Among the ironies of 2020 is the fact that Negro League baseball, founded in 1920, was denied a proper 100-year bow in the sun.
Thousands of excellent Black ballplayers never received due appreciation in real time, and here again, amid the pandemic, recognition of their centennial has been all but lost to time and circumstance.
Major League Baseball has continued on in 2020, of course, the gates of its ballparks shut tight because of the coronavirus. Ballgames were played and no one was there to watch. One can only imagine the tidy smiles and knowing nods such an irony would elicit from the many outstanding Black players of the early- and mid-20th century — such as Cannonball Will Jackman and Burlin White here in Boston.
The battery of Jackman, a righthanded pitcher, and White were two of Boston’s best, though our level of baseball, according to Bijan Bayne, was never on par with the major Negro League teams in cities such as Chicago, New York, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.
“I would say it was semiprofessional,” said the Boston-born Bayne, 60, who has spent decades researching the Negro Leagues and Black teams here in the Hub. “The consensus was that Boston wasn’t a large enough market, or it didn’t have a big enough Black population, to support a club.”
Through the decades, though, Boston had its share of all-Black clubs, including the Boston Colored Tigers, a good portion of their players recruited straight from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School.
Jackman, believed by some to be at least the equal of the great Satchel Paige, teamed up with White on the Boston Royal Giants. The RGs set up shop here in the early ’20s, initially under the name of the Philadelphia Giants. To be identified as a Philly team, noted Bayne, was a matter of branding. Philly carried cachet in the Black baseball community.
“If there had been a club that people would have said, ‘Hmm, OK, you have an argument there,’ ” said Bayne, noting that the Royal Giants might have been capable of competing in the major Negro Leagues. “Because they were a good draw. They could have drawn white, Black . . . people came out to see them.”
Another Black club, the Boston ABC’s, came along in the mid-30s, and were run by team president Clara Muree Jones. Bayne said he wishes his research could tell him more about her, specifically how a woman of that era filled such a high-profile position.
“Something tells me . . . it at least implies . . . ,” said Bayne, musing over Muree Jones as the ABC’s boss, “that it was more inclusive than white baseball.”
The ABC’s under Muree Jones’s watch, said Bayne, once ventured to Henderson, N.C., and defeated an all-white local team, 17-0. The thumping was received in Henderson “apparently without incident,” said Bayne, quite surprising given the cultural attitudes of the day.
“There was nothing about ethnicity or race in the summary of the game,” said Bayne, recalling a newspaper account he read of the day. “It’s like it was an everyday thing, in a state where it was against the law for white people to play against Black people.”
The last entry among Boston’s Black teams, the Blues, played briefly in the summer of ’46 in what was Branch Rickey’s ill-fated US Baseball League. The Blues were in first place when the league folded that summer.
Bayne’s research has led him to wonder if Rickey — then president, GM, and part-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers — ever wanted the USBL to flourish. It could have been, Bayne believes, a means for Rickey to have tried to force MLB to include an all-Black team in the bigs.
“The argument that people then would always broach was, white guys are not going to want to socialize with Black teammates,” said Bayne, “and room, and ride on trains and locker with and shower with . . . ”
Here in Boston, Jackman, born in 1897, and White, born in 1895, remained batterymates for the better part of a quarter-century. Jackman was the star.
What Bayne can’t fully understand is why Jackman, born and raised in Texas, first made his way to Boston, and then why he remained here for the rest of his life (dying in Marion, Mass., in 1972). White, who came here from Indiana, likely didn’t have enough game to think of the big time, so his playing options were fewer. He also lived out his life here (dying in Bedford in 1971).
Jackman made his living as a chauffeur for a doctor in Dedham. Bayne figures steady work and decent pay were in part what compelled him to remain here. Baseball was only a game for Black players to pick up side money. White, said Bayne, later managed the Royal Giants, and census records show him living in the South End, working as a sports entrepreneur.
Bayne’s best guess is that Jackman, by the time he arrived here, had traveled enough in the United States to appreciate a city where had a steady job, enjoyed a profile in the community, and embraced life in a city that was non-segregationist.
Was Boston perfect? No. But Jackman knew there were worse places in the United States.
“I think they figured,” said Bayne, referring to both Jackman and White, “ ‘Why would I go play for St. Louis or Detroit or Chicago and when we go to a market that’s in the mid-Atlantic, or a game in Missouri, or in the Southeast or spring training . . . we can’t stay anywhere but a rooming house? Or we can’t use a restroom on the road. We have to go to the back of diners. Some diners won’t serve us at all.’ ”
Such Jim Crow indignities prevailed in some states until the mid-60s, by which time Jackie Robinson had long ago (1947) cracked baseball’s color line. By 1966, the Negro Leagues were gone and the Indianapolis Clowns remained as the last all-Black team still doing business.
One century gone by, the base paths of the Negro Leagues are no longer in sight. We should not let the players who filled them fade from our mind’s eye.