ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some of professional baseball’s great black players – among them Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Satchel Paige – made a name for themselves before the integration of the Major Leagues.
Their stars began to shine in the black baseball leagues that endured in the first half of the 20th century.
The intriguing story of those leagues and its players is told in the traveling exhibit “Discover Greatness: An Illustrated History of the Negro Baseball Leagues.” The exhibit is at the African American Performing Arts Center in Albuquerque.
The exhibit is intended as an introduction to black baseball history, and it’s been well received wherever the exhibit has been, said Raymond Doswell, vice president of curatorial services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
“Each of the exhibit’s five sections shows the development of baseball specifically as it relates to African-American players and Afro-Latino players as well,” Doswell said.
The exhibit’s first section tells of several notable black players, including brothers Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker and Welday Wilberforce Walker. “Fleet” Walker actually broke the color line in professional baseball when he played on the Toledo Blue Stockings, a white major league team in the late 19th century.
“His white teammates grudgingly accepted him,” Doswell said. “Fans in many cities did not accept him. He left baseball bitter from his experience.”
By 1900, collusion by major league team owners relegated black players to all-black teams.
Section Two of the exhibit, “The Great Independents,” explains the formation of all-black teams in the East and Midwest but without a formal league structure. “It was more of a circus attraction,” Doswell said.
The year 1920 saw a movement by independent black team owners and the press to push for the formation of stable leagues.
“The Kansas City Monarchs became a dominant team in a competitive league,” Doswell said. “There was inter-league play and they had their own world series. In the Great Depression league structures collapsed temporarily though teams remained.”
Another section of the exhibit talks about the years 1932 to 1946 as being the heyday of black baseball leagues. Essential to that revival was an annual all-star game held at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
“It became the big event even more than the end of the season playoffs,” Doswell said.
With the fall of the color line in the mid-1940s, Negro leagues began to close because black fans turned their attention to the Major Leagues.
“Soon,” he said, “the black teams weren’t needed to bring talent. By 1955 most of the Negro league structures had folded.”