TERRE HAUTE —
Negro League baseball produced some of the most talented ballplayers to ever suit up.
Many of those talents have been recognized decades later by the masses.
Josh Gibson, for instance, was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1972 despite never being allowed the opportunity to compete in the segregated MLB. Gibson famously “died with a broken heart” at age 35, three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
Gibson, who led the Negro Leagues in home runs for 10 straight seasons and was credited by one statistician for 75 home runs in 1931, is also a member of the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame in Kansas City.
“The Black Babe Ruth,” as some called Gibson, is just one of many great players to play in the Negro Leagues.
Director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick, is in Terre Haute to celebrate the history. He and George Altman, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues prior to joining the Chicago Cubs, will be honored prior to the Terre Haute Rex game tonight at Bob Warn Field.
Altman was a National League All-Star with the Chicago Cubs in 1961. He hit a pinch-hit home run in the game and played in the outfield with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. He replaced starter Roberto Clemente in the lineup at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.
Altman enjoys seeing celebration of Negro Leagues that takes place from the Major Leagues down to the collegiate summer leagues such as the Rex.
“I think it’s appropriate to give players their due. It comes late of course,” Altman said. “It’s recognition they should have received some time ago. We still have several players still living. They can see these things happening and feel a little bit better about the opportunities they lost.”
The state of Indiana and Terre Haute have several connections to the Negro Leagues.
“The state of Indiana is very well connected to the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said. “The Indianapolis ABCs and eventually the Indianapolis Clowns are two teams that were significant players.”
Hank Aaron played for a “brief spell” with the Clowns before being discovered by MLB scouts, Kendrick explained.
“He obviously went on to have one of the most important careers in baseball history,” Kendrick said.
The Clowns visited Terre Haute’s Memorial Stadium to play, 74-year-old Terre Haute native Pete Jones recalls.
“I saw them play Shadow Ball. It was pretty amazing,” Jones said. “If you didn’t realize it, you would think they had a ball out there.”
Oscar Charleston, who was born in Indianapolis in 1856, played for the Indianapolis ABCs, and he was also elected to Cooperstown in 1976.
“Charleston is widely regarded as having been the greatest baseball player to ever live,” Kendrick said. “He was often compared to Willie Mays and believed to be better than Willie Mays.”
The connections to Terre Haute include Junius “Rainey” Bibbs, who was a baseball and football star at Indiana State during the 1930s. Bibbs went on to star in the Negro Leagues, batting .292 as the second baseman for the Cincinnati Tigers in 1936.
Bibbs was elected to the Indiana State University Athletics Hall of Fame. Bibbs retired to Indianapolis, where his family resides.
Quincy Smith, a St. Louis native, played with the Cleveland Buckeyes, Birmingham Black Barons and Pittsburgh Crawfords during the Negro Leagues’ heyday. He died in Terre Haute in 2002 after settling in the Wabash Valley.
Smith played for the Paris Lakers, a Cubs affiliate from 1955 to 1959, when the Lakers were in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League.
During the 1940s, the switch hitter joined Satchel Paige and “Cool Papa” Bell for barnstorming tours during the offseason to earn extra money.
Smith once told the Tribune-Star that he caught a fly ball off the great Josh Gibson’s bat in a training session.
“When I caught the ball, it felt like lead, like it would drive me in the ground. That guy was fantastic,” Smith said.
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Prior to his death, Smith also shared stories of the difficulties of life off the baseball field during those barnstorming tours prior to the civil rights movement.
“That’s the thing that makes the story such a compelling one, especially for those that are baseball fans,” Kendrick said of the Negro Leagues. “You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this story. If you’re a fan of American history, you’re going to enjoy it.
“While we focus a lot obviously on what these great athletes had to endure, what really comes out of this story that makes it an awe-inspiring story is how much better our country became. Their willingness to suffer through the adversity to play baseball would ultimately change our country for the better.”
If you visit the museum in Kansas City, “essentially, you’re going to meet some guys that American mainstream media never got to know that were very accomplished baseball players,” Kendrick said.
Terre Haute Rex general manager Roland Shelton, a former basketball standout at Western Kentucky University, used to live in Kansas City and was able to meet one of the faces of the Negro Leagues, Buck O’Neil.
O’Neil led the way to establishing the museum in Kansas City.
“I got more involved from a civic engagement standpoint,” Shelton said. “I got involved with the museum. I just learned so much about it, it blew me away.”
O’Neil was a famous player and then manager for the Monarchs. He managed Altman and Ernie Banks.
“He was an optimistic guy,” Altman said of O’Neil. “I know Buck said that he was right on time. The Negro Leagues were sort of equivalent to the major leagues.”
Altman played for three months for the Monarchs, one of the most storied Negro League franchises, during the league’s decline due to players filtering into the Major Leagues.
“By the time I got there, the Major Leauges had decimated the good young players. The league was on its last leg,” Altman said.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Negro Leagues were drawing as many fans as their white counterparts in the same stadiums.
“We had fan idolization in black neighborhoods. Those were the times when they had great black hotels, restaurants and night clubs. The communities were flourishing,” Altman said. “The Negro Leagues were a part of it — probably the second-most successful business in black neighborhoods.”
Terre Haute Rex outfielder Ronnie Mitchell is one of two African-American players on the team, along with closer Nick Cunningham of Indianapolis.
Mitchell spoke to the fact that the percentage of African Americans in MLB is the lowest since 2007. According to a report by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports — recently cited by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — the number of blacks in baseball is 8.5 percent.
“I think it’s great to have a Negro Leagues night. These days, there’s not a lot of African-American baseball players anyway so just to expose fans and players to that, maybe that can get the statistics up again,” said Mitchell, who grew up in Port Arthur, Tex., where his father was a doctor.
MLB instituted a program called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) in 1989. According to mlb.com, RBI “has grown from a local program for boys in South Central Los Angeles to an international campaign encompassing more than 200 cities and as many as 120,000 male and female participants a year.
“Baseball’s an expensive sport, and people don’t have the money in the inner-city,” Mitchell said. “My dad played in high school, but he stopped playing because he wanted to be a doctor.”
According to mlb.com, the RBI program’s developer, John Young, found that a majority of kids quit playing baseball between the ages of 13 and 16 for reasons such as poor organization of youth baseball and the enticement of unproductive activities.
“Baseball’s a little more expensive than basketball. Just got a put up a hoop and play,” says Altman. “The NBA promotes their game more to the inner-city and places like that than baseball. I think also they should put some of those resources, like they do down in South America. Set up academies like that right here in the states.”
Terre Haute could find ways to get its black population population to stay involved in baseball beyond Little League, Jones said.
“I think that’s one of the problems in our city. Everything has moved to outside of the city. All the Little Leagues are kind of outside the city limits,” Jones said. “Back in my day, you could walk to the ball diamonds. Now, if mom and dad don’t want to take you, it’s very difficult for these kids to get there.”
In a big year, Terre Haute North high school might have four African-American players, Patriots coach Shawn Turner said.
“It’s kind of sad, kind of disappointing, I can remember some of my best friends were guys like Ernie Thompson that played baseball and were very, very good,” Turner said.
The costs of baseball bats, which are typically more than $100 for youth and $250 for high school level, and the prevalence of travel baseball, can make playing baseball tough for any youth in an economically challenged situation no matter the race.
“We’re [also] losing a lot of the white players at 13 or 14 [years old],” Turner said. The big problem with baseball is it’s going all travel. We have an economically depressed area which can make it tough. We’ll go from 100s playing in Little League to maybe 40 to 60 in Babe Ruth from our district, same at South, same at West Vigo.”
“The Boys Club does a nice job with Babe Ruth program, but we really need is some type of urban connection as far as funding and as far as promotion to encourage more of our inner-city or our kids in town to continue playing baseball at age 13.”
Jones hopes the gathering today can foster activities to promote the game.
“I really hope some good can come of this,” Jones said.