Students learn of Negro Leagues

February 08, 1994|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Writer

When the lights were dimmed in the sixth-floor banquet room of the B&O warehouse yesterday for the unveiling of a documentary on the Negro Leagues, the middle and high school students seemed far more interested in conversation and their lunch plates.

But as the words and pictures unfolded of men who never got the chance to make their mark in the big time, the sandwiches, soft drinks and small talk took a back seat to history.

After the 60-minute film -- "Kings on the Hill: Baseball's Forgotten Men," distributed by Major League Baseball in conjunction with Black History Month -- the students began to talk again.

This time, however, the conversation among the 60 students from Diggs-Johnson Middle School, Southern High and representatives of student councils at other city schools was about what they had seen and what had taken place on baseball diamonds before many of their parents had been born.

"They [Negro Leaguers] were a lot better than some of the guys who are playing right now, who are overpaid freaks," said James Newton, a 15-year-old freshman at Southern.

"That [the movie] was something. I didn't know that Jackie Robinson was that fast," said Reginald Thomas, 17, a junior at Southern, referring to the former Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman who broke the color line in 1947.

"I knew they had a separate league, but they shouldn't have had a separate league. They should have been playing with the other players," said Kevin Klein, a 15-year-old freshman at Southern.

Narrated by actor Ossie Davis and produced by Rob Ruck, a Pittsburgh professor, "Kings on the Hill" is a lively chronicle of the nearly half-century that the Negro Leagues operated and of some of the larger-than-life characters and teams the leagues inspired.

"I dove in pig pens," said Harold Tinker, a former Negro Leagues player, during the film. "My mother always knew where her baby boy was. All during the day, I was in that ball field because I was baseball-nuts."

The film centers on two Pennsylvania teams, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which dominated the Negro Leagues with such legendary players as Satchel Paige, "Cool Papa" Bell, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston and Buck Leonard, who all drew favorable comparisons to white contemporaries.

As the movie describes, Negro Leaguers barnstormed through the East and the South, often playing as many as three games a day on diamonds that were significantly inferior to those in major-league parks for pay that bordered on poverty, until the leagues folded after black players, following Robinson's lead, made their way into the majors.

"That [fun] was all we did have. We didn't have money," said Leon Day, 77, who played for the Baltimore Elite Giants, and signed autographs for the students after the film. "We were like family. We rode together every day, singing and telling lies on each other in fun. It [the atmosphere] was more close than it is now. A lot of these guys travel alone. After the ball game, a lot of these guys don't see each other until the next game."

Schools interested in obtaining a copy of the video should call the Orioles at (410) 547-6253.

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