While African-American participation in baseball has dwindled in recent years, chiefly among youths but also somewhat in Major League Baseball, author Kevin Mitchell says their deep roots in the game – going back to the Negro Leagues and earlier – shouldn't be forgotten.
“It can't be forgotten,” Mitchell said. “It's woven into the fabric of American history.”
Mitchell, a metro area writer, author of “Last Train to Cooperstown,” and member of an organization reviving youth baseball in the inner city, is opening his lecture circuit of Mid-Continent libraries this week. He first spoke Monday at the South Independence Branch and was at the North Branch on Tuesday.
The 2015 book “Last Train to Cooperstown” focuses on the 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame induction class, which included 17 players and owners from the Negro Leagues and earlier. His lecture provides an overview of the history of blacks in baseball from the Civil War, when the game quickly spread across the country, through the “gentlemen's agreement” starting in 1890 that kept blacks out of organized baseball at the time, to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 after Branch Rickey signed him to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Mitchell said during the time he grew up, when black players like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and others who came soon after Robinson starred in the major leagues, was considered the golden era of baseball. By 2001, there were 24 Negro League players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that figure leaned heavily toward players who went to the majors.
“This was not a representation of the play of that era,” Mitchell said.
Baseball commissioned a study to recommend others who were part of black baseball prior to 1960, and that study produced 17 members for induction in 2006, including Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson, Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley, the first woman inducted into the Hall, and some star players from before the formation of the Negro League in 1920.
That class famously did not include local legend and beloved baseball ambassador Buck O'Neil, though the Hall of Fame now gives a lifetime achievement award in his name.
Manley wasn't just a figurehead owner, Mitchell said, she performed many of the usual baseball executive duties.
“It was said she gave signals to the players,” he said.
While that induction class provided a better representation of African-American contributions to baseball history, it also inadvertently closed a door, as no black person from that time frame has been elected to the Hall of Fame since.
Spotty record-keeping from those times can make research difficult, Mitchell said. So while it's certainly possible another pre-Robinson African-American could get elected, there likely won't be another large group like in 2006.
“Economic and social factors have led to African-American kids not playing baseball like when I was a kid, and professional football and basketball have done a better job of marketing to African-Americans,” he said, adding that programs like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) have been working to reverse the disinterest.
However, while baseball might not be considered the National Pastime by everybody, as in the past, “I still believe it's America's game.”
Mitchell’s next appearances will be at 7 p.m. today at the Raytown Branch and the Midwest Genealogy Center at 10 a.m. Saturday.