The last of baseball's Negro League teams folded in the 1960s. But a museum in the footprint of Yankee Stadium is reminding baseball fans of the League's history. The Bronx Museum of the Arts has an exhibit containing 50 artifacts from the Negro League teams on view—from a child's bat signed by Jackie Robinson to vintage Ebbets Field flannels.
"New York City is a historical home for a whole range of baseball culture and events and players from the African-American community," said Cary Goodman, who heads up the 161st St. Business Improvement District that sponsored the exhibit.
"Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and it's not a bad time to go over to the exhibit and think about what these athletes faced to play baseball in the Leagues," he said.
Racism and Jim Crow laws didn't allow black baseball players to be part of Major League teams until 1945 when Jackie Robinson was recruited to join the Brooklyn Dodgers, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Prior to that, black players were forced to "barnstorm" or travel around the country to play games.
In 1920, the Negro National League was formed. The New York Black Yankees, the New York Cubans, the Harlem Stars, the Brooklyn Eagles, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the Cuban Stars (East), the Lincoln Giants and the Newark Eagles were all Negro League teams that were formed in subsequent years and played ball in the New York City area.
"By having such an exhibit, people can get some sense of where blacks were at a certain point in time—what they were doing to sort of cope with their situation," said N.Y.U. History Professor Jeffrey T. Sammons. "I think it gives people some sense of the kind of struggles that blacks had and how they tried to overcome them."
Sammons added that the exhibit also teaches what was lost through integration—when African-Americans owned and controlled their own Negro League teams.
"I'm not saying that I would go back to the days of segregation, but we also have to understand there are, sort of, sacrifices and drawbacks to integration," he said. "For example, the number of blacks who played in the Major Leagues, I think, ten years after Jackie Robinson broke in was really, really small. Look how long it was before there was a black manager or blacks in the front office of Major League Baseball. It took a very long time."
Dr. Raymond Doswell, director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, agrees that the Leagues are an important part of baseball's history—and black history.
"It was something to see. Something that created revenue," he said. "It created jobs, but also it created great talent."
Doswell's museum in Kansas City provided photographs and a panel providing the historical context for the Negro Leagues exhibit at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Carl E. Prince, an N.Y.U. history professor who is the author of "Brooklyn's Dodgers: The Borough, and The Best of Baseball," agrees that the Negro Leagues produced big league talent.
"The Newark Eagles and the Yankee and Dodgers black ball clubs produced some of the really first class African-American ball players to hit the major leagues," said Prince. "Because of the Brooklyn Dodgers pioneering efforts in this area, it's [the exhibit's] all the more pertinent to New York City and its environs."
Bronx resident Ricky Martinez-Fernandez owns the Negro League artifacts on view and loaned them to the museum for the exhibit. His grandfather was a Negro Leagues baseball player.
"Baseball & The Negro Leagues" is on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts at 1040 Grand Concourse at 165th St. through Wednesday April 6. The 161st St. Business Improvement District hopes to sponsor an expanded Negro Leagues exhibit next summer.