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Lincoln Museum exhibit explores the “lost” history of African-American baseball
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Opening September 19 and running through January 7 at the Lincoln Museum, The National Pastime in Black and White: The Negro Baseball Leagues, 1867 – 1955 offers a world of integrated and segregated baseball years before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s a world that, for the most part, has been lost to us, with inadequate records, a constantly shifting field of minor league teams, and racial segregation that denied many fantastic athletes their place in sports history.
Scott Bushnell, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), is one of the experts who will give a talk during the exhibit’s run at the Lincoln Museum on October 17. An avid baseball historian, Bushnell stumbled upon the name of an African-American, Solomon White, who played second base on the Fort Wayne team in the Western Inter-state League back in 1895. “Most people think that Jackie Robinson broke the color-barrier, but in the late 19th century, before the Jim Crow laws shut the door, there were a lot of minor league teams and many, many town teams that were integrated and had African-American ball players,” says Bushnell.
Just 30 years after the Civil War, it was a volatile and violent time in American history. “When you look at a newspaper from the period that White is playing in Fort Wayne, you’re shocked by the number of little stories about lynchings of African-Americans across the country,” says Bushnell. “Against that backdrop, it must have taken a very, very brave person to go out onto the field.”
Bushnell says that in his research, he didn’t come across a lot of racism towards White in the newspaper coverage of the time. Baseball then wasn’t “just” a sport; a baseball game was a social event for the whole community, and during his short time on the Fort Wayne Team, White was a star. “You have to sort of piece together what is said and not said, but he was a star,” Bushnell says. “He was a star where ever he played.”
The Western Inter-state League did not last very long. In fact, if the minor league baseball teams of today think they get no respect, the minor league teams of the early years of pro baseball didn’t even get nicknames. Some didn’t even have home baseball fields for regular games, and instead “barnstormed,” traveling from town-to-town to play games. “Barnstorming is when you have no real home,” Bushnell says. “White’s team (after the Fort Wayne team) had no real home. They played on the road all the time, so it’s hard to find records.”
After the Western Inter-state League folded, White played with a team in Michigan, and then later became one of the founders of the Philadelphia Giants. But White has a far more significant role in baseball history than as a player. In 1907 he wrote Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide, a small book that Bushnell says is one of the very few records we have of what’s now called colored baseball. “He managed to tell more about the first 20 years of organized Negro-league baseball than anything else we have,” Bushnell says. “If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t know as much as we do about these individuals and the teams and the people that provided a venue for really good athletes who only by the color of their skin were barred from competing with other baseball players.”
Al Brothers picks up the history later on, during the 1920s, when the Negro leagues had been established as well as many minor league African-American teams. The former chair of the Fort Wayne African/African-American Historical Museum, Brothers will offer a talk on the Fort Wayne Colored Giants, Fort Wayne’s minor league African-American team, on November 14.
Brothers has spent time interviewing the family of the team’s manager, Moses Taylor, and pieced together a little bit of the team’s story. According to Brothers, the Fort Wayne Colored Giants were loosely affiliated with the Negro leagues of the time. Unlike some of the earlier African-American minor league teams, the Fort Wayne Colored Giants weren’t necessarily a “barnstorming” team. “There was a baseball diamond and field located on Westbrook Drive near Vesey Park,” says Brothers. “That’s where they played. But they were a farm team. They were paid very little.”
Brothers has found that the Fort Wayne Colored Giants drew a racially mixed crowd to their games. “Since it represented all the African-Americans in the community at the time, people would come out dressed in their finery to watch the game,” he says. “But there were a lot of whites at the games, too. A baseball game was a time to socialize.”
The Fort Wayne Colored Giants lasted for two years, and their demise is indicative of the state of minor league baseball during the time. What happened is simple: the Fort Wayne Colored Giants went to Pittsburgh to play a game, their bus broke down, and they didn’t have any money to make it back. That was the end of the Fort Wayne Colored Giants. “Many picked up jobs there and stayed,” says Brothers. “Moses Taylor found a job also and stayed there, and brought his family out later. Some others may have gone back to sandlot and church leagues. We don’t know.”
Brothers and Bushnell agree that the exhibit offers probably one of the most complete pictures we have of African-American baseball, touching not only on some of the accomplishments of the players themselves, but delving into the social history of the times and providing an understanding of baseball’s universal appeal. Bushnell says it’s the focus on the story behind the rosters that really makes the exhibit special. “The Negro leagues sort of die around World War II, but there are some fascinating stories of some men who could out-hit Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig,” Bushnell says. “A lot of these teams Sol White plays on will win 100 games and lose only 4 in a year. These were really good ball players, on a par with the sports greats we know about, they were just segregated. The fact that the white players would barnstorm with them, and get themselves in trouble sometimes, I think shows the basic ubiquity of sports in our society, that it makes people equal.”
The National Pastime in Black and White: The Negro Baseball Leagues, 1867 – 1955
September 19, 2004 – January 7, 2005
200 East Berry
General Admission, $3.99; seniors and children (5 – 12), $2.99.
Call (260) 455-3864 or visit www.TheLincolnMuseum.org for times.
Scott Bushnell’s Making History at Second Base: Sol White in Fort Wayne takes place on Sunday, October17, 2 p.m. General admission.
Al Brothers’ Fort Wayne Baseball Legends: The Fort Wayne Colored Giants takes place on Sunday, November 14, 2 p.m. General admission.