Lately I’ve come to the realization that the Negro Leagues and blackball scene on the West Coast — or, for that matter, pretty much the entire country west of Kansas City — has in many ways been ignored by history and historians.
Well, not so much ignored, per se … But the West Coast Negro Leagues have been sorely underappreciated and poorly researched. Aside from fairly thorough studies of the California Winter League — much deservedly so, given that it was the only integrated professional circuit at the time — the West Coast just hasn’t been seen as that important.
In a way, I can’t really blame researchers for this dereliction. The left coast never had any “big time” blackball clubs, and when something like that was tried, i.e. 1946’s West Coast Negro Baseball League, it failed miserably.
So it’s understandable that historians might have come to view the West as an afterthought. But on the other hand, the same could be said about “organized baseball” on the West Coast before the arrival of the Dodgers, Giants, A’s, etc. Until those MLB teams moved, the West Coast only had minor-league and barnstorming action.
However, those subjects — organized minor-league ball, for example — have been pretty well studied. Everyone knows, for example, that Joe DiMaggio launched his pro career with the San Francisco Seals, and the history of the Pacific Coast League seems to have been researched quite extensively as time has gone on.
So, then, why has black baseball that was occurring on the West Coast been shunted aside? Why, for example, is there currently a squabble between some historians of West Coast blackball and House of David officials over whether the famed bearded barnstorming aggregation — this is the original, authentic, HoD team, although various copies of the squad did also tour the left coast — played African-American teams when it swept its way west?
Many people living today have personal, often familial, connections to black baseball on the West Coast, spurring them to find out as much as they can about, say, the Berkeley Colored League or even the short-lived WCNBL. It’s just too bad that such studies of blackball in the West are being conducted by “amateur” historians who are pursuing these passions partially out of personal connections and partially out of sheer curiosity.
It’s also too bad when these “amateur” historians might be brushed aside with the argument that they have a personal ax to grind or are obsessed with their subjects out of a subjective bias due to their connections.
But I’d argue that such are the reasons West Coast blackball needs to be explored — because so many people living today have connections to those eras, teams and leagues, and they deserve to know about their ancestors and their ancestors’ roles in the history of the great American pastime. Their personal stakes in the matter don’t reduce the validity of their research; in fact, they enhance it.
Are the official House of David museum and its connected archival repositories ignoring black-and-white, indisputable proof that their beloved, famous team did, in fact, play black teams in the West? Or are the people who are persistently approaching the HoD for information just being pesky obsessives with an aforesaid personal ax to grind?
Perhaps that is a matter of opinion, so I don’t want to weight in on one side or the other.
But what I will discuss is why I do what I do. I tend to be attracted to topics that have been overlooked or forgotten or just unknown to modern-day Negro Leagues researchers — stuff like the Berkeley International League, blackball in Billings, Mont., and the Van Dyke Colored House of David (one of the admitted knock-offs of the original HoD, but one that is nonetheless fascinating for the fact that it was an ambitious, African-American version based in, of all places, Sioux City, Iowa).
I think what we’re seeing, perhaps, is just the natural progression of historical research about the Negro Leagues. Such research efforts were pretty much non-existent until Robert Peterson’s “Only the Ball Was White,” and ever since that seminal tome, historians have furiously been playing catch-up when it comes to uncovering the story of pre-integration African-American baseball.
And where’s a natural place to start with that? The “big time” teams, leagues and players — the Josh Gibsons and Rube Fosters and Judy Johnsons, the K.C. Monarchs and Newark Eagles and Homestead Grays, the Negro National and American leagues, the East-West All-Star Classic. You start from the top and gradually work your way down to the more detailed and obscure activity — like what was happening on the West Coast, or, for that matter, much of the South, like my current stomping grounds in Louisiana.
Perhaps what we’re witnessing with West Coast blackball research is just the gradual, sometimes glacial progression of the research process. Now that so much has been discovered, documented and detailed about the big-time Negro Leagues activity, time will eventually see the progression of research interest west (and south).
At least I hope that’s the case. For now, I’m proud of my research into African-American baseball in the Pelican State, the locale of a lively and completely overlooked blackball scene. The same goes for the Negro Leagues of the West Coast. Some has to start to process, has to initiate what must happening through the evolution process within research. It might as well be we few, hardy souls who are fascinated by what remains overlooked. We like being trailblazers, and we hope we’re doing a service to the research process.
So I guess I issue a call to all Negro Leagues and African-American baseball historians, both professional and amateur, to join us in our quest. We would welcome the help, because the more people we have combing through databases and box scores, the better. It has to be a group effort, and if there’s one thing the Negro Leagues community has always proudly been is a close-knit, group effort to right the countless injustices that occurred in this country.
Come join us. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.