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Negro Leagues fills educational gaps in history

Breaking barriers, telling stories of each athlete
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Posted at 8:09 AM, Feb 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 09:48:35-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At a time when nearly everyone saw an increase in the challenges they'd regularly face - the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum used 2020, its centennial year, to knock down barriers by telling the stories of those who'd already done that a century ago.

Many may know about the first athlete to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball... but what about the last? Or the one who broke it twice?

"We rarely celebrate the second guy and if you're number 16… you can pretty much forget it!" Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum said. "They deserve to be more than just a footnote in baseball and American history."

Kendrick believes that notion speaks to the significance of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum saying, "if we don't tell their stories, who will?"

In doing so, the museum is sharing what set the stage for integrating America's national past-time.

"There are gaps in the pages of American history books... there are so many who have contributed to the greatness of this country and their stories have never been touted," Kendrick added.

The museum is helping fill those educational gaps through the phase II installation of its Barrier Breakers exhibit; chronicling the pathway of all players who broke their respective major league teams' color-barriers from 1947-1959.

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"This is a time when every major league team in white baseball was able to recruit either a black or Latino athlete for their roster," Dr. Raymond Doswell, Vice President and Curator at the museum said. "It's the greatest influx of athletic talent in any sport, really of all time one could argue."

Equally as important as their tales of triumph are the obstacles the players faced, and the effect World War II had on fully integrating the sport. You'll find the section in the exhibit's "Changing times" area, which highlights those who broke their respective color-barriers in every major league sport. Paving the way for other African American athletes.

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"The irony of these young black soldiers dying, fighting the exact same racism in another country that we're being asked to accept here at home and so that is what started the movement of possibly integrating America's so-called national past time," Kendrick said. "The sentiment was this - if they could die fighting for their country, they ought to be able to play baseball in this country."

"In sport, when it comes to integration - all roads still lead back to the Negro Leagues and the success of an important black independent baseball league paving the way and showing what was possible in terms of entrepreneurship and leadership and the talent of athletes being able to play in other sports," Doswell explained.

Much like hall-of-famer and former Kansas City Monarch, Hilton Smith, whose son was the batboy for the Monarchs.

Hilton played for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1937 to 1948, when he retired.

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"Very quiet, very low-key, he also hit 300 as a pitcher!" laughed DeMorris Smith, Hilton's son.

"Satchel would pitch three innings and then my father would come in and finish the game," DeMorris said. "Satchel was in there to bring the crowd, he had skills... my father had skills as well."

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"For a Black community to have a baseball team in your community like here in Kansas City, we did not have a major league team for many years we had a minor-league team, so to have a true major team like the Kansas City Monarchs, for example, was a source of pride and something that all fans were able to enjoy and access," Doswell said. "This is an example of how people were able to overcome racism, how they were able to overcome oppression and build a world for themselves, and in the case of baseball - build a world so good and so successful they helped bust down the door of segregation."

Which in turn gave the group their name: the "barrier breakers."

"If we can take the winning spirit of what the Negro Leagues represented, both on and off the field, and use that to help bridge the racial divide seemingly is widening in our country, that's exactly what we're supposed to be doing," Kendrick said.

Doswell noted the important takeaway is that everyone should embrace this history because it is everyone's history.

"No matter what your background is, it's part of the American story," he said. "It's part of the world's story, it has an international component as well. It doesn't need to necessarily be relegated February either."