U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Negro Leagues and Baseball Memory

The Washington Nationals’ appearance (and now victory) in the 2019 World Series was cause for celebration among everyone who cares about the intersection of sports and history. Many pointed to their appearance in the Fall Classic as the first time the World Series was being played in the nation’s capital since 1933. However, other observers noted this was only true if you ignored the Negro League World Series. Taking that history into account, then, reminds us that the Homestead Grays—who played in Washington, D.C.—appeared in the Negro League World Series as late as 1948, fifteen years after the Washington Senators last made it. This brings up an important question, one that shouldn’t just concern sport historians: what do we mean when we say the “history of baseball”?

The erasure of the Grays should not be surprising. It has become easy for most fans of the National Pastime to ignore or overlook the contributions of the Negro Leagues. Often, the Negro Leagues are mentioned as a piece of baseball history, both a reminder of Major League Baseball’s shameful segregation through the first four decades of the twentieth century, and as a portrait of what could have been in American sport history. The list of players baseball aficionados know—Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, just to name the most prominent—are like vintage pieces of trivia, a way of showcasing that you know a thing or two about the Negro Leagues.

Major League Baseball has undertaken efforts to also remind the average fan of the history and tradition of the Negro Leagues. From 2007 to 2015, the Major Leagues played a “Civil Rights Game,” which honored the Negro Leagues of the past as well as celebrates the contributions of African American players all throughout the history of American baseball. The game often featured teams wearing throwback Negro League uniforms. Since then, Major League Baseball has continued to showcase games featuring teams wearing Negro League uniforms, often of the teams closest to those cities. For example, in 2019 the Detroit Tigers hosted “Negro Leagues Weekend,” where the Tigers wore the uniforms of the Negro League Detroit Stars.

Part of MLB’s desire to promote the Negro Leagues comes from a pressing, current-day problem: bringing more African Americans into the game as players. The rapid decline of African American MLB players in the last 25 years has alarmed baseball executives, journalists who cover the game, and players alike. Numerous articles in recent years have asked this question, and efforts such as the Civil Rights Game and Negro League Weekends are attempts to remind African American sports fans—especially those in younger demographics—of the long history of African American in the game.

This makes the media’s forgetting of the Homestead Grays particularly worrisome. It should also remind us of how memory and America history means not forgetting the contributions of a wide range of underrepresented groups. Is it possible to talk about America’s baseball history without the Negro Leagues? It is—but it would be an incomplete, and poorer, story. Let’s celebrate the Washington Nationals, and also the Homestead Grays.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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    • Good question–the name actually comes from Homestead, Pennsylvania (just outside Pittsburgh). That’s where the team began, but by World War II they began playing some of their home games in the nation’s capital. It’s actually a good symbol of the Negro Leagues as a whole. Many of their teams had home cities, but often barnstormed in the middle of the season.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.