Buck O’Neil is hailed as a legend, especially here in the Kansas City area. Not only was O’Neil a great ballplayer, but his achievements off the field were arguably even greater. He not only worked to spread interest in the Negro leagues, he also played a huge part in the establishment of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Last year for Jackie Robinson Day, I took a closer look at Robinson’s career as a football player. This year, I decided it would be fun to take a look at his career as a basketball player. In addition to playing professional baseball and semi-professional football, I was impressed to learn that Robinson also played a season of professional basketball.
As many know, Jackie Robinson was, and remains to this day, the only four-sport varsity letterman in the history of UCLA, lettering in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He played forward with the school’s basketball team and was a tremendous leaper, having also set the collegiate broad jump record. In 1940 and 1941, Robinson led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division (now Pac-12) in scoring (12.4 average in 12 league games in 1940; 11.1 average in 12 league games in 1941). In addition to his scoring, Robinson was known as a quick player with excellent ball handling skills.
After his basketball career at UCLA had ended in 1941, Robinson abandoned his senior year spring track season and left college to pursue outside athletic interests. After some time playing semi-professional football, Robinson found himself drafted into the Army as the United States entered World War II. Following the war, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, eventually being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 to play for the club’s minor league franchise, the Montreal Royals.
After completing the season with Montreal, Robinson returned home to Pasadena, California. In October 1946, Robinson signed a professional basketball contract with the Los Angeles Red Devils, a racially integrated professional basketball team. The Red Devils only lasted two seasons, but with a lineup that included forwards Jackie Robinson, Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member George Crowe, and Pasadena City College standout Irv Noren; guards Everett “Ziggy” Marcelle, a former Harlem Globetrotter, and USC All-American Eddie Oram; and Stanford star Art Stoefen at center, the team was a force to be reckoned with.
The Red Devils had been organized seeking to join the National Basketball League (NBL), which, in its merger talks with the NBA, wanted a West Coast franchise. The team played home games at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. During the 1946-47 season, with Robinson on their roster, they crushed the Sheboygan Redskins of the NBL, on two occasions. They also defeated the New York Renaissance, which had a lineup that included future New York City Basketball Hall of Fame member Clarence “Puggy” Bell and future NBA player Hank DeZonie. Like the Sheboygan team, the Red Devils defeated the Renaissance twice.
Jackie Robinson left the Red Devils abruptly in January 1947. At the time, few people understood why. In retrospect, the reason becomes clear: Robinson parted ways with the Red Devils just after a Branch Rickey visit to Los Angeles. A few months later, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field and went on to be named the 1947 Rookie of the Year.
In spite of his success on the baseball diamond, basketball still reached out to Robinson from time to time. Abe Saperstein offered Robinson a pro contract worth $10,000 with bonuses to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Though this amount was double what Robinson made with the Dodgers, he declined the offer. He also received a pro basketball offer from the Canton Cushites, an all-black team that featured future Football Hall of Fame member Marion Motley and future Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry Doby. Robinson declined that offer, also.
Though the Red Devils ultimately did not last, it does seem Robinson had some fond memories of his time with the team. “There were some exceptionally good basketball players with name value on the squad,” he reminisced. “We had, I think, a really fine team.”
Before Jackie Robinson made his mark by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, he was a four-sport star at UCLA, playing baseball, football, basketball, and running track. He remains the only four-letter athlete in the school’s history. In his final year playing football for the school, Robinson led the Bruins in rushing (383 yards), passing (444 yards), total offense (827 yards), scoring (36 points), and punt return average (21 yards). You can see a bit of footage from Robinson’s football days at UCLA here:
Robinson even went on to play a bit of semi-pro football. In September 1941, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears for $100 a game. His career with the Bears was cut short, however, when Robinson was drafted into the Army during World War II.
After World War II, Robinson briefly returned to football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He then was offered a job as athletic director at Samuel Houston College in Austin, and as part of that role, he coached the basketball team for the 1944-1945 season.
It was in early 1945 that the Kansas City Monarchs offered Jackie a place on their team in the Negro Leagues. Robinson then signed with the minor league Montreal Royals following the 1945 season.
The rest, as we know, is history.
Happy Jackie Robinson Day!
Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s. The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s. As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically. Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.
Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s. It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle. Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.
Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball. (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.) While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished. Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues. And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play. Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.
We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball. He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige. Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games. He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality. He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him. Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.
Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot. No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades. As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older. When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball. Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight. Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.
As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability. While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson. Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance. The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil. In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.
We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.” In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees. DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series. Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.
During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round. They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different. They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.
Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population. Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself. Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over. Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.
In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career. On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.
1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class. It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839. The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter. O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.
Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series. Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth. Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!” The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!” It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today. At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park. Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage. However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that. Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt. This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.
Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life. I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992). Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.” His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.
From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher. From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees. The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.
Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance. However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears. But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field. Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual. His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.
After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded. He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products. Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.
Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further. The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues. The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games. Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.
During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes. The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely. Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities. The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.
Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler. Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received. Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants. Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.
During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals. Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.
It was a booming decade for the sport. However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.
Major League Baseball has yet to see its first woman player, but the Negro Leagues were ahead of the times in this regard. Three women played professional baseball in the Negro Baseball Leagues, the first of whom was one Toni “Tomboy” Stone.
Born Marcenia Lyle on July 17, 1921, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Toni Stone signed to play second base for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. It was a path that went against the hopes and dreams that Stone’s parents had for her and her siblings. From a young age, Toni Stone loved competition, and she excelled at a variety of sports as she grew up, including baseball, track, and ice skating. Her parents, who would have preferred that she focus more of her attention on her schoolwork, went so far as to set up a meeting for her with the local priest to try to talk her out of baseball, but by the end of that meeting, the priest had invited her to join his team in the Catholic Midget League.
By the age of fifteen, Stone had joined the Twin City Colored Giants, a traveling men’s baseball team. In the 1940s, however, she moved to San Francisco to help a sick sister, taking a brief hiatus from baseball. But then in 1949, she joined the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro Baseball League. In her first plate appearance with the Sea Lions, Stone earned two RBIs.
Being a black woman playing on a men’s team in Jim Crow America, Stone’s experiences playing ball weren’t always fun, of course. She often dealt with a barrage of jeers and insults from fans and players alike. Stone was quite proud of the fact that the male players were out to get her, however, wearing it as a sort of badge of honor. At one point, she said, “They didn’t mean any harm, and in their way they liked me. Just that I wasn’t supposed to be there. They’d tell me to go home and fix my husband some biscuits, or any damn thing. Just get the hell away from here.” As a woman, Stone was not allowed into the men’s locker room, but if she was lucky, she was sometimes permitted to change in the umpires’ locker room. In spite of the hardships, she took advantage of the exposure that she gained playing with the Sea Lions, and in 1953, the Indianapolis Clowns signed Toni Stone to its roster.
Stone appeared in 50 games that year. She hit .243, including getting a hit off the legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige. She also had the opportunity to play with the likes of Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. Stone’s time with the Clowns did not last, however, and in the off-season, she was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs. She retired at the end of her season with the Monarchs, however, due to age and a lack of playing time. Stone had compiled a .240 career batting average.
In 1985 Stone was inducted into the Women’s Sports Foundation’s International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Then, in 1993, Stone was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and into the Sudafed International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Toni Stone died of heart failure in 1996.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go on a work-sponsored trip to Kansas City to see the American Jazz Museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and Sporting Park. Information regarding the tour was sent out a couple weeks ago, and naturally, upon seeing the Negro Leagues museum on the list, I jumped at the opportunity to sign up. Initially, I found myself placed on the waiting list, as over 140 people signed up for 98 spots on the tour, but with one day remaining, enough people canceled their reservations to grant me a spot of my own.
I hadn’t seen the Jazz and Negro Leagues museums in approximately ten years, so I was eager to revisit them. With such a large group, we were split in two, and my group started in the Jazz Museum. As part of our program, an employee of the museum spent about half-an-hour speaking to us first in a somewhat-dramatized fashion about various figures during that time-period. Ironically, she also mentioned at one point that there was also a video available that we wouldn’t have time to watch during our time, and I found myself thinking that we would have been better off watching the video than watching this lady act, especially since she spoke so low at times that I eventually lost track and stopped paying attention.
Once she finally cut us loose, however, I was much happier about the experience. The Jazz Museum is rather small, though one of the best parts about it is listening to the wide variety of music tracks where various styles and techniques are demonstrated. I also enjoyed the opportunity to read and learn more about Count Basie, the great jazz pianist whom I’ve admired since my own piano-playing days.
Finally, it was on to the Negro Leagues Museum. Fortunately, this time we weren’t subjected to the animated ramblings of a wanna-be Broadway soliloquist and could jump right into the meat of the museum.
It doesn’t appear that too much has changed within the museum in the last ten years, but then, once history has occurred, it cannot be changed either (barring the appearance of a mad scientist with a DeLorean, of course). There was still the field with the bronze baseball players, the timelines of events throughout the path, the uniforms, the lockers, the equipment. I don’t recall the Golden Gloves on display during my last trip through, but somehow, I’m pretty sure they were there too.
If nothing else, going through both of these museums serves as a good reminder of where our country has been, and how much work we have yet to do with regards to segregation and equality. Every culture has so much to offer to the world in general, and it’s a shame when we, as a people, deliberately wall ourselves off from exposure to those experiences.
Lunch at the Legends followed the museums. After a tasty lunch of chicken a la mer and a bit of browsing through a vareity of stores, it was on to Sporting Park, home of Sporting KC.
Throughout the tour, I found myself thinking that it’s too bad that I’m not a soccer fan, because this stadium is truly impressive. We were shown the variety of suites and other spaces available for a wide range of events. We also had the opportunity to see the press room and the locker room.
Those chairs in the locker room, we were told, are $4,000 Ferrari seats, complete with cup holders, USB ports, and outlets. Yes, I had the chance to sit in one, and yes, they are very comfortable. Clearly, our soccer team is enjoying the good life here in Kansas City. Somehow I doubt that either the Royals or the Chiefs are enjoying such luxurious amenities.
I don’t know what next year’s tour, if there is one, will hold. If I get the opportunity to make suggestions, however, a tour of Kauffman Stadium would be at the top of my list. As many times as I’ve been to the K, there are still parts of it that I have not seen (the high-roller suites, namely), and I would be completely star-struck by the chance to sit at Alex Gordon’s or Salvador Perez’s locker. I can only hope.