Negro Leagues converged in an East meets West powerball summit
Share with others:
Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe makes a lunging tag on Josh Gibson in an East-West game in the early 1940s at Chicago's Comiskey Park.
This baseball constellation blazed for a three-day social affair. It was quite the pop-culture scene. Celebrities and music stars mingled with the famous athlete and the everyman follower.
"Just like the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh next Tuesday," Hall of Famer Monte Irvin was comparing over the telephone from his Florida home last week.
Yet this previous all-star incarnation, founded by a Pittsburgh team owner a month after Major League Baseball embarked upon its version in 1933, was more grand than the game later dubbed the Midsummer Classic and more meaningful and even, in its halcyon days, the more attended.
More than that, when Negro League players gathered on East-West game day, it was for an earnest competition with a sociological significance far beyond a measurable ballpark wall.
It was for black baseball.
It was for black America.
And, underneath all this, for three mid- to late-August days it was a blast, too.
"People would come from all over the South," continued Irvin, an all-star in both leagues, with the Newark Eagles and the New York Giants. "They'd come for that big weekend: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The nightclubs were filled. The hotels and restaurants were like a picnic. People came to the ballpark early to see guys hit [in batting practice]."
"It was like a heavyweight boxing championship then," added Buck O'Neil, and champ Joe Louis frequently showed for those Chicago weekends. That was fitting. Outside of his title fights, this game annually attracted the largest black audience on American radio.
In fact, the East-West all-star game carried so much import, it was played near the end of each season's schedule, it was played in Comiskey Park and it was played far more regularly than a Negro League World Series, 26 times to 11 -- in part because owners hardly agreed upon a series format.
Michael Wilbon of ESPN and The Washington Post refers to the modern-day NBA All-Star Game as "black Christmas," yet for black baseball that holiday came twice a year for a spell. Five times, starting in 1939 (about two decades before the major leagues tried a practice that lasted all of four times), they played two all-star games in a single season. While black baseball thrived in the World War II era, the two separated, segregated circuits went head to head in competition once, with the East-West Game of 1947 at Comiskey just three weeks and a few blocks removed from the All-Star Game in Wrigley Field yet outdrawing their white counterparts, 48,112 to 41,123. A second East-West contest on a Tuesday, two days later, almost outdid the major-league game itself by luring 38,402 to New York's Polo Grounds.
Consider these numbers as well: In the 2006 All-Star Game voting that ended less than two weeks before Tuesday's rendition at PNC Park, 11 million ballots were cast online internationally; in 1939, using paper ballots printed in the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender and Kansas City Call, fans sent in roughly 3.9 million ballots.
"That really was the salvation of the Negro Leagues," historian Jim Riley said, referring to the expanding league in the plural sense because a Negro American League was launched in 1937 (and played as the West squad) to join the 4-year-old Negro National League (East). "During the Depression, the whole country was suffering; black America was suffering more. When they started the East-West Game in Comiskey every year, that made a difference. It was the event."
To think, its genesis was in the Hill District.
Gus Greenlee, the Crawford Grill owner, numbers runner and Pittsburgh Crawfords owner who helped to revive the Negro National League earlier in 1933, joined with Nashville owner Tom Wilson in proposing the league mimic the major leaguers' All-Star Game. Roy Sparrow and William G. Nunn of the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black publication that printed about 17 cross-country editions at its zenith, helped to nurture and bring to fruition this East-West Game ... a venture that ultimately lead to each newspaperman becoming league secretary for a time.
These founding fathers decided to make Comiskey and Chicago their yearly home, all the better for players and followers to reach every August. After humble beginnings, the games enticed fans, social butterflies, detractors and scouts alike. O'Neil, who played and managed in five contests, remembers extra coach-cars being added to trains from New Orleans and New York, Memphis and Los Angeles. Blacks came from the South, the Midwest, all points to see their baseball stars and take in the reverie.
It all began, this Game of Games as they initially called it, Sept. 10, 1933. Satchel Paige of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, who bragged to teammates that "the East-West Game belongs to me," chose not to dress or play in that first one. No matter, for he fulfilled his prophesy the next August, striking out five in four hitless innings and earning the victory. He wound up playing five East-West games in all, registering two triumphs, recording two hits and striking out 13.
"People were stomping their feet, 'We want Satchel,' " Irvin recalled of the 1941 contest, his first and Paige's return after a foray outside the Negro Leagues. "He came loping in from the left-field bullpen. I'm sitting there, Lennie Pearson, Roy Campanella and me. I said, 'Lennie, you're the first hitter.' He said, 'Don't remind me.'
"He went up and took three. [He came back to the dugout and] I said, 'How'd he look?' Lennie said, 'I don't know, I didn't see him.' "
This all-star assemblage apparently also was the site of the first organized baseball strike, with the 1944 players demanding pay higher than their $50. There is some sentiment that Greenlee -- by this juncture on the outs with Negro Leagues owners after taking a hiatus and then taking his Crawfords to Toledo -- orchestrated the strike threat that August. Irvin, though, points to Newark teammate Ray Dandridge as their pseudo-union leader. Whoever was in charge, the ploy worked: Their pay was doubled.
"To come to Chicago for three days with $50 ... to go see Count Basie or Duke Ellington or Lena Horne, that didn't go very far," Irvin said. "Most of us would borrow another $50."
The game wasn't absent other controversies, too. With stars such as the Pittsburgh Crawfords' Paige and Josh Gibson among those fleeing south -- to better pay and a warmer social climate in Mexico or the Caribbean -- the East-West lost a tad of its on-field luster. The 1940 edition alone, with Paige amid a Negro Leagues battle over his contract rights, was played without him, Gibson (the leading vote-getter at catcher), Leon Day, Willie Wells or Ray Dandridge.
They soon after returned to the field, and the black game began to continually attract crowds larger than the white All-Star Game between 1942-48. Yet it was in the middle of that run when a revolution came. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed 1945 East-West all-star Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, a player considered an up-and-comer in the Negro Leagues class. He shattered baseball's color barrier in 1947. He unwittingly shattered black baseball as well.
The crowds, the interest began to wane in the East-West game specifically and Negro League baseball overall. Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Minnie Minoso, Irvin ... all these East-West stars began to leave the constellation. Young stars Ernie Banks and Junior Gilliam followed them to the majors.
The 1953 edition, with O'Neil managing the victorious West side, closed the curtain on this long-running Chicago show. The crowd was announced at 10,000.
The major-league Rookie of the Year Award, a bauble designed for Robinson in 1947, was given in six of its inaugural seven years to black players -- four of them former East-West participants. Overall, about 22 East-West veterans have been enshrined in Cooperstown.
Perhaps this all-star game didn't pull a curtain in the end so much as the two shows integrated.
As O'Neil put it, "That was the greatest idea Gus ever had, because it made black people feel involved in baseball like they'd never been before."
First Published July 9, 2006 12:00 am