It’s been more than two weeks since the conclusion of the 2017 Jerry Malloy conference in Harrisburg, and I’m just now putting fingers to keys in reflection. It’s taken me so long, I think, because there’s been so many other things flitting through and swirling around in my head.
This year’s conference was a fantastic, rewarding experience — just what I needed as I tried to rebound from my crash-and-burn experience at last year’s version. It was incredible to see so many friends and fellow black baseball historians again this year. As the one and only Larry Lester says, “It’s nice to see family again.”
Plus, my roomie Ted Knorr put together and pulled off a remarkable, educational and inspiring event in his hometown. The poor guy ran himself ragged for four days — and that’s not counting the year of lead-up prep work he did before July 27 rolled around — but he hung in there and, with help from a whole bunch of compatriots and supporters, it was a smashing three-day experience. So, many congrats and huge thanks to Mr. Knorr and even else involved.
Since I returned to NOLA, however, I’ve been viewing this year’s experience in Harrisburg as a reprieve of sorts from what else has been going on in my life. In addition to the usual financial challenges — the perpetual woes of a freelance journalist and researcher are always floating over my head — the atmosphere and state of our nation as a whole has weighed upon me heavily, much as it has many others. Watching the incremental dissolution and crumbling of rational, respectful discourse, then our cherished electoral process, then our journalism, then our international relations, and finally our very spirit of generosity and understanding … it’s just been very hard to witness and process the decay of the soul of our nation without feeling a draining of my own optimism and faith in the future of our society.
And then what happened in Charlottesville Saturday … well, I can’t really speak for anyone else, but the violence and terrorism inflicted upon peaceful protestors by fearful, hate-filled bigots has affected me very deeply. Combined with the sudden, frightening threat of actual nuclear war with a poverty-stricken, despotic dictatorship halfway around the world, the Virginia tragedy has, in some ways, driven me into my own head, unable to understand or even grasp what’s happening around me, and around us as a country. It all seems like a nightmare, a horrific dreamscape from which I just want to withdraw and hide.
Nothing seems real, and nothing seems important, other than physical and psychological survival. Thus, over the last few days, it’s been very difficult to see how researching and writing about baseball history matters much right now.
The fact that Saturday’s eruption of evil was rooted in and fed by ethnic, cultural and racial hatred makes me ponder whether the dedication and work of me, you and others passionate about the Negro Leagues has really, truly made a difference. For years — and decades, for many of us — we’ve striven to learn about our nation’s cultural past, to understand our country’s mistakes in order to prevent them from happening again.
As black baseball historians and enthusiasts, we’ve tried to show people, through the lens of the American pastime, that all people are capable of great, courageous, honorable things, that wondrous achievements can be forged in the crucible of fear and hate, and that, ultimate, love, understanding and bravery can eventually triumph over darkness.
Because of this dedication — and the overwhelmingly positive response from the public, SABR and the average baseball — we, as a family of researchers, writers and fans, have come to believe personally in the notion that every one of us can always strive for knowledge, for learning, for personal betterment and the betterment of our society. We believe that one man or one woman — a Jackie Robinson, an Effa Manley, a Rube Foster — can make a difference, can change minds and win over hearts. We learn about such legendary figures, and they inspire us as individuals to make ourselves and our country better.
And then something like Charlottesville happens. Over the last excruciating few days, that tragedy — especially when laid upon all the other hate and fear that has piled up on our national psyche since a fool with fake hair and false notions of reality rode down an escalator to announce he wanted to be our “leader” — has made me wonder, “Jackie’s stoic pride, his potent bat, his fleet feet, his Herculean endurance of hate and bigotry, his steely character … was it all ultimately for naught? This is what he — and Rube and Sol and Josh and Effa and Oscar and Bud and so many others — fought for? For it all to come to this? To a nation torn apart at its very ideological and spiritual source?
Why bother trying to educate people, whether it be about baseball history or any other subject, if a stubborn, fearful, hardened minority will always do whatever they can to destroy any learning the rest of us try to offer and experience?
Why bother telling folks about how, for decades, black men and women who were shunned and rejected by white society and its Organized Baseball and forced to form their own units, their own teams, their own hardball families and scramble and scratch and claw to establish their own leagues, their own tours, their own identity? Why relate to folks about how African-American teams had to tirelessly criss cross the country, playing one or even two games every single day just to put food on the table and play the sport they love because white society refused their talents and passion?
Why relate tales of having to go around to the back of restaurants to accept scraps of food, about having to eat crackers and sardines on a cramped, smelly bus at 2 in the morning, day after day, night after night? Why tell people about these men and women who were sometimes literally just one step ahead of a hateful mob in white sheets and carrying torches, just because those men and women loved baseball — loved the American pastime — so much that they’d risk such challenges and terrors?
Why even bother telling people about those terrifying scenes — and the resulting triumph over them — that took place so long ago, when similar scenes are playing out at this very moment? Why try to show people the historical error of our ways when those errors are, in reality, not even history, but are now? This is how far we have come? This?
Why even bother?
Why even bother to pursue your passion, if that pursuit occurs in a societal vacuum of ignorance? Why bother to spread your enthusiasm and love of learning to others when so many won’t even listen?
Why even bother when horrific things like this keep happening? Why even bother to teach people who don’t want to learn? Why preach understanding when so many persist in hating?
Why care about history when that very history keeps leading to violence and fear, when that history continues to be irrelevant for so many? Why teach of the past when the present, the here and now, is so bewildering, dark and dispiriting?
Because of the Malloy. Because our annual conference reminds us, even briefly and in the darkest times, that togetherness and respect united behind a shared passion and faith can still make a difference. Because the love found in a family can truly be a beacon in the night, a lighthouse in a swirling, raging storm, a guide to better things.
Because in just three days, the 100 or so of us who gathered in Harrisburg showed what love and learning and respect can do. It can bring together people of different genders, different races, different sexual orientations, different backgrounds in the spirit of baseball — the true spirit of our nation.
Because the Malloy conference renews that spark of inspiration within all of us. Those 72 hours together reminds us that we are not alone, we are never alone in our pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding.
And as long as we can hold on to that — and I know we all will — we collectively can find the strength and courage and passion to push forward with our mission. We can continue to fight for what we believe, for what we know, deep down, is true and just. We can, both individually and as a team, tap into and channel the spirit of No. 42 and show the world that, dammit, our souls will not be drained, our devotion to our fellow man and woman will never be dimmed, our lives will never lose focus or purpose.
We will soldier forward. We will not give up. And we will never, ever stop spreading the message of love and respect.
OK, with that out of my system, I’ll spend the next few days putting together a post about the Malloy that’s decidedly less serious and more fun. I’ll again put out a call for any pictures or other submissions folks would like to send me. I’d be grateful for whatever you want to share! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!