July 22, 2004

Legends alive: Festival honors black baseball history
Thursday, July 22, 2004
Mike Peticca
Plain Dealer Reporter

Many of the black men who played baseball in the first half of the 20th century are unknown to fans, and the time to get to know them in person is growing short.

That's why men such as Bob Zimmer feel it was important to organize this week's Negro League Legends Weekend Festival in Cleveland.

"There will be time for people to get close and personal with the players," said Zimmer, a local businessman committed to preserving blacks' baseball history. "There's not much time left for that, because the players are getting up there in age."

The seventh annual Negro League Legends Weekend Festival - a series of presentations, panels and other activities - is today through Sunday, with the Radisson Hotel at Gateway and the proposed Baseball Heritage Museum serving as the primary sites. Negro League greats such as Joe B. Scott, Harold Gould and Bill Cash will be among the guests.

The museum, still in the developmental stages, is located in A. Sisser Jewelers on East Fourth Street. Zimmer owns the jewelry store, which also houses his impressive collection of memorabilia from the old Negro and Latin leagues.

"We're hoping that it will provide an informative session for people who want to learn more about Negro League baseball, about the multicultural aspects of the game and its impact not only on baseball, but on our culture - including locally," Zimmer said. "We're hoping that it helps create an awareness and interest for the museum project, too."

African-Americans were not allowed to play in the major leagues until 1947, when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers and, weeks later, Larry Doby debuted for the Indians. Both men are in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., along with Negro League legends Josh Gibson and James "Cool Papa" Bell, who never had the opportunity to play in the major leagues.

Teams such as the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis Clowns and Cleveland Buckeyes featured other great players, too.

"What passes many people by is that these guys were major-league [caliber] players," Gould, 79, said from his home in Philadelphia.

The heyday of the Negro League was in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, when teams often played before huge crowds. Despite the heated competition, there was a camaraderie among the players that helped them endure the discrimination encountered on the road. Sometimes, between seasons, the league's stars played exhibition games against major-leaguers.

"It was a fun game for us in those days," Scott, 83, said from his Memphis, Tenn., home. "It's very important that the history is told of the Negro Leagues, very important that [the museum] be established in Cleveland. We had some good ballclubs. We enjoyed it when we played against the major-leaguers, too. They were very accepting of us, guys like Red Schoendienst, Virgil Trucks and Ted Williams."

Scott, Gould and Cash will throw out the first pitch at Friday night's Indians game. They wish Wilmer Fields could be with them. Fields, a terrific pitcher and hitter for the Homestead Grays and longtime president of the Negro League Baseball Players Association, died at 81 on June 4. He inspired Zimmer's idea for the Baseball Heritage Museum when the two met several years ago.

Fields and his wife, Audrey, were married for nearly 58 years. Mrs. Fields, who lives in Manassas, Va., will not be in Cleveland this week, but she hopes to someday attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the museum.

"We're so sad Wilmer won't be here if that happens," Mrs. Fields said. "He always talked about it. Mr. Zimmer is a very nice man and I wish him well. If I'm living and our kids [Marvin and Wilmer, Jr.] are able to see it with me, though, that will be great."

Zimmer believes the Baseball Heritage Museum would serve as an ideal regional complement to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. A. Sisser Jewelers is in the six-story Krause building, and Zimmer hopes to use the first three floors for the museum.

Local foundations helped fund recent exhibit design and architectural feasibility studies. Zimmer said a lack of funds is the sole reason the museum hasn't been completed. He estimates total cost of the project at about $2.5 million. Former Indians infielder Vern Fuller is the museum's executive director.

"We're working hard to try to raise the dollars to do it," Zimmer said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

mpeticca@plaind.com, 440-602-4785

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