A few years ago, Larry Lester went to the management of select MLB franchises with what doesn’t seem like a big ask. In fact, Lester, a general manager from an IT outfit in Kansas City, seemed to be onto a great idea, a goodwill gesture freighted with symbolism. Lester suggested that management could raise banners recognizing Negro League teams that had won championships in their markets.
Lester approached his hometown team and proposed that the Royals fly flags honoring the Kansas City Monarchs’ 1924 and 1942 teams. He bent the ears of Pirates executives with the idea of honouring the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords. It went down the line: The White Sox could honor the 1926 and ’27 Chicago America Giants; teams playing out of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington and St. Louis also won Negro League championships. “Fans in every city want another championship flag,” he says.
His audience always heard Lester out politely. They conceded that he had a good idea. Yet none followed up with it. Evidently 60 years after the last Negro League season, it was not yet the time to permanently recognize some of the greatest teams in baseball history.
MLB had plans to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues this season, with events playing out throughout the summer. Most of those plans had to be shelved because of COVID-19, and only on Sunday was the centennial marked. From a story on MLB.com: “The Negro Leagues are getting the kind of recognition they deserve this Sunday. All Major League clubs will celebrate the centennial of the founding of the Negro National League … with all players, managers, coaches and umpires wearing a Negro Leagues 100th anniversary logo patch on their uniforms during Sunday’s games.”
Understandably Larry Lester greeted MLB’s gesture with muted enthusiasm. “I’m never satisfied with what I call tokenism,” he says. “I don’t like the idea of Black History Month because for me every month is Black history month. Major League Baseball has to do something more than a throwback day or turn-back-the-clock day … something more than wearing patches. They should recognize the Negro League every day. Those championship banners would honour them in a permanent way. They’d start conversations and raise awareness of an important piece of Black history and baseball history.”
Lester wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill fan making the case for a good cause when he made his pitch to the big-league teams. For the last 25 years, he has chaired the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues committee. “Larry has been researching Negro Leagues baseball for as long as I’ve known him, and I’ve known him 40 years,” says Bill Carle, who has been the chairman of SABR’s biographical research committee since 1988.
Lester comes by his interest in Negro League baseball honestly. Back in the late ’50s, the Kansas City Athletics played out of Municipal Stadium at the corner of Brooklyn Ave. and E. 22nd St., five blocks from Lester’s childhood home. When he went to his first Athletics game, about 10 years after Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the colour barrier, young Lester was puzzled by the fact that the A’s lineup was almost exclusively white.
The Kansas City of Lester’s youth was effectively segregated. “As far as I could walk, I’d never see a white person in our part of town,” he says. “The only white people I’d see were in the Athletics’ lineup and in the stands at Municipal Stadium.” Even though the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, ruling that the segregation of schools was unconstitutional, there wasn’t a single white student in the graduating class at Lester’s high school.
“[At that first A’s game] I asked, ‘Where are the players who are Black like me?’” he says. “And people would tell me they were in the Negro League. They’d tell me these great stories about the league and its stars. There were even some former players who lived nearby”
The Kansas City Monarchs were still a going concern in the ’50s but Lester never had a chance to see them play. By the time he started to go to the ballpark, the Monarchs rarely played at home, their season being one long road trip. “At least for Negro League, I was born too late,” he says. “I wish I could have been around to see the Monarchs and the rest of them play.”
More than he could appreciate at the time, Lester was in proximity to one of the towering figures in baseball history: Satchel Paige, who is in any discussion about the greatest pitchers of all time. “I went to school with Satchel’s kids and played basketball with his oldest son,” Lester says.
Not until he went away to Southwest Missouri State was Lester in the daily presence of white people, a challenging and even disheartening experience. “The school was celebrating its 100th anniversary and in a century they had never had a Black professor on staff,” he says. “My statistics professor accused me of cheating — I hadn’t — but he said, ‘I’ve never given a coloured student anything like your mark and I’m not going to start with you. I just haven’t been able to catch you yet.’”
In college, Lester was first exposed to what he calls “the systemic racism the Negro Leaguers faced and the sense of exclusion they felt.” The course of his life, however, was changed by a book published in 1970 that was more a celebration than a tragedy: the first authoritative history of the Negro Leagues, Only the Ball Was White by Robert W. Peterson. The book wasn’t on any of Lester’s reading lists but it spoke to him. Some of the stories in the book weren’t new to Lester, but Peterson’s ambitious history changed the college student’s perspective on the versions he had heard before in the neighbourhood. “All these stories that I thought were just lore and myth and fable are actually true,” Lester says. “It jump-started my research career.”
Thereafter, Lester dedicated himself to gathering facts and compiling his own history of the Negro Leagues. It’s no exaggeration to say that he spent days and nights that would add up to whole years sitting beside microfilm machines, combing editions of Black newspapers of bygone days. In those pages, he read Black history as it unfolded and was witnessed in real time. Lester says he has read every issue of Kansas City’s The Call from 1919 to 1948. Likewise every account of Negro League games in other newspapers with a predominantly Black readership: The Chicago Defender, The New York Amsterdam News and The Atlanta Daily World, among others. He estimates he has compiled 15,000 box scores in his Dropbox library.
Lester’s research might sound like a grind but he says he’s found it rewarding, moving and, on occasion, even thrilling. The story of “Bullet” Rogan is instructive. Lester was scanning newspapers from 1924 when he happened on Rogan’s name in the box scores and tracked him across the season. “I see he’s getting three and four hits almost every game and he’s pitching every fourth day. I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I need to back up here.’ By the time I get through this season, this man is batting over .400. He’s leading the team in home runs and he leads the team and the league in wins. Now, I’ve studied Negro League baseball and I had spoken to dozens of Negro Leaguers at that point, but I had never heard of Bullet Rogan. I stopped scanning and sat their stunned beside the microfilm machine. Tears just rolled down my eyes: Tears of happiness that I’ve discovered one of the greatest ballplayers ever. Tears of sadness, too — I thought, ‘This amazing player, why has he not been properly recognized?’”
In 1998, Rogan was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in large part because of Lester’s discovery of 60- and 70-year-old box scores on fading microfilm. “We got him into the Hall based on statistical proof that this man was one of the best two-way players in Negro League history, bar none,” he says.
Though there won’t be any Black players from this millennium lost like Rogan, Lester despairs over the racial math: Per USA Today’s analysis, Black ballplayers make up just 7.8 per cent of Major League rosters. Three teams — the Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays and Lester’s hometown team, the Royals — didn’t have a single Black player on their Opening Day rosters. For the Royals that lack is ironic, as the National Negro League was founded in a meeting of the owners of independent Black teams at Kansas City’s Paseo YMCA on February 20, 1920. (The Y was built by Black businessmen to serve their community. Though it’s fallen into disuse and is in need of restoration, the Paseo Y stands to this day, within plain sight of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.)
Things have seemingly come full circle. A glance at some Major League games today looks like those Athletics games Lester took in at Municipal Stadium: By the time Jackie Robinson announced his retirement in 1957, Black players made up just under seven per cent of Major League rosters.
Lester believes more could and should be done to engage Black audiences and draw Black kids into the game. “Why don’t you market your best African-American athletes?” he asks. “To me it’s a no-brainer. I grew up in an American League city, but I followed the Dodgers because it had players that looked like me. The Brooklyn Dodgers became the team of Black America by default [in the ’50s]. On the diamond as a kid, I was trying to emulate Jackie Robinson. Today, where’s the marketing for a Black star like Mookie Betts?”
The tribute paid on Sunday, patches on uniforms, is to Lester’s mind not even a particularly strong start. As he watched the Royals lose to the Twins in Minneapolis Sunday afternoon, he wasn’t moved to tears when he saw the Monarchs’ patch on the Royals unis. “Whatever they did, I’d think it wouldn’t be enough … not what those great players deserve,” he admits.
It’s likely no one feels closer to the Negro League talent than Lester, who has spent his entire adult life interviewing surviving ballplayers who were denied a fair chance because of the colour of their skin. “What I learned and what we all can learn from the Negro League was how the players persevered against all odds,” Lester says. “They had a refuse-to-lose attitude in achieving their goals and objectives. The biggest takeaway is they persevered. They faced systemic racism and played through it.
“They talk in sociology about absent fathers but my father was always around when I was growing up,” he says. “And I always say that as a young man, I had 80 fathers in those Negro Leaguers I talked to. I felt especially close to Buck O’Neil [the Hall of Famer who starred for the Kansas City Monarchs]. He was like a grandfather to my children.”
Lester’s despair over the game’s demographics lifts for a moment when it’s suggested to him that the greatest tribute that Major League Baseball pays, however subtly or even unconsciously, is on the field every day: The game played in the bigs today more closely resembles the Negro Leagues than anything seen in the majors before Jackie Robinson. “I like that idea,” he says. “Jackie Robinson came in and stole home 19 times, which left people saying, ‘What was that? Can he do that?’ The Negro Leagues’ more aggressive approach made baseball a better version of itself. It resonates to this day. The more aggressive way the game has been played in the modern era is a tip of the cap to the Negro Leagues, a tribute to these great players who were denied a chance to play [in the majors].”
The patches commemorating a league that folded in 1960 were worn on uniforms for Sunday’s games, sadly in front of not a single fan in the COVID-emptied stands. The lasting influence of the Negro Leagues, though, can be gleaned on the field every day by anyone who understands the history and looks hard enough. The game, more than any decision by MLB and its executives, pays the ultimate tribute to Buck O’Neil and Larry Lester’s 79 other fathers.
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