The Negro Leagues from a politician’s POV

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Frank Robinson’s achievements helped Councilman Young develop a love for baseball.

I just finished a story for CityBeat, the alternative newsweekly in Cincinnati, about the Vigilants Club, an African-American, or “colored,” base ball (two words back then) team in the Queen City in the 19th century.

But I was originally trying to pull together a cover story for the paper about the Cincinnati Tigers, a top-level black squad in the 1930s that was a member of the nascent Negro American League in 1937. Although I couldn’t quite pull things together in time to get that piece done and did something smaller on the Vigilants instead, I did manage to get come pretty cool comments for the Tigers piece.

One person from whom I elicited comments was Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young, an African-American baseball fan with a deep appreciation for the city’s rich black heritage. (For example, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located in Cincy’s confines.)

Stated Councilman Young in an email:

“With the Major Leagues being closed to African Americans, the role that the Negro League played in Cincinnati’s African-American history is [that it] provided an opportunity for us to participate in the ‘national pastime.’ The Negro League provided rich entertainment opportunities for the African-American community, because we were often treated like second-class citizens at Major League ballparks.

“The Negro League in Cincinnati also helped to develop a sense of well being and pride in the community that allowed all Cincinnatians to see that we could play and achieve as well as anyone else. And so, when Major League baseball finally welcomed African-American players, we were not surprised by the accomplishments and character African Americans brought to the ball game.”

Young acknowledged that historically, the Cincinnati Reds were slow to accept integration of the majors as well as recognize the importance of baseball to the African-American community. But he added that over the last half-century, the city’s MLB team has done an admirable job of catching up with the times, so much so that the general community in the Queen City now views the Reds as just as racially progressive in modern times as other Major League clubs. Said Young:

“I am relatively sure that there is a general recognition and some awareness of Cincinnati’s black baseball past within the modern Cincinnati community. However, in large part I think the Cincinnati community just accepts that the Cincinnati Reds have African-American players and they see it as a simple fact of the game.

“Firmly, I believe that the Cincinnati Reds are very aware and appreciative of African-American contributions to the ball club. I think this is evident by the recognition bestowed upon African-American Reds alumni in recent years. While the Cincinnati Reds have not always shown appreciation to its African-American players, it is quite evident that the Reds, like so many other Cincinnatians, have evolved to see African Americans as an integral part of the team.”

In fact, for African-American Cincinnatians like Young who are too young to remember the Negro Leagues, especially the Cincy Tigers, personally, the Reds, despite their historical reluctance to accept black contributions to the national pastime, were many modern African Americans’ first entré to the world of baseball. And there was one legend in particular who helped in that process.

“I still remember the acquisition of Frank Robinson to the team,” Young said. “With this, I became an even bigger fan of the game. Frank Robinson was someone I saw in the community, and he became someone I knew. At that point, I not only rooted for the team, but I also cheered for the guy who made baseball real to me.”

As a final note, I think it’s safe to say that Young’s experience of growing his love for the game by identifying with and idolizing one player in particular has been, is and will always be a familiar one to legions of hardball fanatics nationwide and, indeed, worldwide. For me as a kid, that player was Rod Carew, and as I got older it became Tony Gwynn, who still represents, to me, everything that is wonderful about the game.

Many thanks to Councilman Young for his fantastic thoughts and willingness to contribute to my modest endeavors.

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