This is a story that begins with Negro League baseball players having a cup of coffee in New Mexico.
Whether they actually drank coffee is unknown. The point is they passed through for lack of any better prospect.
The once-mighty Kansas City Monarchs were barnstorming in Clovis, a town of 17,000.
It was the spring of 1950, a year dry as tree bark. The Monarchs faced a drought of their own. The most famous former Kansas City player, Jackie Robinson, had moved on to star for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson became the first Black player in the 20th century hired by a big-league club. Other Major League Baseball teams, all owned by white men, slowly began desegregating after Robinson’s breakthrough in 1947.
As Black talent trickled to the major leagues, interest in the Negro Leagues waned. After fighting a battle for racial equality, the Negro Leagues were losing the war for survival.
With their shrinking talent base, the Monarchs arrived in a backwater to play an exhibition game against the minor-league Clovis Pioneers.
The Monarchs had seen better seasons. Worse ones, too. There was a time when the finest Black baseball players in the world had no chance to reach the top professional ranks.
Owners in the major leagues had refused to hire Black players, all the while claiming there was no rule against racially mixed teams. In truth, segregation for decades was an unwritten rule of Major League Baseball.
Racism led to the birth of the Negro National League 100 years ago. It was a business venture that changed America.
Negro League ballparks weren’t always spacious or comfortable, but the quality of play was high. Team executives, both Black and white, realized the Negro Leagues could make money.
Clark Griffith, who owned the Washington Senators, a major-league team, rented his ballpark to the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League.
Washington had a growing Black middle class that paid to see the Grays, featuring slugger Josh Gibson and a lineup of other stars. Soon enough, the Grays were outdrawing the Senators.
One of the more memorable games Gibson played at Griffith Stadium was in the 1942 Negro League World Series. Gibson’s star power was matched by pitcher Satchel Paige of the Monarchs.
Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Yankee Stadium in New York and Shibe Park in Philadelphia also hosted games in that Negro League World Series. The Monarchs won in a four-game sweep.
Soon after, the Pittsburgh Pirates of the major leagues considered signing Gibson. The Pirates backed down at the first hint of boos, afraid white fans wouldn’t support an integrated team.
Gibson, often called the Black Babe Ruth, died at age 35 in January 1947. Robinson broke baseball’s color line three months later.
Before settling on Robinson, the Dodgers considered two other Negro League players to desegregate the major leagues.
One was pitcher Don Newcombe, also a remarkable hitter. The Brooklyn brass ruled him out based on age.
Newcombe was only 19. No one so young could be prepared for the abuse a lone Black player would receive in the majors.
Monte Irvin was the other candidate. Like Robinson, he was college educated and in his middle 20s.
The Dodgers had snatched Newcombe from the Negro League Newark Eagles without paying any compensation. Not a bad deal for the white club. Let the Negro Leagues cover the cost of finding a good prospect, then poach him.
The Newark team hired a lawyer when the Dodgers also tried to take away Irvin. Instead of going to court, the Dodgers released him. He didn’t reach the major leagues until 1949. Newcombe made the jump to the majors that same year.
During segregation, two famous men tried to expand Negro League baseball to the West Coast.
One was Abe Saperstein, who founded the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. His business partner was Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
They established a six-team league with franchises in California, Oregon and Washington. Play began in 1946. To build the gate, Owens ran races against horses.
It didn’t work. The West Coast Negro League folded halfway through its first season.
Desegregation spelled an end for the more established Negro Leagues in the 1950s. Discrimination continued, of course, but the major leagues signed more and more Black talent.
Many books have unearthed many more stories about the Negro Leagues. My favorite is by Robert W. Peterson, titled Only The Ball Was White. Those days were fading when Negro League players took the field in New Mexico all those years ago.