The Hall of Fame whiffs again

The last six months have been … bonkers. Bonkers and zany and even a little surreal at times. Not Hunter S. Thompson surreal, but sufficiently screwy and exhausting.

In August we had a Category 4 hurricane hit Louisiana, forcing many of us to skedaddle outta the Big Easy for a week or more. We in New Orleans escaped relatively unscathed – well, hot damn, the Army Corps of Engineers actually fixed the levees! – but many areas outside the metro area’s levee protection were completely deluged, with multiple towns, for all intents and purposes, being wiped off the map.

Possibly almost as catastrophic down these parts was, that, for the first seasons in 15 years, the Saints and their fans faced life without Drew Brees under center. Then the Pelicans started out 2-15 (I’ll just say it: Zion is a bust), and we had yet another year without professional baseball anywhere in the state. Thanks, Wichita. May your state be cursed with the return of Sam Brownback to the governor’s chair for 14 new terms.

And, of course, we as a society continued to fumble and bumble our way through a pandemic that seems like it will never end. I got jabbed, a lot of other people got jabbed, but we still had to deal with nitwit athletes like Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers descending into full-scale, brain-melting conspiracy vortexes. 

Then came Oct. 21. That evening, a sudden, debilitating headache – while, I swear to goodness, hit when I was in the loo – ended up being a severe brain hemorrhage that put me in the hospital for 10 days. I was able to catch a couple World Series games while there, but I had to watch them sporadically and in bits because, even after the leak in my noggin was closed up and everything fixed, the splitting headache continued at full throttle for weeks. 

I think several points while watching the games, I thought the Seattle Pilots were playing the Page Fence Giants on the surface of Saturn, and Robert Redford was using a bat he fashioned from a massive Toblerone bar that was filled with Graig Nettles’ superballs instead of nougat, and the ghost of Phil Rizzuto was calling the games dressed as Slash from Guns ’n’ Roses. Fortunately I eventually realized all that was imaginary in my head. I mean, Saturn’s not a real place. Duh.

In the end, I returned home on Oct. 31, and it took a full two months to completely recover. But, luckily, I did end up recovering, and I was blessed that I suffered no long-term neurological or functional damage, an incredible stroke of good fortune resulting from calling 911 immediately while I was curled up on the bathroom floor feeling like the MC5 were literally in my head playing “Kick Out the Jams” (NSFW!) at absolutely top volume.

Then came the holidays and the New Year, and here we are, and here I am. The incredible run of events, as well as the rigors of my paying gig as a news reporter for the Louisiana Weekly, a job for which I am very grateful and of which I’m extraordinarily proud, has prevented me from posting anything on the blog for many months – or, sadly, from doing much baseball research and writing at all.

But even beyond all that, the past six months drained me – physically, psychologically and emotionally. I’ve experienced the entire gamut of intense emotion, from debilitating fear to wistful regret to ecstatic optimism to heated rage to, in the end, gratitude and love.

As a result, on many of the recent occasions when I’ve felt like possibly blogging, I’ve stopped myself, for one emotional reason or another. I didn’t want to recklessly express anger in an outburst I’d later regret, and I didn’t want to write while fueled by a manic euphoria that ended up in indecipherable nonsense.

And there’s certainly been a whole heck of a lot to react to going on baseball circles in the last year or so. First off, let’s get to the biggest bottom line in the sport: MLB is effectively shut down thanks to a labor lockout. The specter of a partially or completely lost 2022 MLB season shrouds the hardball universe in morose shadows.

A sad au revoir to the King.

Beyond that looming menace, the major developments – good, bad and meh – have whizzed by our ears like a Bill Foster fastball. Henry Aaron dies. MLB ravages the minor league system. Spider Tack ensnares the sport in a sticky web of confusion and deceit. MLB actually gets something right and stands up for voting rights, justice and fairness by moving the All Star game to Colorado and telling the reactionary dimwits in Georgia to stick it.

Aaaaaaaaaand … The Dodgers nominally have an alleged violent sexual predator in their rotation. The Cleveland club is now the Guardians, to the consternation of many obdurate, grumpy fans. (Meanwhile, the dinks down in the ATL persist in doing the embarrassing, degrading tomahawk chop. Message to Atlanta and Georgia: Thank you for Little Richard, REM and Outkast. But your state is still highly problematic. Get it together, you clods.) Shohei Ohtani turns in a brilliant, trailblazing and transformative season and earns an MVP. (Bullet Rogan, Leon Day and Martin Dihigo are smiling up there.) The Hall of Fame welcomes Jeter, Simba and Larry Walker, and it finally opens its doors – in something that should have happened 30 years ago – to Marvin Miller. (Hopefully Curt Flood will follow him someday soon.)

More on the Hall of Fame and an announcement in December by the new Early Baseball Era Committee a little later in this post.

Getting back to the subject of this blog, the Negro Leagues have been in the news as well with developments that are a bittersweet mixed blessings. First, the Negro Leagues are now Major Leagues! I know that happened more than a year ago, but its monumental importance cannot be overstated and still hasn’t dimmed yet.

Of course, merging statistics from the 1920-1948 Negro Leagues is a long, meticulous process, and it might be a while before its completed in a way that’s fair, objective and inclusive. But the folks at Seamheads and Baseball Reference have done Herculean work on it so far and have made a great deal of progress. Oscar Charleston is now officially second in career batting average, behind only a racist, churlish, spiteful guy from – ugh, here we go again with these guys – Georgia. Jud Wilson is now fifth, and Turkey Stearns is seventh.

To go further, Oscar and Jud are also in the career top ten in OBP, and Oscar, Turkey and Mule Suttles are in the top ten in on-base plus slugging. The top ten in pitching winning percentage now includes Ray Brown and Bullet Rogan.

Granted, Baseball Reference and others still have to do further integration of records, but it will come in time. But someday soon Rap Dixon will officially hold the hits in consecutive at bats record. Keep the faith, roomie!

Rap Dixon

There’s also the issue of giving sufficient recognition and respect to all the other men and women who filled out the complete history of Black baseball outside of the official Negro Leagues of 1920-48. The aspirations and accomplishments of all who persevered in the shadows of the national pastime – from 19th-trailblazers like Octavius Catto, Waxey Williams and the Walker brothers, to the people who kept the torch burning in the early 20th century and have to get their proper due, like Grant Johnson, Dick Redding and John Donaldson.

We also need to help the general public understand that Black baseball was everywhere and omnipresent in communities of color across the country, just like the sport was in white society. Circuits like the Negro Southern League, the West Coast Negro Baseball Association and the various regional loops that sprouted up in Texas and Pennsylvania and elsewhere need to be honored and brought into the light. The same goes for amateur, semipro, barnstorming and independent teams – like the Philadelphia Pythians, the Cuban Giants, the Page Fence Giants, the Columbia Giants, the New York Lincoln Giants, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, and the various traveling all-star teams.

On the sandlots and at Greenlee Field, at HBCUs and on municipal baseball fields, at Rickwood Field and Hamtramck Stadium, African Americans played, managed, scouted, gambled, wheel-and-dealed, sold tickets, hawked hot dogs, watered grass and clickity-clacked on typewriters in the press box. Hard-nosed scoop hounds and truth tellers and soothsayers like Sam Lacy, Fay Young, Wendell Smith and Sol White laid everything out in inky black and white, warts and all, the writing on the wall. They were there, too.

Sam Lacy

There’s also the overtures to diversity, multiculturalism, harmony and advocacy, ones that took place in 1930s Bismarck, N.D.; in the seemingly faraway land of Japan in the 1920s; on the chilly Canadian plains and francophone ballfields of Quebec between the world wars; in the Golden State, where an integrated winter league thrived; and on the island of Cuba, where white and Black players joined Latinx athletes from all across South America on the diamonds and in the cantinas after the game. Barnstorming white, religious dudes with long beards played scrappy, ragamuffin, semi-pro Black teams in just about every state in the Union. 

Point is, there’s a lot more to show and tell the world when it comes to the history, culture and legacy of segregated Black baseball.

Which brings me to my final subject, and the one that’s been eating at me for several months. When I said earlier in this post that I’ve often lately hesitated to blog about certain topics because I was afraid I’d become overly emotional and let my frustration and ardor get a little out of control, this was the topic I was primarily mulling over, the development that lit a fire under my butt.

So here it is: the Hall of Fame voters screwed up. Big time.

I’ll repeat.

The Hall of Fame voters screwed up.

To wit:

When the members of the Hall’s Early Baseball Era Committee only elected two people, Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler – the voters brazenly displayed their ignorance, apathy and timidity. It was appalling, egregious and a dismal failure. You dropped the ball, folks. 

Thanks a lot.

And now we have to wait 10 more fricking years until the numbnuts on the committee have another chance to get off their butts, actually do research into the people on the ballot, and do the right thing.

I know there are some members of the Early Baseball committee who did the right thing when voting and who did cast their ballots for more candidates. I know there are some who do have the knowledge and conscience to throw their weight behind more candidates.

But apparently it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough, is it?

To be sure, both Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil absolutely deserve to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and I’m ecstatic that they’re finally getting in. And most definitely do Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva deserve admission to the shrine in Cooperstown.

Bruce Petway should be in the Hall.

But Dick Redding also deserves to be in. So does Dick Lundy. And John Donaldson and Bruce Petway and Grant Johnson and Rap Dixon and Vic Harris and Dobie Moore and Newt Allen and John Beckwith.

Damn it, they do.

People have worked their tails off to prove as much to you, and the fact that the members of that committee didn’t even care is a slap in the face to us in the passionate world of Black baseball history, but it’s the ultimate sign of disrespect and insult to the men and women who toiled in obscurity, crammed into cramped buses for endless road trips, stayed one step ahead of Klan members and other racists who cursed their existence, ate dinners of canned sardines and crackers, and played eight games a week in everything from Major League stadiums to ragged, dusty small-town ballfields.

A whole bunch of dedicated researchers and number crunchers poured through thousands and thousands of rolls of microfilm, deciphering box scores and compiling those statistics to show how the accomplishments of Black baseball could finally, at long last be quantified.

Dr. Revel and his hardy, intrepid team of organizers and builders created a brand new Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham. They did it from scratch, because they wanted to honor the men and women who drove and supported Negro League baseball in the South, a region that is often overlooked by history. Plus the original Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City continues to strengthen its finances and grow its exhibits and other facilities immensely.

Officials and members of a committee devoted years to chronicling, tell and champion the career of John Donaldson, for very little in return except the type of pride and fellowship to be found when a group of people pull together for a single goal – a goal to honor and finally give Donaldson his just do.

The Negro Southern League Museum.

My buddy Ted Knorr has criss-crossed Pennsylvania and beyond, speaking at schools and libraries and Rotary Club meetings to help people know and understand the greatness of Rap Dixon. He’s written articles, done countless interviews, pressed the flesh with team executives, cemetery superintendents and business owners. Ted even made T-shirts supporting Rap!

I really wish you Hall committee voters who didn’t cast ballots for more candidates could understand the effort, time and often their own money these types of crusaders have expended over decades of their lives. I wish you would take time to actually understand the work and  emotion we’ve all put in.

It’s never enough, is it?

What else do you need? What else can we possibly do short of yelling in your faces? 

Tell us, what do you want to happen?

I even suspect that the two segregated Black baseball legends the Early Era committee did elect – Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil, who, again, absolutely should be in the Hall – gained admission because the voters knew they’d have a PR disaster on their hands if they didn’t.

Buck should have gotten elected with the huge class of 2006, but he wasn’t, and fans and researchers were outraged at that dereliction. The Hall knew it made a big mistake then because they got an earful of anger. So all the voters knew about Buck and the controversy, so they didn’t really have to brush up on all things Buck. They didn’t have to lift a finger.

Bud Fowler was elected for essentially the same reason as that for Buck’s induction – the committee voters already knew about Bud simply because his name was in the news. Bud had deservedly won SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legend  in 2020, so, again, the committee voters just had to read a couple newsletters to find out about Bud. If Bud hadn’t received that honor, voters on the committee would never have heard about him, so I guarantee you those wouldn’t have bothered to vote him in.

For Buck, the reasoning was, “People will be pissed if we don’t elect him this time.” For Bud, I have a feeling there was little reasoning beyond, “Meh, I guess so.”

And now we have to wait until 2031. But I surmise it’ll just be the same old, same old out of Hall voters.

As I said, thanks a lot.

Now you see why I hesitated to get back on the blog. Because I’ve been upset and angry. (Well, and my brain sprung a leak.) I didn’t want to let my emotions get the best of me, but I suppose I just did. I apologize.

Kind of.

Those of us in the Negro Leagues community don’t do all this for own own personal glory and enrichment. We do it because we love the Negro Leagues, and we want to chronicle their history and tell the world about them to they will be remembered, respected and appreciated for what they stood for – perseverance in the face of virulent racism, community self-reliance and entrepreneurship – and what they accomplished for people of color and society as a whole.

Granted, it’s rewarding to see my byline on articles, and I certainly enjoy getting paid for my time, effort and persistence.

But I’m never going to get anywhere approaching “wealthy” or even “well off” for doing what I do, and the same goes for the large majority of my peers. I knew that when I first started researching and writing about the Negro Leagues. (Well, I knew I’d never be rich when I chose journalism as a college major. Message to prospective collegians and their families: Do not, under any circumstances, even consider a major in journalism. In terms of usefulness and employability upon graduation, journalism ranks just below fine arts and just above philosophy. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be J-majors.)

There one significant reward to being a Negro Leagues enthusiast: the sense of fellowship and l’esprit de corps our little community has forged and continued to nurture. We are, in a very real sense, a family. We support and encourage each other, because we have a shared goal, and because every one of us, to a man and woman (or wherever you sit on the gender-identity spectrum), is just really, really nice. We’re fun to be around, and we’re quite cool.

I learned that when I attended my first Malloy Conference in 2012 in Cleveland, because every single attendee welcomed me with proverbial and literal open arms. I was instantly accepted, and I knew right away that I was “home.”

I’ll be there.

This year’s Malloy is scheduled (if COVID doesn’t ruin it again) for June 2-4 in Birmingham. Please consider joining us. We’d love to see you.

This diatribe is already much too long as it is, so I’ll stop my rambling. I’m not sure how much I blog this year, but I do have a few posts I want to finish before I decide the way forward. 

In the meantime, stay safe and well and happy. Pitchers and catchers report in just about a month. Theoretically, at least  …

2 thoughts on “The Hall of Fame whiffs again

  1. Just following up on my recent text. Hopefully all is well.

    Ryan, great to see that you are back in the game. The game needs you!💯 I know that your ears must have been burning over the last 11 days as I’ve spoken your name many times in preparation for a Willie Wells Baseball Field dedication here in Austin. I shared, with many, the article I wrote for your blog in the blog form which gave me an opportunity to share a few things about you. I hope you don’t mind. Sorry to hear about your health challenges. I trust that you are on the mend. Take good care of yourself!

    Sincerely,

    Rodney Page

    >

    Like

  2. Pingback: ’42 for 21′ joins the Hall of Fame battle | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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