Shadow Ball

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There are very few things about which baseball fans can ever agree. We argue over who has the best uniforms , the merits of the DH rule and even which condiments to put on your hot dog at the ball park. (My opinions in order :Chicago Cubs home whites with blue socks, yes to the DH, and traditional yellow mustard). One of the things that makes following sports great is the debates that come from our passion. I’ve always believed that if you don’t feel strongly enough about something to argue for it, you must not really care that much.

With that being said, one thing that cannot be disputed is the impact Jackie Robinson had on baseball and society as a whole. The story of Jack Roosevelt Robinson has been told and romanticized to the point that we have a blockbuster movie about the man as well as dozens of biographies and tribute pieces. And while his impact is undeniable, what really fascinates me are his peers. The other black players who helped to break the color barrier, and those who never got a chance to show us what they could do.
Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947, but what often goes unnoticed is the debut of his American League counterpart: Larry Doby. While Robinson was fighting racism in the National League parks, Doby was encountering identical treatment while playing for the Cleveland Indians. Prior to his first game action, he was snubbed in the handshake line by most of the players, including 4 of his teammates, and was left to warm up alone before one his teammates broke the ice and starting throwing with him. He had racial slurs hurled at him, was spiked, beaned and even had tobacco juice spit on him during games. While Jackie was a polished college graduate, groomed by Branch Rickey to break the color barrier, Doby never got the chance to finish school and was forced to grow up under fire. One advantage Doby had was his relative youth: while Robinson was unfortunately nearing the end of his prime, Doby made his premiere during his age 23 season and played his first full year in 1948 during his age 24 season. In his second year in the league, he helped lead the Tribe to a World Series title and then proceeded to rip off a 7 year stretch in which he made the All Star team every year and led the league in home runs twice. As was the case with many black players from that era, all the years of terrible buses and 20 hour drives caught up with him and he tailed off to the end of his career in 1959. After the end of his Major League playing career, he traveled to Japan as a member of a delegation for the U.S. State Department and played a season in the Nippon Professional Baseball League. After his retirement, he worked as a minor league instructor, hitting coach and winter ball Manager until 1978 when he was named manager of the Chicago White Sox, becoming the 2nd black manager in MLB history. While his managerial run was short-lived (as he was a terrible manager), his name once again would go down as the 2nd to do something historically significant. Regarding Doby, The New York Times wrote, “In glorifying those who are first, the second is often forgotten … Larry Doby integrated all those American League ball parks where Jackie Robinson never appeared. And he did it with class and clout.” While Jackie Robinson definitely deserves everything that said about him, Larry Doby deserves no less praise for all he contributed.
One of the saddest cases is that of Josh Gibson. Gibson was arguably the greatest hitter of his era. While the lack of organization and barnstorming style schedule played by Negro League teams makes statistics hard to verify, Gibson is credited with anywhere between 700 and 800 career home runs and a batting average well above .350 against all competition. There are multiple witnesses who report that he hit a ball 580 feet and nearly over the left field bleachers in the old Yankee Stadium. While those numbers are mos certainly inflated and apocryphal, his official numbers credit him with 115 home runs at a rate of 1 per 16.3 at bats, which would put him at 28th all time, to go with an official career batting average of .359 which would put him 2nd all time behind only Ty Cobb. In competitions against all-white All Star teams, Gibson went 21 for 56 with 2 home runs. It may be a small sample size, but it’s proof all the same that he could hold up against the best players of his era. Even sadder than his exclusion from Major League Baseball is his early passing. In early 1943, Gibson fell into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After he regained consciousness, he refused the option of surgical removal and lived the next four years with recurring headaches. In 1944, Gibson was hospitalized in Washington, DC for mental observation. He died of a stroke in Pittsburgh in 1947 at age 35 just three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern major league history. He was buried at the Allegheny Cemetery in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville, where he lay in an unmarked grave until a small plaque was added to mark his burial in 1975.

A man born 80 years before his time, what Satchel Paige lacked in showmanship and confidence, he made up for with flair and cockiness. When asked about his ability he replied “They said I was the greatest pitcher they ever saw…I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t give me no justice.” Aside from being a Dave Chapelle look-alike,Paige was an entertainer made for SportsCenter. Players in the Negro Leagues knew that a big part of the league’s success came with how well they could draw fans. While on nationwide tours, Paige would turn to his infielders and instruct them to sit down while he struck out the side. If he was around today, there would be debates over whether he was a distraction or just entertaining, and we would fawn over his highlights and statistics like boys with the hot girl in high school. He was famous for both his unorthodox pitching motion and his unmatched quote-worthiness. He wasn’t just a big talker, he was also the greatest pitcher in Negro League (and maybe all of baseball) history. In 18 Negro League seasons, he compiled a 100-50 record with a 3.22 E.R.A. along with 8.1 strikouts per 9 innings. Those numbers would be good for the 11th best winning percentage and the 40th best strikeout rate of all time. What truly set Satchel apart was his amazing longevity. He made his debut in 1927 at the age of 20 and finished his Negro League career in 1947 when he transitioned to the Major Leagues at the age of 40. Even at an age 12 years past his prime, Paige managed to string together another 5 competent seasons at the major league level as a flame throwing reliever putting up a 28-31 record with a 3.29 ERA and in era where saves were not in vogue, he had 109 games finished, twice leading the league in that category. After 12 years bouncing around the minors and various independent leagues, he signed for one game with the Kansas City Athletics at age 58. Seated in a rocking chair in between innings, his appearance was from a publicity stunt, as he pitched 3 scoreless innings, giving up only 1 hit and striking out 1. Aside from a single appearance in an independent game, he never pitched professionally again. He did some coaching from time to time, mostly to earn his major league pension, and he died of a heart attack at the (alleged) age of 75. While his non-baseball life was mostly nondescript, there will never be an equal to his on field charisma and flair. To quote Paige “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.”

There are hundreds more players who deserve attention and credit for all they contributed to baseball, and if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City. While there’s no way to undo the injustice of segregation in baseball and society, at the very least, it’s a lot of fun to fantasize about what these players could have done with a fair shot in the Majors. We’ll have to settle for the stories from those who watched and played with them.

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