'We've always been somebody:' Negro League families say MLB recognition 'long overdue'

Bridget Condon Image
Tuesday, February 16, 2021
MLB recognition of Negro League records 'well overdue'
It took a monumental team effort -- decades of record gathering and researching -- plus a year filled with social and racial unrest before Major League Baseball finally recognized the statistics and achievements of Negro League players.

Baseball, America's favorite pastime, has often reflected society.

For example, 100 years ago, Black baseball players were not accepted into the major and minor leagues because of systemic racism, so those players took it upon themselves to form their own teams in the Negro Leagues -- something Major League Baseball acknowledged but never recognized until now.

"I felt like just about every player that was in the Negro League could've played in the white league," said Willie Sellars. "Really, they was better than the guys in the white league in my opinion."

Sellars, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 1960s, never had a chance to play in the majors -- though he says he knows he was good enough.

Willie Sellars, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the late 1960s, said he knows he was good enough to play in Major League Baseball.

Buck Leonard -- one of the greatest Negro League players and a Hall of Famer -- was asked to play in MLB but he turned the offer down because he felt he was too old when they finally asked.

Each player has his story about how injustice and segregation influenced their journey

Rose Hunter, Leonard's stepdaughter - said that in the Negro Leagues, baseball was an escape from the racism and discrimination in the early 1900s.

"When they were playing that game inside of that baseball stadium, that was their gated community," she said. "They felt safe and protected and connected until the game was over, and you had to go back out into the community and you had to deal with all of that."


In 1947, Jackie Robinson crossed the color boundary and became the first Black player in Major League Baseball.

It's often thought of as a positive development and a key step toward desegregation in professional sports, but Hunter argued that it was another way for White capitalism to profit from Black people.

"Can you imagine that a Black man has millions of dollars now, and we want some of that, and he's not going to keep that for long," Hunter said. "That was the reason that it evolved to, OK, let's bring Jackie Robinson over here because we could bring the crowd and that's what happened. It led to the demise of Negro League Baseball."

Robinson's entry into the formerly all-White world of Major League Baseball didn't instantly create opportunities for other talented Black ballplayers.

"A lot of people think that after Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball, crossed the so-called color boundary, that the floodgates were open as far as Negro League players were concerned, but that's not what happened," said Leonard's grandson, Brian Patterson. "It was a slow drip, and obviously, there was a lot of talent that never got to that platform to showcase what they could actually do."

On Dec. 16, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues, MLB moved to make amends for a shameful past. It elevated records and statistics of more than 3,400 players in seven different Negro Leagues that played between 1920 and 1948 to the Major Leagues.

"I think the odd circumstances of 2020, which included Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, the pandemic, shortened MLB season, all of the things that we regretted or mourned during the course of 2020, gave us cause to revisit the question of whether the Negro Leagues ought to be included," MLB Historian, John Thorn said.

It doesn't make everything right, but it's a start.

"I think all we can take are incremental steps," Thorn said. "I think anyone who believes that a press release of Dec. 16 would wipe out racism is a fool. Racism is part of the American experience. It shapes the American experience. We wish it would be eradicated, and we're playing our very small part."


This project that started in the 1980s is not done yet but it's become a reality because of the Seamheads Negro Leagues database.

"It was always frustrating to me that you could look up the records of everybody in the Major Leagues, the White majors," said Gary Ashwill, co-creator and lead researcher for the Seamheads Negro Leagues database. "You have those big thick baseball encyclopedias that you lug around and you could look at everybody in there, look at all of their records. In the case of the Black baseball leagues, you couldn't really do that. You could read lots of stories about them and accounts of their lives and so on, but you couldn't look up their statistics and compare them to each other and figure out what kind of players they were in a more precise way."

Ashwill said that was a frustration for him and he got involved in the project during the 1980s after being "fascinated" by the efforts of other sports researchers during that time.

A team of people, including Ashwill, combed through newspapers and scorebooks to piece together statistics. They reached a turning point in their efforts by finishing a complete coverage of the 1920-1948 era in January 2020. Seamheads had a complete encyclopedia online, which made it hard for MLB to find a reason to not include these statistics.

"I think that's one of the most important things that the families can look and say, ah, our loved one, that they are going to receive the recognition that they always deserved and that they earned for themselves through their own efforts," Ashwill said. "I think that as far as our own efforts, it's just really nice to know that some work that you've spent many years putting together has actually turned out to mean something to people, to society at large but also to specific people, to family members and others for whom this is really meaningful."


Former player Sellars is appreciative of the efforts of so many.

"It was well overdue," Sellars said. "It let me know that the country, you've got some people that are trying to go in the right direction, and that is the right direction recognizing the Black league because they weren't doing it. People knew about some of the players, but they weren't getting recognized."

Thirty-five Negro Leagues players were previously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, including Buck Leonard. This move now is about the other players who have gone unrecognized. It's a chance to fill in blank spaces in record books and make sure their legacies are never erased.

"I have to say the MLB is recognizing the Negro Leagues but of course, that doesn't change history," Ashwill said. "It doesn't change the fact that there was still segregation, there was still the color line. All of that happened. This doesn't change that.

"It doesn't make them major leaguers because they were already major leaguers," he added. "These guys made themselves major leaguers back in the '20s and '30s and '40s with all of the great baseball that they played, teams they organized and leagues they organized."

Hunter's view is that the recognition simply acknowledges what Black Americans already knew.

"We were somebody then. We've always been somebody," Hunter said. "We don't need somebody else to tell us we were great. They're acknowledging it because we already knew it. We always knew it. I think that's part of the problem. We are great people. We're colorful. We bring a different texture to America with who we are."

The families of Negro Leagues players all said they believe this is a step in the right direction, but that it is just the beginning. Many of them hope MLB will recognize their efforts to continue educating the youth in their own communities and help use baseball to address the cultural issues faced as a society.

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