Except for the information on the plaques honoring the nine black players in baseball's Hall of Fame and in the few books on the subject, knowledge of the old Negro leagues is hard to come by. This may soon be remedied. Later this year a black baseball museum in Ashland, Ky. will open and a Negro leagues exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution will be unveiled; a TV movie about the life of Pitcher Satchel Paige is also in the works.
As a lid lifter to baseball's Black History Year, this Monday night PBS will telecast a 30-minute documentary entitled Only the Ball Was White, after Robert Peterson's book of the same name. The show is the brainchild of Ken Solarz, a 27-year-old semipro pitcher and a producer for Chicago's WTTW. Solarz spent a year tracking down nearly 100 former Negro league players and compiling the most complete collection of still photos and film footage ever assembled on the Negro leagues. The result is a sensitive and intelligent portrayal of a fascinating chapter in the history of our national pastime.
"I wanted to avoid an orgy of liberal guilt: 'Gee, it must have been tough on you guys,' " Solarz says. A good thing, because he found surprisingly little bitterness among the old legends who were denied access to the majors. Watching them, viewers will be struck by their glibness, joy—and anonymity, which Solarz underscores by deliberately neglecting to identify some of them.
"Black baseball talent was never wasted," says actor Paul Winfield in narrating the show. "It blossomed in the Negro leagues." The former players agree. "When you're doing something you love to do, there's nothing lousy about it," says Jimmy Crutchfield, who once, while playing rightfield in an all-star game, made a stunning bare-handed catch. "I thought it was the first step in going to the top of the world."
For certain, playing ball was more enjoyable than most other aspects of black life in the years between the wars. "Listen, if I had it to do all over again, I would," says Paige, who pitched more than 100 no-hitters before reaching the big leagues in 1948 as a 42-year-old rookie. "I had more fun and seen more places with less money than if I was Rockefeller." When former Dodger Don Newcombe began his pitching career at 16 with the 1943 Newark Eagles, the majors didn't interest him. "I never had any idols [in the big leagues], not until Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella came along," he tells Solarz.
But the Negro leagues weren't all fun and games. The former players have little use for the 1976 movie The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings because they feel it stereotypes them as Globetrotters with bats. In truth, their life was a demanding one of all-night car trips, preparing diamonds on game days and passing the hat in the stands to meet expenses. For all this, most of them got modest salaries, $1 per diems and bug-infested rooming-house beds. Even the most upbeat black oldtimer must wonder how he would've fared as a major-leaguer.
Only the Ball pays bittersweet tribute to Josh Gibson, the most celebrated of all Negro league stars. Gibson often batted .400, and he slugged 70 or more homers in at least two seasons. Newcombe says Gibson was a better hitter than Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle or Stan Musial. But when Gibson's talents began to fade, he turned to alcohol and died of a stroke at 35 in 1947, a year after Dodger President Branch Rickey broke the color line with Robinson, a second-string Kansas City Monarch infielder.
Second string! Oh, what mixed feelings the black oldtimers have about Robinson's signing. It was strictly a business deal, says David Malarcher, who is regarded as the dean of Negro league managers. "Branch Rickey had more to offer those 15 owners than a little black boy. He had 50,000 black fans."
The players give credit to Rickey for choosing the strong-willed Robinson, a college graduate, football star and former serviceman, to break the color barrier. But at what price? Newcombe reminds us that Robinson nearly had a nervous breakdown after his rookie season because Rickey wouldn't let him blow off steam. Robinson ended up a physical wreck who died prematurely at age 53.
Surviving Negro league players, by contrast, are spry and clear-eyed. "I was amazed at their recall of game situations," says Solarz. "Who was on base, how many outs, what kind of uniforms they had, what kind of day it was. Buck Leonard, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1972, stopped our interview in the middle, went to the closet and pulled out his old uniform—Homestead Grays 32—as if he'd just gotten it out of the cleaners. It's obvious that baseball kept him young.
"In fact, one of the most interesting men I interviewed was Malarcher, who's about 82. When we sat down on his couch. I noticed five or six file cabinets. I said, 'Mr. Malarcher, what's in those file cabinets?' He said, 'My poetry.' He reached in and pulled out a 200-line poem he'd written about World War II. We didn't get around to talking baseball for a couple of hours."
Of course, the subject of black baseball is poetic, too. No wonder the players speak allegorically. In the documentary's most haunting interview, Crutchfield recalls a recent dream he had. "I singled off a lefthanded pitcher and the ball crossed second base," he says. "I couldn't get to first. I kept running and running, and I knew the guy was going to throw me out eventually, but I couldn't get to first."