Black Heritage Month Spotlight: Black Baseball History in D.C.

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Images and content for this spotlight were provided by the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. The exhibition, “Separate and Unequaled: Black Baseball in the District of Columbia” provides an overview of the popularity of African American baseball teams played on segregated fields in Washington, D.C., from Reconstruction to the second half of the 20th century.

Baseball: Universal Pastime in D.C.

Howard UMore than 150 years before the Nationals brought Major League Baseball back to D.C. in 2005, the city was home to a baseball mania comprised of every age, every race and even every government level. From schoolyards to the White House lawn, baseball flourished after the Civil War when thousands of men turned from the battlefield to the baseball field.

While baseball was played by all, the teams were segregated by race. While many white teams had fields, black clubs including the Washington Mutuals and Alert Base Ball Club were left to rely on the generosity of other clubs for the use of their fields and open spaces. As far back as the 1860s, black clubs came and went until the Homestead Grays formally called D.C. home in 1937.

DID YOU KNOW? From 1891 to 1965, Washington’s Griffith Stadium and St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park were the only segregated major league ballparks hosting both black and white ball games.

“Home Away From Home:” Homestead Grays

Grays teamThe Homestead Grays are considered one of the most successful baseball teams to call Washington home, even if they split time between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. While the first incarnation of the Washington Senators were busy giving Washington the distinction of being the “first in war, first in peace and last in the American League East,” the Grays won nine Negro National League titles and two consecutive Colored World Series. The roster featured Hall of Famers James “Cool Papa” Bell, Ray Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Jud Wilson. Each of these men is also a member of the Nationals’ Ring of Honor, displayed at Nationals Park.

Although the team was only in D.C. from 1937 until 1948, the team adopted Washington as its “home away from home” and scheduled many of its games at Griffith Stadium. Many historians report that their games often pulled larger crowds than the Senators, especially when the rival — and equally successful — Kansas City Monarchs came to town.

When World War II began to rage in Europe and the Pacific, many ballplayers, Major League and Negro leagues alike, traded in their baseball uniforms for that of the Army, Navy and Marines. The Negro leagues flourished during the war, however, due to the Kansas City Monarchs’ Satchel Paige and the Homestead Grays’ Josh Gibson being considered “4-F,” or unfit for service. Paige’s flat feet and Gibson’s creaky knees may have kept them from serving in the war efforts, but did not tarnish their baseball skills. With more employment opportunities in war-related industries and disposable income, black fans flocked to watch the Negro league stars. The Negro league franchises began bringing in revenues of more than $2 million a year, making them one of the largest black-owned and operated businesses in the country.

Although Jackie Robinson’s success in the Major Leagues in 1947 changed the course of baseball, his success also spelled the end of the Negro leagues. Due to financial difficulties and the collapse of the Negro leagues, the Homestead Grays franchise disbanded after the 1950 season.

DID YOU KNOW? When the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington after the 2004 season, “Grays” was one of the three finalists for the team’s new name along with the “Senators” and ultimately the winner, the “Nationals.”

Grays’ Spotlight: Josh Gibson

Grays jerseyJosh Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque states that he is considered the “greatest slugger in Negro Baseball Leagues,” but many feel that he is one of the best hitters to ever play the game. Also known as “The Black Babe Ruth,” the Grays catcher hit for average and power and finished his 17-year career with a .350 batting average. While the final total is unclear, Gibson hit more than 800 homers, taking home nine home run titles and four batting championships along the way. Although Negro league statistics were not well kept, research has said that Gibson had a home run rate of one every 15.9 times at bats. This rate compares to the top nine home run hitters in Major League Baseball history. These didn’t just clear the fence either. Tales of Gibson’s long balls — and where they landed — only add to the myths surrounding this legend.

While he occasionally played against MLB competition, Gibson unfortunately never got a chance to play in a Major League Baseball game. On New Year’s Day 1943, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, but refused operations fearing that he would suffer permanent brain damage. He did not reveal his condition to the Homestead Grays and continued to play for the team for four more seasons. Although he suffered from reoccurring headaches, those years were among the best of his career.  He won the Negro league home run titles in 1942 and 1943, won the batting title in 1943 with an average of .517, and hit 10 home runs in Griffith’s Stadium in 1943 — more than the entire American League hit in Washington that year. His supreme batting also led the Grays to win the Negro World Series in 1943. In Gibson’s last season, in 1946, he batted .379 and led the league with 16 home runs.

In 1947, at the age of 35, Gibson died of a cerebral hemorrhage. This was just three months before Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s contributions to the game are colossal, but many feel that the honor of breaking the color barrier should have been Gibson’s. But his efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1972, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Gibson, behind Satchel Paige, became the second player inducted for their tremendous Negro league careers.

DID YOU KNOW? Clark Griffith, longtime Senators owner, attempted to sign Gibson and Leonard to play for the Senators in the early 1940s. Baseball officials intervened and forced Griffith to break off contract negotiations. The Senators would not become integrated until seven years after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, signing Carlos Paulz in 1954.

Breaking Barriers: Sam Lacy

Museum ExhibitBefore there was television, fans who weren’t in attendance at the games were left to read all about it in the next morning’s newspapers. African American sportswriters not only played an integral role in the success of the Negro leagues, but Samuel Harold “Sam” Lucy wrote continuously about the injustice in segregated D.C. and the Homestead Grays. A Washingtonian and former Howard University student, Lacy covered sports for the Washington Tribune and the Chicago Defender before taking up a post at the Baltimore Afro-American. He constantly pushed for Senators’ owner Clark Griffith to integrate Grays players into Major League Baseball.

Encouraging others to not be satisfied with the segregated game, Lacy challenged racist standards while capturing the stars of the Negro leagues. Appropriately, it was Lacy who followed Jackie Robinson in the early days of integrated Major League Baseball, often sharing a room with the baseball legend.

Although Lacy wrote about African American success stories, he was a success story himself. In 1948, he became the first black member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. In 1997, he was awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the BBWAA for outstanding baseball writing, which placed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s writers’ and broadcasters’ section.

DID YOU KNOW? Sam Lacy’s love of sports started at a young age. Early in his life he worked in Griffith Stadium selling peanuts and popcorn in the black seating section of the park.

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