Tribute to Negro Leagues enhanced by touch of gray

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Manny Acta wasn’t born until 32 years later, but he grew up hearing the story about the time the greatest players in Negro League baseball history came to the Dominican Republic to play in what turned out to be a political drama.

Josh Gibson — the great Homestead Grays catcher whose great grandson Sean was among those in attendance at RFK Stadium last night for the Washington Nationals tribute to the Negro Leagues — was among those who were sent to the Dominican Republic in 1937 to play for what could have been their lives.

“They were imported to play down there in some of the leagues the country was running,” said Acta, who, along with his Nationals players, wore Grays uniforms last night — the Negro League team that was based just outside of Pittsburgh but began splitting its games between there and Washington at Griffith Stadium.

“There is a story about a team from my hometown [that] imported some of those big time guys like Satchel Paige, but the dictator [Rafael Trujillo] back then, he had a team, too, in the capital, and they said, ‘You’re not playing for anybody else. You’re playing for our team here, or you will be put in jail,’ ” Acta said. “He wanted to make sure that his team was the one that was going to win, and regardless of who imported the player, if he was good, he was going to play for his team. I think the umpires were kind of in fear, and it was chaos.”

There are different versions of the story — one in which when one of Trujillo’s political opponents brought Negro Leaguers George Scales, Spoon Carter, Chet Brewer, Showboat Thomas and several other players to compete for their teams, Trujillo countered by sending agents to meet with Paige and recruit him and his teammates from the remarkable Pittsburgh Crawfords team — one of the greatest teams in Negro League history. Gibson and Cool Papa Bell would accompany Paige to the island, where they would wind up playing the championship game under armed guard, in fear for their lives.

It is the stuff of legend and lore, like so much of Negro Leagues history, almost larger than life. And although, for all intents and purposes, the various leagues that fell under the Negro League baseball description have not existed for more than 50 years, fans still try to connect to that lore. The Nationals did as much last night in their tribute to the Negro Leagues and are expected to do the same at the new ballpark with a statue of Gibson, the Hall of Famer considered to be among the greatest home runs hitters in baseball history.

But as the years go by and Negro Leaguers die, it isn’t easy to make those connections anymore. They sometimes are tenuous at best.

Like with Eddie Banks, who was honored last night as a member of the Newark Eagles from 1958 to 1960 and the Homestead Grays from 1960 to 1965. While there still were remnants of the Negro Leagues in 1958 — Willie McCovey played for a version of the Birmingham Black Barons that year before he started his career with the San Francisco Giants in 1959 — whatever version was calling themselves the Homestead Grays from 1960 to 1965 couldn’t have had any connection with the team that played here in the District. That Grays franchise folded in 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line.

No, there are few true Negro League players left, so functions like last night are important. So are the connections with descendents and relatives of those players, such as Brian Patterson, grandson of the great Buck Leonard, and Geraldine Day, wife of Leon Day — a Hall of Fame Negro Leagues pitcher and outfielder who may have been just as dominant as Paige. Born in Alexandria, Leon Day also was part of one of the great black baseball stories when he pitched for a black military team in an exhibition game against a group of white major leaguers in the armed forces at Nuremberg Stadium in Germany in September 1945. Day’s team won 2-1 before a capacity crowd in the same stadium where the Hitler Youth had marched and trained just a few years earlier.

These are stories worth passing down for generations to come, and it is important for a new generation to come to the ballpark and see even the great grandsons of these men who were forced to create their own version of the national pastime, and did so with style.

Acta, who heard the stories of these men who once came to his island while growing up in the Dominican, said he was “proud” to wear the uniform.

“We owe this to all the guys who played before us,” he said. “This is the least we can do for those guys.”

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