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The long wait is over: Major League Baseball finally honors Negro League greats

Buck O'Neil stands with a statue of himself in the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., in February 2005. O’Neil, a champion of Black ballplayers during a monumental career on and off the field, has joined Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso and three others in being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on Dec. 5, 2021. (Charlie Riedel/AP/File)
Buck O'Neil stands with a statue of himself in the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., in February 2005. O’Neil, a champion of Black ballplayers during a monumental career on and off the field, has joined Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso and three others in being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on Dec. 5, 2021. (Charlie Riedel/AP/File)

In 2006, the first players from baseball’s Negro Leagues, which sprung from the segregation era, were inducted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

But it wasn’t until this month that the late Buck O’Neil and two other Black stars were enshrined.

So what took so long? Andrea Williams, author of “Baseball’s Leading Lady” and a New York Times contributor, says the MLB “didn’t consider the the Negro Leagues and the players, managers and executives there on the same level as their white counterparts.”

The MLB had to announce at the end of 2020 — a year of racial reckoning across the country — that they considered the Negro Leagues as equal to the majors. That says it all, she says.

“You don’t have to make that announcement if you already believe that,” Williams says.

Bud Fowler, who played against white players as early as 1878, was inducted this month. His career predates baseball segregation when a gentlemen’s agreement within the MLB upheld a racial barrier for decades.

“This is why we didn’t see Black players playing on major league teams, why there were Negro League teams in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s,” she says, “and why Jackie Robinson is credited as the first Black player to play Major League Baseball.”

Williams explains the significance of the three Black players who were — after all this time — finally inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Bud Fowler — earliest known Black American player in organized professional baseball

“Before that gentlemen’s agreement was in place, there were Black players that were playing on white teams and Bud Fowler was one of them. Bud Fowler was playing at a time in the 1870s, I mean, we’re talking about a couple of decades before that, Black people were literally property in this country. And Bud Fowler is good enough that they still want him on these white teams and he is able to string together this career and do really, really well. So we hear from Black players who are playing professional baseball now who look to Jackie [Robinson] and say that Jackie was their inspiration. … Bud Fowler is one of a handful of players along with people like George Stovey [and] Moses Fleetwood Walker, [who] are the inspiration for those early Negro League players.”

Buck O’Neil — player, first Black American MLB coach, and founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

“I have so many stories. Really the thing that I remember most about him is that he was actually the greatest. I think we’re so conditioned to hearing people say that about Buck, but he really was without any hyperbole. He was just an incredible person to be around. I was in my mid-20s when I was working at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and part of my job was driving him around to speaking engagements. And he was a man who had seen the worst of the worst that this country has to offer and always had a smile [and] was always great to talk to. I mean, [he] would talk to me about anything. I asked him, you know, ‘Mr. O’Neal, how come you and your wife never had kids?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know, we couldn’t have kids, but we sure had a lot of fun trying.’ [He was] such a bright spirit and was so integral to the work that we were doing at the museum. For the vast majority of us, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, these people are just characters in history books and people that we hear these great stories about, but we have no idea what it was like. Buck played with them. He knew them. He had seen all of this, and I could not have imagined a better person to tell the story of the Negro Leagues, to help get the word out about the Negro Leagues, to ensure that these stories lived on and on forever.

On how O’Neil wasn’t inducted in the Hall of Fame during first batch of Black players to do so in 2006

“I remember sitting there. I remember I was sitting at my desk when we got the announcement. I remember being so excited because there were 17 players, managers and executives that did get it, including Effa Manley, who was the first woman inducted into Cooperstown. But we didn’t have Buck. And I understand, I can rationalize how the Hall of Fame works, how it considers candidates. I understand these little boxes that you have to fit in. You have to fit into one of these different categories. But he wasn’t just a player, wasn’t just a manager, wasn’t just a coach, even though he was the first Black coach in Major League Baseball history. He was all of these things that culminated in this incredible run that he had as the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.”

Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso — first Afro Latino great in the MLB

“His impact was huge. He is really the first Afro Latino star that we see in Major League Baseball. He’s the first Black player for the Chicago White Sox. Even as we’ve kind of gone back and forth about whether, and I say we globally, I think people who really understood him in his career knew that he belonged in the hall. But you know, there was this debate about whether he should be inducted. In Chicago, they understand the impact of Minnie Miñoso. And it’s also important to consider, too, that he was a man who was really living in these two different worlds. He’s a Latino man who comes into this country and is trying to make a go of it. He’s also a Black man when you look at him, when people look at him. So he’s trying to navigate all of these things and still has to put together a really great career, which is what he was able to do. In a piece I wrote for The New York Times about the Hall of Fame’s efforts to induct players and other representatives from the Negro Leagues era, I talked to Dr. Adrian Burgos, and he talked about Minnie’s impact and particularly the things that he had to endure, and how we failed to really consider that when we’re looking at stat lines of players. We want to do this apples-to-apples comparison. We want to look at the batting average of Minnie and then we want to look at the batting average of his white contemporaries. But we can’t really do that right because they are not enduring what Minnie had to.”

On the decline of Black MLB players today since the ‘70s

“I have two sons that play baseball. I think they need to do a better job of marketing and promoting the Black players that are there now because that is what helps make it appealing. Kids want to be [Stephen Curry]. They want to be LeBron James because they see these players everywhere. I’m buying my son baseball cleats because he’s already started training for the spring season. Mike Trout cleats are everywhere. I would love to buy him some Tim Anderson cleats, and I would love to buy him some Mookie Betts cleats. I think, of course, you absolutely have to have more Black people in the front offices. I mean, that is a given. We’re still talking about a culture overall that is not a safe space for Black people. And the best way to remedy that is not to just force more Black people into the backward culture. It is to put more Black people on the business side of it so that they can help to shift the culture from within. So it’s not one thing. It has to be multiple things happening all at one time.”


Devan Schwartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.