Out of shadows, into spotlight Negro Leaguers get All-Star treatment 1993 ALL-STAR GAME July 13 Baltimore

July 10, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

Nearly 50 years after Jackie Robinson broke through baseball's color line, another pioneering Robinson waits to make a symbolic crossing of his own.

Bobby Robinson wasn't sure he'd live long enough to see this day arrive.

Negro Leagues baseball moves into the limelight when the Orioles pay tribute to Robinson and two dozen stars from that bittersweet era today in a ceremony that promises to be heartfelt.

While former players from Howard University take a round of infield practice wearing uniforms of the Baltimore Elite Giants, the one-time Negro Leagues heroes will be introduced at Camden Yards dressed in replicas of their old team uniforms.

"I think it's great because it's been a long time coming," said Robinson, 89, who is the fourth oldest living Negro Leagues player. "Actually, a long time ago, I didn't think it would happen. No, I don't think it's too late."

Robinson, who starred as a third baseman for the Indianapolis ABC's in the 1920s, was finished as a player by the time Jackie Robinson turned the baseball world on its ear in 1947.

Among the former Negro Leagues stars joining Robinson are Baltimore's Leon Day, Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, Double Duty Radcliffe, Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson Jr., James "Red" Moore and Wilmer Fields.

This is no one-day splash. The tribute began with a reunion of players last night at the Omni Hotel. After several appearances during All-Star Week, it will close with ceremonial introductions before Tuesday's 64th All-Star Game at Camden Yards.

For the next four days, baseball fans in Baltimore will have an opportunity to learn about the black stars who were banned from the major leagues, who endured widespread racism, and who played as much for the love of the game as the money that came their way.

"Even though it's late, we appreciate what they're doing," said Fields, 71, a pitcher and third baseman who played for the Homestead Grays in the summer and for Latin American teams in the winter.

"You had to love the game to play it because of the way we were treated. We didn't eat properly, we didn't sleep properly. Sometimes we played without eating, sometimes without proper rest. We didn't look at the situation as you are looking at it. We looked at it as loving something you want to do."

There was enough money for the black players to live comfortably, but they still had to find off-season jobs. Robinson said he got $125 a month when he signed with the ABC's in During a 19-year career that included stops in Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., he never got more than $250 a month.

But the real problems were the accommodations, the incessant racism and the barnstorming schedule black players were forced to live with.

"Mostly, it was getting a place to stay," Robinson said. "We'd get into town and we couldn't stop at a nice hotel, couldn't eat at nice restaurants.

"I can remember many days when I'd only drink a glass of milk and [eat] three or four slices of bread before a game. I just wouldn't go in the back way to those restaurants. I'd go in a grocery store and get a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread."

Moore, 77, a flashy-fielding first baseman with the Elite Giants from 1939 to 1941, said he once thought black players were inferior to whites. He changed his mind when he started playing against whites, many of them major-leaguers, in a California winter league and in various all-star games.

"I believe we belonged in the major leagues long before Jackie Robinson was picked to be our first person in," Moore said. "We had a lot of good players."

What he sees now in the suddenly flourishing business of black baseball memorabilia is good for the heart, if not the pocket. Jerseys and caps from old-time black teams proliferate in certain markets.

"That makes me feel very elated," Moore said. "A lot of young people think black folk weren't playing baseball until Jackie Robinson. Being one of the first ones makes me feel proud."

None of the surviving Negro Leagues stars receive any money from the sale of Negro Leagues memorabilia, however -- a circumstance Major League Baseball is attempting to correct.

Rick White, president of Major League Baseball Properties, said yesterday he expects negotiations with the Negro Leagues museum and Negro Leagues alumni to result in a licensing agreement shortly.

White said the plan would call for "100 percent of revenues we collect" to be distributed to former Negro Leagues players or their estates, to the museum in Kansas City [Mo.] and to a contemporary minority charity. "We'd like to get into that [merchandising] business," he said. "We think we could do so in a very positive way."

Early this year, Major League Baseball funded a health care package for surviving leagues players.

The idea to honor the Negro Leagues players at the All-Star Game originated with the Orioles a year ago, said spokesman Rick Vaughn.

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