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“For the brothers who played and never got paid.”

In the early 1990’s HBO put together a documentary called “When It Was a Game”. The 3-part series is the greatest baseball documentary ever made, in my opinion. The documentary about Major League Baseball from the 1920’s to the 1960’s was a joy for any casual fan or baseball purist who remembers what baseball used to be like before player strikes and multi-million dollar contracts. Baseball was about players who played the game because they loved it, not because they were in it to get rich. However; there was another group of men who loved the game just as much as the major leaguers: The Negro League ballplayers.

“For the brothers who played and never got paid.” This phrase is on certain Negro League merchandise and maybe some of you have heard it before. It applies to the dozens of men who played in Negro Baseball leagues from the late 1800’s into the early 1950’s. But the history of these ballplayers isn’t as well documented as their Major League counterparts.

I remembering going to a “Negro League Appreciation Day” game at Tiger Stadium when I was younger and receiving a free Detroit Stars hat and jersey. I remember thinking “Who the heck are the Stars? I thought they were the Tigers?” It hadn’t been explained to me as a child that some of the best players to ever play the game never played in the Major Leagues because they weren’t allowed. They played on teams like the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Baltimore Blacksox, Birmingham Black Barons, and the New York Blank Yankees. There was even a club based in Adrian, Michigan in the 1890’s called the Page Fence Giants. There were players like Cool Papa Bell who was, as legend had it, so fast he could turn off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark and that he once scored from first on an infield bunt. Buck Leonard who was the gold glove type first baseman who could hit .395 while belting 42 home runs. Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Willy Mays, Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige and a host of other great ballplayers who were all forced to play in the Negro Leagues.

Some of them made it to the Majors, others didn’t. But for roughly 60 years the only place they had to play the game was on high school fields and empty stadiums. They played with salaries like $100 a month and 60 cents meal money a day, or no salary at all. They would often play double headers and even triple headers to try and get by while playing the game they loved. They would often put on shows for the fans during the game with stunts and theatrics and joyous behavior, but the games were still competitive. Some of their records have been lost or dismissed as hearsay, but their history can never be erased. Major League Baseball has enshrined 35 Negro League players in the Hall of Fame and has done a serviceable job of remembering these players. However; the true feat is teach those who don’t know that baseball history of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s isn’t just limited to Murder’s Row, Charlie Gehringer, or Ted Williams. It’s also for the brothers who played and never got paid. 

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