June 28, 2003

'Saturday, June 28, 2003 - HARRISBURG, PA
Reprinted with permission from author.

They feared our league'
Negro Leaguers share their memories in Harrisburg

Of The Patriot-News

Jackie Robinson was the first player from the Negro Baseball Leagues to break the color barrier, joining the major leagues in 1947. Hank Aaron was the last player from the Negro Leagues to reach the major leagues, in 1954.

That, however, tells only part of the story behind the rich history of the Negro Leagues. Three former players -- Ernest Burke, Harold Gould and Robert Scott -- were on hand yesterday at a luncheon at the Crowne Plaza Hotel as part of the sixth annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Research Conference.

The conference, sponsored by Harrisburg's Young Professionals and the Society for American Baseball Research's Negro Leagues Committee, began Thursday and concludes tomorrow.

For every player who made it to the major leagues, such as Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, there were so many more, just as talented, who didn't get the opportunity. Doby, the first Negro Leaguer to join the American League, died this month.

A big-time player such as catcher Josh Gibson, who played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, never got a chance to show his home run power in the major leagues. Gibson, who died a few months before Robinson broke into the National League, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

Gibson led the Negro National League in home runs for 10 consecutive years and was credited with 75 long balls in 1931. During a Negro League game at Yankee Stadium in 1934, Gibson belted a ball over the third deck in left field.

Burke, Gould and Scott talked about their playing days and their thoughts about how the major leagues were very wary and intimidated by the Negro Leagues.

"I believe the Negro Leagues were hurt when the major leagues took a great player [Robinson] into their league," Scott said. "They feared that our league was on par with their league, so they went out trying to break the Negro Leagues.

"They signed Doby around 11 weeks later, so many good ballplayers thought they would get an opportunity to play in the major leagues. The only reason they brought in some of our players was to break up the league."

The league eventually broke up in the mid- to late 1950s.

Scott started his career in 1941 with the Macon (Ga.) Braves and finished with the Sandersville Giants of the Georgia State League in 1955. Scott played with Hall of Famer Willie McCovey while with Sandersville.

In between, Scott played with the Macon Cardinals, N.Y. Black Yankees, Boston Blues and the Jackie Robinson All-Stars Barnstorming Team.

"In 1995, the Yankees called me and told me that they were going to honor me for playing in the Negro Leagues," Scott said. "It was a special moment for me to walk out in Yankee Stadium."

Gould was a right-handed pitcher who played for the Gouldtown (N.J.) club from 1942-46 and the Philadelphia Stars from 1946-48. Gould still gets fired up when talking about how the Negro League players were treated.

"I have mixed emotions about integration. ... They called us semipro players, but we were professionals too," Gould said. "They were worried about losing their jobs because we were faster and stronger. We brought out the fans and made a lot of money. Simply put, we were outdrawing the white league."

So, Gould said, the major leagues needed to make some business decisions to even the playing field.

"They went out and signed Jackie Robinson and then Larry Doby," Gould said. "They knew that the fans would come out and the money would be greater. It caught on in both the National and American leagues."

Many Negro League ballplayers who waited to get their chance in the big leagues were deemed too old to play by owners. That didn't discourage a pitcher named Leroy "Satchel" Paige, who signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 at the tender age of 42. That same year, Paige helped the Indians win the World Series.

Paige, who played for at least eight Negro League teams, also played with the St. Louis Browns (1951-53) and Kansas City Athletics (1965). Paige, who was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1971, pitched three innings at the age of 59 in 1965.

Burke played for the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1946-49 as a pitcher. Burke also played baseball in South America and Canada.

"The gate was down for the major leagues until Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were signed," Burke said. "They wanted to build up their league and cut the Negro Leagues off in the process.

"It was good that Jackie showed that a Negro League player could play in the major leagues, but we had other players in our league who were better than Jackie."

In the many all-star games played between the Negro Leagues and the major leagues, the Negro Leagues more than held their own. The players, who would draw as many as 70,000 fans to their East-West all-star games, took pride in taking it to the major-league players.

"The Negro League all-stars beat the major leaguers about 60 percent of the time," Burke said. "After a while, the commissioner stopped playing the games because we were whipping on them.

"We had so many players just as good, if not better, than their players who didn't get a chance to play in the major leagues."

When talking about today's players, the old-timers just shook their heads.

"The money they make ... they should put it back into the community," said Burke, who goes to schools and colleges to talk about the Negro Leagues.

"They also should become better role models."

Added Scott, "I wish our young kids today would learn more about their history. They should know that they could be somebody and make life worth living."

JAMES PHILLIPS: 255-8182 or jphillips@patriot-news.com