Is baseball a thing of the past in the black community?

Joe thinks so.

 Hey Joe: According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, Major League Baseball's black population is now 8.5 percent — the lowest in 26 years and about half of what it was a decade ago. Why the precipitous drop, and do you think it will continue?

Jim Ray Hart, San Francisco, California

Based upon blacks' contributions to Major League Baseball without adequate recompense, unless it can find a way to atone for its past practices, I think baseball is a thing of the past in the black community, among both fans and players.

There are those old enough who remember what happened to Jackie Robinson and passed it down to their offspring. They relate to the great Negro League teams that underwent the same treatment. I can understand the protest of white players against blacks infringing on their jobs. Had not the law forbade blacks and whites from playing together on the same fields, the Negro League would have ceased at that point rather than begun to crumble in 1947. The so-called major league would have been "major," because the rosters would probably have been like those currently in basketball and football. However, the appearance of Robinson playing on the same fields with whites sounded the death knell for the Negro Leagues.

The amazing thing about this organization is that it had no prejudices. The promotion of games was shared by blacks and whites even at a time law prohibited it.

Although those great Negro League teams prior to Robinson weren't permitted to transform the so-called major-league teams into major-league caliber by incorporating players during their heyday, we who are old enough saw it materialize following Robinson's entry. Though slowly dying, those teams still had talented players. Black Americans and those of color who spoke in different tongues transformed the game by challenging every single record set beforehand. Then came Curt Flood, a byproduct of the Negro League, who broke the stranglehold that white team owners held over both black and white players.

This past Saturday, March 31, a game billed as the inaugural Civil Rights Game was played. Beneficiaries of that game were the National Civil Rights Museum, NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Negro League Baseball Museum. If I remember Thurgood Marshall correctly, he fought to break down segregation in education. These organizations should check their education: The inaugural Civil Rights Game occurred when Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field wearing a Dodger uniform. Had there been no Negro Leagues, there would be no Negro League Baseball Museum. The late Buck O'Neil's final plea was for all former Negro Leaguers to receive pensions. If anybody has allowed MLB commissioner Selig to cut Negro League history short by denying former players pensions, shame, shame, shame on you!

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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