We are in a period of Negro League renaissance, which is both splendid and long overdue. This week, the seminal baseball site baseballreference.com began to include Negro League statistics in its comprehensive accounting of the sports. Last year, as part of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro League, came a wonderful tip-your-cap online celebration that included all living ex-Presidents, among many others.
And the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, on the historic corner of 18th and Vine in Kansas City, Mo., continues to become more of a must-see among visiting ballplayers and tourists.
But it was 50 years ago this week that a little-known meeting between Jackie Robinson and Bowie Kuhn took place that truly began to right a rolling series of old wrongs.
On Feb. 9, 1971, Satchel Paige had been nominated for the Hall of Fame, the first player who spent most of his career in the Negro Leagues to be so honored. Baseball thought it was doing right by Paige — and his fellow barnstorming veterans. But when the press conference was held, it was revealed that Paige would not have a plaque in the Cooperstown hall where the immortals reside eternally, but in a separate room.
The backlash was immediate. And it was overwhelming.
Jim Murray, at the time the most widely read syndicated sportswriter in the country, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The notion of Jim Crow in Baseball’s Heaven is appalling. What is this — 1840? Either let him in the front of the Hall — or move the damn thing to Mississippi.”
Kuhn, commissioner for two years by then, offered this tone-deaf reply: “Technically, you’d have to say he’s not in the Hall of Fame. But I’ve often said the Hall of Fame isn’t a building but a state of mind. The important thing is how the public views Satchel Paige, and I know how I view him.”
Milton Gross, the Post’s hard-hitting columnist, was buying none of that:
“The Hall of Fame is not a state of mind. It is something semi-officially connected with organized baseball that is run by outdated rules which, as Jackie Robinson said the other day, ‘can be changed like laws are changed if they are unjust.’ ”
Kuhn had managed to order thunderstorms for his sport’s parade. Robinson declared Paige should boycott the August ceremony, and while Paige publicly handled the controversy with grace, privately he seethed.
“The only change is that baseball has turned me from being a second-class citizen,” he told friends, “to a second-class immortal.”
The seeds of Paige’s induction had been sown five years earlier when, during his own Hall of Fame speech, Ted Williams had said, “I hope that someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they were not given the chance.”
Kuhn had a percolating problem on his hands, so he privately summoned Robinson in late June 1971, and Robinson spoke in frank terms. Robinson had been furious when the original arrangement was announced.
“If the blacks go in as a special thing, it’s not worth a hill of beans,” said Robinson, who was himself by then a longtime Hall of Famer. “It’s the same rotten thing all over again. They deserve the opportunity to be in it but not as a special category.”
Within a week, the new announcement was official: Satchel Paige would be a full-fledged member in good standing of the Hall of Fame, beginning with his induction on Aug. 9. The announcement was made July 7 — Paige’s 65th birthday.
Paige delivered a seven-minute speech that was regularly interrupted with cheers, and he capped it off by saying: “I am the proudest man on the earth today, and my wife and sister and sister-in-law and my son all feel the same. It’s a wonderful day, and one man who appreciates it is Leroy Satchel Paige.”
Fifty years ago this week, baseball also chose to do itself proud.
A neat College World Series connection for Mets fans: Surely you know Jack Leiter, Al’s son, is one of the best amateur pitchers in the world, and he’ll throw for Vanderbilt in Omaha this week. Vandy’s batting coach and lead recruiter? Mike Baxter, the outfielder who sacrificed his body (and maybe his career) to keep Johan Santana’s no-hitter alive nine years ago this month.
It used to be the Yankees who hoarded all the pixie dust and made ordinary players good ones simply by handing out a pinstriped jersey. Wonder if the sport’s latest laboratory of reinvention in Tampa Bay can do the same for Mike Ford.
Remember when 17-, 25- and 26-point second half leads were considered sort of safe, even in the NBA?
Do you think Donovan Mitchell ever gets a little homesick?
Whack Back at Vac
Richard Zarr: The shenanigans pulled by the Lightning to activate Nikita Kucherov for the playoffs reminds how Poodle Lussier, Gilmore Tuttle, Mad Dog Madison, Clarence Swamptown, and Ogie Ogilthorpe were activated to play in the Federal League championship game.
Vac: No way I’m letting a “Slap Shot” email go by without a little bit of love.
Pat Hughes: I was there at the Coliseum in 1980 when Bobby Nystrom beat the Flyers, nothing louder. I was a rifleman in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne; a firefight was not louder. I will miss that building.
Vac: I’d say that’s the best endorsement of how loud the Old Barn is as anything I’ve ever seen before, how about you?
@tskogg: Kevin Durant in Game 5 was an amazing performance but has to be put in context. I don’t see any Unselds, Monroes, Gilmores, Issels, Thompsons, Millers, Thomases, Wilts, Wests, McHales or Parishes on the Bucks. Competition can’t compare.
@MikeVacc: I take it you are not a fan of Pat Connaughton?
@DCBCoaches: But can Durant close the deal? Patrick Ewing and Jason Kidd never did.
@MikeVacc: An there we have the $64 question of all $64 questions.