The last couple years have been dizzying ones when it comes to the building and underscoring the legacy and influence of the Negro Leagues.
From the wildly popular “tip of the hat” celebrations in 2020 that marked the 100th anniversary of the formation of the first Negro National League, to the elevating of the 1920-1948 Negro Leagues to the level of major league and the resulting and continuing process of integrating of Negro Leagues stats into the baseball record books, Black baseball has entered the mainstream public consciousness like never before.
And late last year, the 46th president of the United States further burnished the profile of Black ball when he lauded the achievements of the greatest Negro Leaguer of all.
Well, sort of.
Living up to his (somewhat debatable) reputation as a “gaffe machine,” Joe Biden stumbled over his attempt, during a Veterans Day address at Arlington National Cemetery, to cite Satchel Paige as an example of how age is often relative and rests in the eye of the beholder.
Biden – whose Satchel Paige fandom is lifelong, well known and exemplified by the presence of Paige’s 1953 Topps card on his desk in the Oval Office – acknowledged the presence during the speech of 96-year-old Donald Blinken, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and father of current U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Biden, a stutterer who has successfully overcome the disability for many years, ended up garbling his words badly enough for some pundits to claim the president harbored latent bigotry and generating the hashtag #RacistBiden.
Here’s what Biden actually said:
“And I just want to tell you, I know you’re a little younger than I am, but you know I’ve adopted the attitude of the great Negro — at the time, pitcher in the Negro Leagues — went on to become a great pitcher in the pros — in Major League Baseball after Jackie Robinson. His name was Satchel Paige.
“And Satchel Paige, on his 47th birthday, pitched a win against Chicago. And all the press went in and said, ‘Satch, it’s amazing — 47 years old. No one’s ever, ever pitched a win at age 47. How do you feel about being 47?’ He said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at it.’ They said, ‘How do you look at it, Satch?’ He said, ‘I look at it this way: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’
“I’m 50 years old and the ambassador is 47.”
This certainly wasn’t the first time Biden as president referred to Paige as an example of the progress America has made as a society and a nation. When Biden and others hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 2021 following the team’s 2020 World Series championship. Said Biden:
“Now I’m going to mention one ballplayer that the Vice President heard me mentioned [sic] before, that I – even I never – and I – even I’m not old enough to have watched him play – but Satchel Paige.
“And Satchel Paige, as any pitcher out here can tell you – the older you get, the harder to keep that arm going. Right? Well, he didn’t get to the majors until he was 45 years old. On his 47th birthday – I know you all know this – he pitched a win against Chicago. And all the press went into his room, and – in the locker room, and said, ‘Satch, Satch, it’s amazing: 47 years old and you pitched a win. How do you feel about being 47, Satch?’ He said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at age.’ I had the staff look this up. This is what he did say: ‘That’s not how I look at age.’ ‘Then how do you look at it, Satch?’ ‘I look at [it] this way’– he said, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’ I am 51 years old. You guys are 19.
“Anyway, I think you real- – I know you don’t underestimate it anymore. You saw what happened in other professional leagues and the way you and all the leagues responded to the crisis we faced. So thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
These comments once again display the way Biden, perhaps partially resulting from his stutter, continually and forehead-slappingly makes word salad of his public comments.
The president also made similar comments that referenced the same Paige quote when Biden met with Pope Francis in October 2021.
I’m not going to engage in extensive political commentary or wax poetic about neither supposed “optics” of Biden’s flubs, nor the predictable responses by the president’s critics. I’ll also refrain from examining the impact of stuttering on Biden’s public image and how the disability (which I myself have had since I was 3) can affect interpersonal communication in society.
And I won’t delve into the historical accuracy and verite of the anecdotes itself. Whether the tale is at least partially apocryphal – an adjective that can be used to describe many of Satch’s famous quotes – can also be debated by Negro League scholars, writers and fans.
However, I will say that once you read Biden’s full comments and place them in the context of both history and Biden’s Negro Leagues fandom, it’s obvious that he wasn’t being bigoted or ignorant or condescending when he blurped out the words in question. Summed up forbes.com writer Peter Suciu:
“Anyone reading that transcript should realize that Biden had a slip of the tongue, something that isn’t exactly uncommon for the 78-year-old who has a long history of verbal gaffes. Biden has admitted he’s a ‘gaffe machine’ who often says the wrong thing, but unlike some of his actual misstatements on facts or questionable stories, there wasn’t really much to this story.”
So that brings to perhaps the real questions arising from the Biden-Paige comments – why did much of the public believe Biden was being racist, and what does that reaction show about exactly how much segregation-era Black baseball has permeated the public consciousness?
First off, it’s worth noting that modern political actors of all stripes will glom onto anything dopey said by their opponents, regardless of the comments’ pertinence or context. Such slippery, often disingenuous political punditry and maneuvering goes without saying in this day and age.
Now, to more fully answer those two existential queries, we can refer to Negro League Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick’s comments to Newsweek shortly after Biden made the Veterans Day comments about Satchel. Kendrick told Jon Jackson:
“It’s an honor, as we look at it, that the president has such an affinity for Satchel. We take absolutely no offense to what the president said. As a matter of fact, we applaud the president for continuing to be an advocate for this history.”
“He was making a statement to relate this story about this timeless Black baseball hero who did play in the Negro Leagues. That’s what the leagues were called. That is the name of our museum.”
Kendrick then discussed how some members of the public have trouble understanding why Black baseball continues to, in this day and age, be tagged with the apparently outdated word “Negro.”
“Even to this day I’ll get folks who will call and say, ‘Well, you all never thought about changing your name?’ Kendrick said “No, because it wasn’t called the ‘African American Leagues.’”
Kendrick also acknowledged the large information and knowledge gap held by younger generations today, especially among non-baseball fans. And therein lies the crux of the matter, at least when it comes to how Negro Leagues enthusiasts interact with society at large:
No matter how many tangible steps of progress in the effort to bring Black baseball history into the public consciousness – the upgrading to major-league level, the hat tipping campaigns, the fandom of presidents – a large slice of the general public remains ignorant about what the Negro Leagues were, what they represented, and even why the leagues had to exist at all.
It’s a lack of awareness I, and doubtlessly some of my buddies in the Negro Leagues community, have encountered in our daily lives. Often when someone who doesn’t know me well or at all asks me what I do for a living and what subjects I cover and research, I hesitate to answer for a beat or two, because I worry that the person with whom I’m talking might not know what the Negro Leagues were. I sometimes feel the same unease and equivocation when I wear clothes or apparel with the term “Negro Leagues” written out.
I’ve had other people give me everything from a raised eyebrow to a blank stare to a look of disgust in those situations, and it’s kind of uncomfortable. The last thing I want is for people to believe I’m racist, but even more, I become disheartened that this person has no knowledge of something that means so much to me in my career and as a person.
Those close to me know that I’m keen, often bullishly, on demanding that people understand historical context and have an appreciation for and knowledge of what has taken place in the past and how it impacts the modern day.
It frustrates me, for example, when folks conflate modern versions of political parties with the versions of those parties that existed a century and a half ago. I would hope that most people realize that since the Civil War the Democratic and Republican parties have to a very large extent essentially flip-flopped in terms of their policy platforms and ideological stances. The Democratic Party of 1860 is not the same Democratic Party of today, and likewise for the GOP, and such contextual acknowledgement is crucial to understand modern American democracy.
My stringency in terms of historical context impacting the modern day is perhaps best exemplified by the stridency of my music fandom. I pride myself on liking all kinds of music, and I place enormous emphasis on how the music of today is a product of every type and genre of music that came before, and I practically demand the same level of understanding and love of the music of the past.
It frustrates me when fans of Florida-Georgia Line or Carrie Underwood have never even listened to Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills or Patsy Cline, and when supposed hip hop fans are clueless about Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow and even Public Enemy. And my blood boils when I encounter fans of Zeppelin or Clapton who are completely ignorant of how those pasty-white British putzes based their entire careers on ripping off Skip James, Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon.
I try to bring that approach to baseball history and the appreciation of it by the general public today, although I try to be less vociferous and indignant than I am regarding music. In my mind, to be modern-day baseball fan and aficionado requires one to know who Ray Dandridge or Pete Hill were just like such fans must be required to know Joe DiMaggio and Honus Wagner. All good baseball lovers must have a deep appreciation for everything – white and Black, good and bad – of what has come before and how that past continues to impact the American pastime in its current form.
I hope that much of this discussion doesn’t get bogged down by contrived histrionics over so-called “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors,” because alleged ideological extremism is fundamentally not what’s happening in terms of awareness of Black baseball history, and the type of often angry, borderline violent confrontations over such nebulous concepts and catchphrases like “microaggressions.”
Such ideological talk and vehement back-and-forth simply muddies the basic issue at play when it comes to the Negro Leagues – spreading awareness of the Negro Leagues and how important Black baseball is to our shared American culture.
Unquestionably such debates are necessary to have, especially as confusion surrounding what Critical Race Theory actually is has obfuscated the inherent truth that CRT exists, is vital and must be more greatly appreciated by the public as a whole if we are to ever reach some level of reconciliation between historic wrongs like slavery, Jim Crow and Native-American genocide with modern malaises like income inequality, the erosion of voting rights and the spread of political violence. They are conversations that we as a people simply have if we are to ever heal the myriad culture and ethnic rifts our forefathers ripped asunder.
And without a doubt the need for such comprehensive, mutual and patient discourse must eventually be had in the realm of baseball history and tradition, precisely because as America’s Game, baseball has continually and powerful been both a metaphor and a bellwether for where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going as a culture and a society.
The spread of Jim Crowism and institutional segregation, for example, was reflected just as much by the systematic ouster of all people of color from organized baseball in the 1880s, as it was by the disastrous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896.
And the importance World War II played in the push for desegregation and the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement – specifically, how millions of Black American GIs saw that while they were fighting for democracy and human rights in Europe, at home they were victims of segregation and second-class citizenship – can perhaps also be reflected in the way Organized Baseball’s color line was shattered by Jackie Robinson, himself a military veteran, less than a year after the end of WWII.
All of that – the esoteric, the existential and the all encompassing – will eventually be required to take place within baseball scholarship and fandom so we can more fully appreciate what baseball is in America and how it continues to reflect “we the people.”
However, the cart cannot be placed before the horse. True, such weighty discussions surely must take place, but we can’t have an honest, productive discussion about, say, comparing Oscar Charleston to Babe Ruth before we are all, well, informed. Before such debates take place, we must all know who Babe Ruth and Oscar Charleston are.
Which team was better, the 1927 New York Yankees or the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords? Well, who were the Pittsburgh Crawfords? Is Shonei Ohtani the second coming of Martin Dihigo or Bullet Rogan? Martin Dihigo and Bullet Rogan? Who the heck were they anyway?
Those of us who love and study the Negro Leagues, if we are to continue evangelizing about the greatness and sociological importance of pre-integration Black baseball, must first set out on a mission of teaching Negro Leagues 101.
Moreover, we must do so without condescension or patronization, and we must do it optimistically, encouragingly and open-heartedly. We must not – and as a devoted, hardcore cynic, I’ll admit this is a perpetual challenge for me – go into conversations with Negro Leagues neophytes assuming that their lack of awareness of Black ball isn’t rooted in racism, intolerance or antipathy, but rather a lack of access or introduction to a history that occurred decades and decades ago. Lack of knowledge does not necessarily imply lack of empathy or interest.
It simply means that, in the swirling typhoon of information presented to average people on a daily basis, some folks simply haven’t had an opportunity to learn about the majesty and importance of Black baseball.
Our goal should be to testifying to the greatness of the Negro Leagues with eagerness, confidence and joy. Make the people around us see why we love researching, reading about and discussing Black baseball. Joy, my friends, is infectious and, hopefully, universal. Our Negro Leagues heroes, despite the grueling, oppressive and often demeaning conditions that they faced day in and day out, pursued the national pastime with joy. It’s why they kept at it so doggedly and zealously, and it’s why they created legends filled with brilliance, virtuosity and resolute determination.
We owe it to those legends, those men and women from whom we derive inspiration and happiness, to bring that joy to the world at large, so the greats of Black baseball and their achievements will never be forgotten or overlooked anymore.
As kind of a coda, I want to note that Biden certainly isn’t the first U.S. president to reference either Satchel Paige of the Negro Leagues in public comments. In fact, multiple other commanders-in-chief have brought up the same Satchel story about the relativity of age that Biden has, or ones very similar in narrative and themes.
Ronald Reagan – one president who’s been dogged by allegations of racism, or at the very least, apathy toward the challenges facing people of color – relayed an anecdote about Paige and age twice in 1984. The first came in August of that year, during an address to leaders of the Catholic Golden Age Association, while Reagan repeated the tale in November 1984 during a talk at a senior center in Milwaukee. At the time, Reagan was 73 himself.
Reagan again trotted out the Satch story in 1986 during a speech to employees of the Department of Health and Human Services. Here’s how Reagan told the story:
“I always think age is relative. There was once a very famous baseball pitcher, Satchel Paige. And no one quite knew how old Satchel was, but he still was throwing that ball. And somebody asked him about that, and his wise answer was, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’ [Laughter] That’s how I came up with 39. [Laughter].”
Again, whether such a conversation by Satch happened verbatim or at all, I’m not sure.
Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, also pulled Paige out of the presidential bag or oratorical wonders when Bush gave a talk to employees of Ford Aerospace Space System in Palo Alto, Calif., in April 1989. As Bush Sr. stated in referring to a famous Satchel quote:
“You know – remember Satchel Paige, great black pitcher, self-proclaimed philosopher? They asked him what was the secret of his competitiveness. You remember what he said? ‘Don’t look back. Somebody might be gaining on you.’ Well, Satchel, like high technology, knew that as Americans we do look ahead and not back. We always have, and we must now, more than ever. For the coming decade will see and shape a rapidly changing workforce. To invest its talents will be our challenge as a nation.”
Bush Sr. also became perhaps the first sitting president to honor a group of Negro Leaguers at a speech or special gathering when he recognized members of the Negro League Baseball Players Association during a ceremony for African-American History Month in February 1992 at the White House. In his comments, Bush noted that he was a baseball fan and implied that he had affection for Negro League baseball.
George W. Bush, the 43rd president and George H.W. Bush’s son, reached out even further to the Negro Leagues community when he presided over a tee-ball game on the South Lawn of the White House in 2007.
The event paid homage to Jackie Robinson, and Bush Jr. pointed out several Negro Leaguers who were in attendance, noting “there were some pioneers ahead of Jackie. And today we’re proud to welcome Negro League players who are here.” Speaking to the Negro Leaguers, Bush said “[i]magine what baseball would have been like had you been a part of the Major Leagues.”
(Also appearing at the event was the tee ball game’s “commissioner,” Frank Robinson, as well as several of Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, including Tommy Lasorda, Don Newcombe, Clyde King and Ralph Branca.)
In addition, in 2006, Bush Jr. posthumously awarded Buck O’Neil the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he presented the actual medal to Buck’s brother, Warren. Bush said Buck “lived long enough to see the game of baseball and America change for the better. He’s one of the people we can thank for that.”
Just two months before that ceremony, Bush released a statement after Buck’s death in October 2006:
“Buck O’Neil represented the best of America’s national pastime. He devoted his long and full life to baseball, and refused to allow injustice and discrimination to diminish his love of the game and his joyous, generous spirit. Laura and I extend our sympathies to his family and friends, and on behalf of all Americans we give thanks for the life of one of the great ambassadors in baseball history.”
And of course, in August 2013, President Barack Obama welcomed several former Negro Leaguers in the White House Blue Room and thanked them for everything they did and for helping pave the way for future African-American athletes and African Americans in general.
Finally, in 2020, as the country was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first lasting Negro League, four of the five living presidents took part in the nationwide “tip of the hat” effort, which I blogged about here. Articles about the commanders-in-chief tipping their caps are here, here and here.