The backbone of the game

On this Christmas Eve, I’ll try to say happy holidays with an upbeat, feel-good post courtesy of old-time Philadelphia Tribune sports columnist Ed Harris, who, in July 1940, wrote an eloquent exposition on the massive importance of the legions of semipro and sandlot squads that formed the backbone of the grand American game, especially in the shadows of the racial curtain.

I came across Harris’ column while I was doing research for a story I wrote for Pennsylvania Magazine, kind of a broad survey of the Negro Leagues in the Keystone State. While poking around for the story, I found the existence of the Pennsylvania Colored Baseball League in 1940, a collection of (eventually) five eastern PA semipro teams with high hopes for a long-running type of feeder system for the Negro League “bigs” like Hilldale, the Philly Stars and others.

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Hilldale Park

The PCBL, unfortunately, only lasted one season despite the best of intentions and lofty plans. But in his July 1940 piece, Harris did his best to support the league by extolling the virtues lower-level hardball. Harris’ column was prompted by a PCBL showcase contest at prestigious Hilldale Park, where the “little guys” got to shine on one of the Negro Leagues’ biggest stage. Here are a few excerpts from the column, loaded with enthusiasm, optimism and respect for the so-called scrubs who toiled below the surface of big-time ball:

No doubt and it is our sincere hope Hilldale Park, full of hoary tradition and memories in its own right, will once again be filled to the brim with anxious and enthusiastic spectators.

Baseball as it fills our view is more than likely to resemble the A’s, the Phillies or the Philadelphia Stars. These clubs and the others like them dominate the baseball horizon and are first to catch our view when we scan the scene.

But behind and underneath it all, the solid foundation on which all baseball is built, are the little clubs, the sandlot teams, the semi-pro clubs, the minor leagues.

The broad and solid foundation of the diamond sport is represented in clubs in these categories.

Were it not for the little fellow, the big fellow would not be. It seems that way in all walks of life and it is particularly true in baseball. The clubs of the Pennsylvania league are somewhat higher in stature than other clubs but they are part of the many on which baseball depends. …

Out of these games come the big-league stars of today and tomorrow. They start down, way down, with some neighborhood playground team and slowly begin their way towards their destiny. Some of them don’t have to wait long, very few of them though. Most make the routine way through playground, sand-lot, semi-pro until word of the ability of the particular player gets to the ear of someone who handles a big-time club. …

The small and often obscure teams nurture and feed the game. Unheralded and unsung they do their work day by day during the hot summer months. The destinies of each of these little teams are just as important as those of the first-class clubs. Whether we hear about them or not they exist and as long as they exist baseball can live. …

So take a run out there [to Hilldale Park] Sunday. It will serve a two-fold purpose. You’ll be seeing a good game in a good cause and you will get a chance once more to sit within the walls of Hilldale Park. Time will not was away the tradition, the history of Negro baseball written on these wooden fences. Even as once you saw the greats of Negro baseball, you will be seeing the dawn of careers that will someday rival the great names you remember today.

Well, well said Mr. Harris. You described exactly why I love doing what I do. And to everyone else … happy holidays!

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