Ask a Negro Leaguer Column

Week of January 19, 2006

 Hey Joe: As far as you know, are the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball working together to help promote Negro League history?

Mike Spatz, Ellicott City, Maryland

Nationally, the only source I am aware of that currently promotes Negro League History is the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Had not for it, I am almost positive that the history displayed there wouldn't be available elsewhere. The only time Major League Baseball promotes the Negro League is when a former player — after having been denied the opportunity of performing in the white baseball league — is inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, which I regard as tokenism.

Truth of the matter is, there was no major league during the time of the Negro League's existence. There was only a white baseball league and a negro league. The so-called major league only became "major" after Negro Leaguers became a part of it. Shortly thereafter came the Negro League's demise: Thus an institution within the black community was destroyed without remorse. White baseball moguls made every excuse conceivable for their destructive actions once their teams reaped benefits — claiming that the Negro League was in the zone of rackets, because several black team owners were policy kings — while at the same time overlooking the fact that the white baseball league was in the zone of racism.

The only reparation I recall from MLB's destruction of the Negro League was a few pensions to existing members, which took place in 1997 because Bud Selig said racism ended in 1947. Therefore, he and a group called the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) provided yearly benefits of $10,000 to players who played up to then. Nothing could be more racist: an organization fronted by MLB coming together to hoodwink the American public as if their goal was to help former needy players, after Negro Leaguers not only made the white baseball league "major," but also big business.

The racist element about it is, after the 1947 cutoff date, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron have been used since to immortalize the greatness of the Baseball Hall of Fame, while overlooking players such as myself, who played against Mays and Banks. Due to them playing in the league during the '50s, every existing player from 1947 through the 1950s should be receiving a pension. In 2004 Bud Selig and BAT decided to handpick twenty more players for pensions and end the history of the Negro League in 1957. So rather than promote its history, MLB destroyed it.

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn?t know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman?s Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry?s most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they?d arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to heyjoe@riverfronttimes.com. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

 
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