History Lesson : Negro League Veterans Want Younger Players to Know About Their Experiences
You’ll have to forgive the dwindling numbers of Negro league veterans during this most recent of baseball strikes.
They can’t believe what they’re seeing: Millionaire players walking out over something called a “salary cap.”
Sammie Haynes’ salary was $200 a month.
Well, not quite. His meal money was $2 a day, and that was deducted from his paycheck.
Don Newcombe’s “salary cap” was $42,500 a year, and that was after a 27-7 season in 1956, and after the Dodgers had given him a $10,000 raise.
In those days, it was take it or leave it.
They took it.
They took it because they loved baseball.
And in the days before baseball’s integration, blacks who loved the game and were good enough to play it had to play it in the Negro leagues. It was Jim Crow baseball, but it was baseball.
Still, it hadn’t always been that way. After the Civil War, when baseball was a young game, there were some integrated teams. And although Jackie Robinson is properly credited with breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947, he was not the first black major leaguer.
Moses Fleetwood Walker had beaten Robinson to that distinction by more than 60 years.
Fleet Walker, a catcher in the days when catchers customarily caught barehanded and did not use chest protectors, joined Toledo of the American Assn., then regarded as a major league and the National League’s leading rival, in 1884.
In fact, about 70 blacks played in organized baseball in the late 19th Century, most with all-black clubs but some with integrated teams. By the early 20th Century, however, the country’s growing racism basically relegated black players to black teams, and black leagues evolved as a natural outgrowth.
Most black teams sprang up in the industrialized North, but there were teams, and leagues, all over the country, particularly in the early 1900s. Contracts were nonexistent or unenforceable and stars frequently jumped teams.
“Wherever the money was, that’s where I was,” Jules Tygiel quotes shortstop John Henry Lloyd in Tygiel’s history of black baseball in “Total Baseball.”
Over the years, there were many leagues, among them an almost constantly reforming Negro National League that was the linchpin of black baseball. But there also were the Eastern Colored League, the Southern Negro League and, ultimately, the Negro American League.
The Negro National and American leagues eventually gave black baseball its focus, since the leagues conducted an annual all-star game--the major money-raiser of any season--and a less successful World Series. Even so, one of the most famous black teams, the Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh, earned its considerable fame as an independent.
At its best, black baseball was very good, and although teams were thin--they seldom consisted of more than 15 players--there were stars, and superstars--Smokey Joe Williams, Cannonball Dick Redding, Rube Foster, Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige. . . . Some eventually made it to the major leagues, most never did. Haynes didn’t, Newcombe did.
Haynes is 74 and blind now. Newcombe, the Dodgers’ community relations director, is 68. Both live in Los Angeles.
Haynes played from 1938 through ’47 in the Negro American League, for the Kansas City Monarchs. Newcombe, before his major league career (1949-60), started out with the Newark Eagles (1944-45) of the Negro National Leagues.
In separate interviews, the two Negro league veterans talked about the old days, Robinson, and the strike:
“I grew up in Atlanta, in the Fourth Ward district. My hero was Josh Gibson, who played for the Homestead Grays.
“Josh was without a doubt one of the greatest hitters who ever lived. He was a 6-foot-3, 235-pound catcher with a great arm. He hit a lot of home runs, but he rarely struck out.
“He used to tell me he’d choke up two inches when he got two strikes, and shorten his stride two inches.
“In New Orleans once, where they had a short left-field fence, I saw Josh hit the fence with a line drive. He’d hit the ball so hard, it bounced back to the shortstop, who threw out Josh at second base.
“At Norfolk once, I saw him fooled on a curveball, and he made contact with just his right hand. He hit it over the right-field fence.
“Josh had more power than (Roy) Campanella, but Campy was as good a catcher as Josh. But Campy had nowhere near Josh’s power.
“When I was a kid in Atlanta, I had no interest in the major leagues. All I was interested in was the Negro leagues. When I was a kid, I’d walk four blocks to Yates and Milton’s drug store, because that’s where I could buy all the black newspapers--the Atlanta Daily World, the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore African-American and Pittsburgh Courier.
“I read all I could about the Negro leagues. The white papers never wrote about them--except for maybe a paragraph or two. And they never published box scores. In the black papers, it was eight-column headlines.
“Baseball was our world. There was no football or basketball for us.
“It’s hard for me to sympathize for today’s players, in this strike. Yeah, I think they’re spoiled. The more money you make . . . then greed comes in, and that’s too bad, when you forget what the game is all about.
“I also fault the owners for giving them too much money in the first place. It’s a problem of their own making.
“The major league players today--they’d never have survived what we went through in the Negro leagues. They just don’t understand.
“We traveled in buses. I remember one time barnstorming through Ohio and not seeing a bed for 14 days. We slept on the bus or in ballparks. If we were lucky, we could get a room with a black family.
“We’d play a game in, say, Dayton, then shower and eat, then hit the road for Columbus. We’d eat, go to the pool hall or a movie. Or maybe look for a one-day laundry. Then we’d eat and play a game.
“Then it was back on the road. That was our life.
“There were only a few hotels in those days that’d take us. Most of the time, if the local promoter couldn’t arrange a hotel, we’d stay with families.
“My biggest salary was $200 per month. I wasn’t a star. In fact I was a very poor hitter. But it was the Depression and there were people working for 25 cents an hour. So I felt I was doing OK.
“One year, Monte Irvin held out for $175 a month. He didn’t get it, so he went to Mexico and made more money playing there.
“I remember one time our owner telling me he’d made enough money on our Texas spring training games that he could pay all his overhead for the whole season.
“Did he give anything extra to us? No. But we had no union, so what could we do?
“We always got a $100 bonus when we went east. When we went to Philadelphia, we always went to a tailor on Silas Street, who cut us tailor-made suits for $25.
“Jackie Robinson joined our club in 1945. The first day in the clubhouse, he told all of us, ‘I’m here to learn. I respect you guys. I’m honored to be here.’
“We all knew about him. He’d been a famous UCLA football player. I remember how competitive he was--we could be 10 runs down to someone, it never bothered him.
“When he went to the majors, it was a question of who fit the bill, not who was the best player. There were other blacks who were better players. But he had a very flexible personality, and he’d competed with whites in college.
“He didn’t drink and he was someone who could take all that pressure.
“There aren’t a lot of us (Negro League veterans) left anymore. Maybe 200. Some of us go to the All-Star game and talk to players.
“The white players seem more interested in our background than the black players. Mark McGwire said to me once, ‘I’m sorry you had to go through that, but because of you things are much better now.’
“When Vince Coleman said he’d never heard of Jackie, it was awful. It hurt so many people. There’s no excuse for a black athlete to be unaware of what Jackie did.
“He paved the way for them. And it killed him. All that pressure and tension he had to go through, that’s what brought on the diabetes that killed him.”
“You really can’t compare this (strike) situation with the Negro leagues.
“If we’d gone on strike in the Negro leagues, it would have finished them. A couple of clubs were making money, but most didn’t. They’d have been out of business in a hurry.
“I’d grown up in Newark, New Jersey, but until 1945, I’d never been to a major league game in New York.
“My heroes were all Negro leagues guys--Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson. . . . My dad took us to see games at Ruppert Stadium in Newark. When the Newark Bears (a white team) were out of town, the Eagles played there.
“Jackie Robinson did a lot more than people realize today, things beyond breaking the color barrier. He desegregated hotels and stadiums. He broke segregation at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.
“The Cardinals used to set aside 3,000 outfield seats for blacks. This was 1949, and blacks were driving all the way from places like Memphis to see Jackie play.
“One day, Jackie said he wasn’t taking the field unless they let blacks sit anywhere they wanted. It worked. They changed it the next day.
“For seven years, Jackie, Campy, Junior (Gilliam) and I weren’t allowed to stay in the Dodgers’ hotel in St. Louis, the Chase. We had to stay at a place in the black section.
“I came back from the Korean War in 1954 and on our way to St. Louis one time I said to Jackie, ‘How long are we going to live like subhumans?’
“Jackie said, ‘What do you want to do about it?’
“I told him I wanted to stay at the Chase and he said, ‘OK, let’s go.’
“Campy and Junior wouldn’t go with us, but Jackie and I walked in and asked to see the manager. He knew who we were. He took us in his office.
“ ‘You know why we’re here don’t you?’ Jackie asked him.
“ ‘Yes, you want to stay here with your teammates,’ the guy said.
“ ‘Right,’ Jackie said.
“ ‘OK, the reason we don’t want you staying here is that we don’t want you using the swimming pool.’
“Jackie said, ‘I can’t swim.’
“I said, ‘I never swim during the season--it could hurt my arm.’
“As far as I know, that was the last segregated hotel in the majors.
“Little things like that that Jackie did, the (black) players today just don’t know things like that.
“One thing that still bothers me even today about those days is the lack of curiosity our white teammates had about where we stayed, or in what conditions.
“They never even seemed curious about where we went in St. Louis. I never heard one of them even ask.
“For years in Cincinnati, we had to eat our meals in our rooms, at the Dodgers’ hotel, the Netherlands Plaza, because it was ‘Too close to Kentucky,’ they told us.
“That went on until 1955. One trip, Jackie brought his wife, Rachel. ‘The hell with it,’ he said. ‘We’re eating in the dining room.’
“And they did it. And not one word was said about it. After that, because of Jackie, we could always eat there.
“So when Vince Coleman said he never heard of Jackie Robinson, I hit the ceiling. I thought he was a . . . idiot. The black sportswriters really raked him over the coals for that. “But after I cooled down, I got to thinking. Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe no one ever taught him about the history of his sport. He just didn’t know.
“Ten years ago, I was at a New Orleans high school to speak. I had some time to kill, so I went into the school library. They had books on Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and A. Phillip Randolph, but I couldn’t find a word on Jackie.
“So maybe those of us who played in the Negro leagues need to take on more responsibility in teaching today’s young people and players how they got where they are.
“I also think Negro league veterans should be fully invested in the major leagues’ pension plan. Look at Sam Jethroe.
“He played seven years in the Negro leagues, was the National League rookie of the year (for the Boston Braves) in 1950, and played just three years in the majors. He doesn’t get a dime from the plan.
“Why does it take so long? Larry Doby (the first black player in the American League) retired in 1959, and the Cleveland Indians just last month retired his number. What took them so long?
“Only now are people becoming aware of the Negro leagues. Why did it take so long?
“When I went to a dedication of a baseball field that was named for Junior Gilliam, I sat next to (former Los Angeles) Mayor Tom Bradley.
“I said, ‘Tom, why do you have to die before someone recognizes your life?’
“He said to me, ‘Don, I don’t know.’ ”