

And so it was. Kuhn backtracked a month later and promised an integrated Hall of Fame. Paige joined Cy Young and Walter Johnson, by all accounts his equals on the diamond and now his equals in history.

It wasn’t the first battle to give the Negro Leagues their proper due in the Hall. It would not be the last, either.

Even today, with 17 Negro Leagues standard-bearers enshrined for their accomplishments before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Hall is planning perhaps its greatest and most respectful ode: On Feb. 27, it will announce the results of a special election considering the candidacy of 39 Negro Leagues players and executives from 1860 to 1960.

With a $250,000 donation from Major League Baseball, the Hall commissioned a massive study of Negro Leagues games and emerged with revelatory success. Nearly 100 percent of box scores from the 1920s were discovered, and with 90 percent from the ’30s and 50 percent to 70 percent from the ’40s, the Hall has amassed the first accurate database of Negro Leagues statistics.

Now there are numbers to back up the stories told today by Buck O’Neil, the pied piper of the Negro Leagues who is on the ballot, and in days of yore by Paige, the pitcher who won fame with the Kansas City Monarchs.

“Oh, we had men by the hundreds who could have made the big leagues — by the hundreds, not by the fours, twos or threes,” Paige said in his induction speech. “We had a lot of Satchel Paiges out there — men who could throw the ball as hard as me. Ain’t no maybe so about it.”

No more, at least. If the 12 members of the selection committee induct around a dozen players, around 1 percent of the Negro Leagues’ players will be recognized — the same percentage as the major leagues. Equality, finally, from what could be the last group of Negro Leaguers elected to the museum.

“My gut feeling tells me this is it, and I’ve got mixed emotions about it,” said Bob Kendrick, the spokesman for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “I think everyone on that list of 39 deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. If it was done over a period of time, all those guys would get in... [more]

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