Are the Negro Leagues a forgotten treasure of American history?

Jamie C. Harris | 6/21/2018, 1:58 p.m.
Less than two years from now, in 2020, baseball will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro ...
Former Negro league All-Star Jim Robinsons says the memory of the Negro Leagues is fading. Contributed

Less than two years from now, in 2020, baseball will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues. Baseball was so much more than a sport for African-Americans, beginning in the early part of the 20th century, and remained an inextricable element of Black social and economic culture well beyond 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

The Negro Leagues provided many communities an identity, a sense of pride and in some measure liberation from the oppressive white society under which they were constrained. However, with each passing generation, the Negro Leagues are becoming a forgotten treasure of postbellum America.  

“I think as the years go by, unfortunately there will be less and less discussions of the Negro Leagues and the Negro Leagues place in American history,” said 88-year-old Jim Robinson. “Very few young folks know about it. When I travel the country and speak about the Negro Leagues, they are in the dark. They have little idea about how important it was. There will be few people to uphold our history. There will be less and less people who have firsthand experience and deep knowledge of its greatness.

“When you look at what it meant to us as a people, as business owners, having our own, not depending on white people to accept or validate us. We knew we had some of the best players in baseball and before Jackie was called up by the Dodgers and Negro League players went up against the best white players, we proved it.”

Robinson, born in Harlem, and currently living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, first joined the Negro Leagues in 1952 with the Philadelphia Stars, not long after starring as a versatile infielder at North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College (now North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University). The legendary Oscar Charleston, a 1970 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, considered one of the greatest center fielders in Negro League history before becoming a successful manager, had seen Robinson play in college and referred him to Stars, which he managed from 1946 to 1950.

Ironically, Robinson attended NC A&M on the recommendation to the school by the great Roy Campanella, who he got to know well—along with Jackie Robinson—as a teenager attending the Harlem YMCA, where Campanella and Robinson would often visit while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. A seamless thread runs through the men, as Campanella was also scouted by Charleston, who was hired by Branch Rickey to manage the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers in 1945. As the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey was responsible for Jackie Robinson becoming the first Black player in Major League Baseball.

Jim Robinson said he places “Jackie’s debut in the Majors at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.” He also believes it “caused the demise of the Negro Leagues because most of the great Black players started to get signed by Major League teams.”

Robinson will be speaking at the Negro Leagues Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research’s 47th National Convention being held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan from June 28 to July 1. He hopes his appearances at events such as SABR along with other Negro League historians, as well as the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, will keep the memory and impact of the Negro Leagues in the consciousness of America.