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  • Black Baseball History Matters
  • Brian Carroll (bio)

Marked by empty ballparks, cardboard cutouts, and broadcasters covering games from home, the COVID-19-shortened 2020 Major League Baseball season finally kicked off. Many things were missing, but a few things were new, including a BLM logo in sans serif type painted on pitcher's mounds. Since its origin in 2013 and, in particular, in the wake of of the deaths in short succession of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd prior to baseball's delayed Opening Day, the Black Lives Matter movement went global. At home, the country convulsed in protest and even riots. Confederate monuments came down. Signs and banners went up. MLB (finally) took notice.

If we can agree that Black lives matter, and apparently we cannot, we might recognize that, "the African-American community is not just making this up. … it's real, and there's a history behind it" as then-President Barack Obama told a convention of police officers in 2015.1 History matters, too, but who is authorized to tell that history makes all the difference. To empower Black lives and people of color going forward, a clear, candid look at the past is required. For a meaningful national conversation about systematic oppression, at least some grounding in the histories of US education systems, housing, job opportunities, healthcare, policing, and mass incarceration, just to name a few, is a prerequisite. History very much matters.

Black baseball history very much matters. To pave a way to a more inclusive future in baseball, one that meaningfully addresses the continuing decline of Black players in baseball, we need a better understanding of the past and of the very different worlds we historically created and inhabited. Usually, it's up to us to go find that history—one day per season dedicated to the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson, as wonderful as that day might be, is woefully insufficient. But sometimes, the history comes to us.

Larry Lester, cofounder of the Negro League Baseball Museum, author, researcher, and master statistician, came to my community in Rome, Georgia, to help us recognize the centennial anniversary of the Negro National League, an organization founded in 1920 that began sustainable, organized, professional Black baseball in America. In focusing our attention on a chapter of [End Page 8] local history almost entirely overlooked, and certainly excluded from the "official" histories of the area including the downtown Rome Area History Center, Larry reasserted the importance locally of the experiences of this community's Black ballplayers, real people who excelled on the sandlots and playing fields of this area more than a half-century ago, many of them still alive, and whose families typically know little of their achievements.

Speaking across the gulfs of race, class, and age, Larry presented from the pulpit of decades spent researching the Black players, lobbying on their behalf, placing markers on their graves, and ensuring an ever more accurate statistical record of their play. He made a compelling case for why it is important that all Americans better apprehend just what Jackie Robinson accomplished when he broke big league baseball's color barrier in the mid-forties and, as a result, endured a first season of hatred, opposition, and racism, even from his own teammates. In fact, one of Larry's pleas was for us to seek this apprehension as American history, not simply as Black history, quarantined as the latter so often is into one month of the year.

Following his presentation, I had this conversation with a native of the area, someone who had grown up playing baseball right here in Rome:

"I grew up playing baseball here; there was no Black baseball then," he said, wild-eyed, with gray hair sneaking out from under his red baseball cap.

"Oh, really?" I asked. "When did you play?"

"Late fifties, early sixties."

"Dude, that was the heyday of Black baseball in this area. The heyday."

"I never saw it. Where did they play?"

"Down by the river, where the Rome High team plays now and over in Celanese. In Lindale, right next to where Pepperell High School is today, in what's an empty lot. And...


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pp. 8-15
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