Much too belatedly, baseball fans who care (or should care) are learning about the game’s rich and diverse role in black culture during the days when Washington and most of the nation writhed in the unforgiving grip of segregation.
Several events and displays have added to our knowledge in recent years, and now the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum is offering perhaps the most complete exhibit yet at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., 801 K St. NW. “Separate and Unequaled: An Illustrated History of Black Baseball in the District of Columbia” will run Tuesdays through Saturdays until Oct. 5 at the old Carnegie Library, and a trip there is highly recommended.
Actually, visitors can catch a doubleheader, and all for free. Also on display is a traveling exhibit from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., that offers a national perspective on black baseball. But the overall focus remains, properly, on the local scene.
You’ll learn, for example, that black baseball, as it was known in our unenlightened past, involves far more people than Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neil — its most widely known figures.
Not that they’re ignored. In one photo, Gibson autographs a ball for Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, at the 1944 Negro Leagues East-West All-Star Game at Chicago’s old Comiskey Park. (Since Josh lived to play another day, we may assume he did not hit on the champ’s lady.
Gibson again: Take a look at this mighty slugger apparently trying (and failing) to lay down a bunt. His befuddled expression seems to say, “Who, me?”
Cool Papa was the Rickey Henderson of his era, reportedly able to zip around the bases in 12 or 13 seconds. How fast was he? Supposedly, Bell could turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark. (In this case, I guess, a myth was as good as a mile.)
Leonard attended his first major league game at age 16, on July 5, 1924, at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. To mark the occasion, if involuntarily, Babe Ruth of the Yankees crashed into a cement outfield wall and knocked himself silly. A painful picture shows Ruth laying unconscious while black fans peer down at him anxiously from the segregated right-field bleachers.
Fascinating facts rush out at us. too. Didja know that in 1943, Gibson hit 10 home runs for the Grays at Griffith Stadium while the second-place Senators bashed just 13.
And if you aren’t familiar with the Grays, who split their “home” games between Pittsburgh and Washington, consider this: They won nine consecutive Negro National League pennants in the 1930s and 1940s — or three times as many as both editions of the Senators glommed over 71 mostly crummy seasons in the American League.
The Anacostia Community Museum exhibit, which is being held off-site because the facility is celebrating its 40th anniversary at its home field, was speedily assembled in four months by curator Anthony Gualtieri and senior historian Gail Lowe. Its images and accompanying text go back nearly 150 years to Civil War days, when white and black teams sometimes played each other on the White Lot (so called because of the fence that surrounded it) on what is now the Ellipse.
A photo of two white men evokes both cheers and boos. One subject is Clark Griffith, the patron saint of white baseball in the nation’s capital, who owned the Senators for 35 years and made his stadium in a predominantly black area available for games involving the Grays, Redskins and various colleges and high schools. Next to him, aggravatingly, is adopted son Calvin Griffith, the louse who moved the club to Minnesota after the 1960 season.
Many charmingly dated pictures reach out and grab us. One shows fans squeezing through the main entrance to Griffith Stadium just a few feet away from several neighborhood houses near Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW. Another displays advertising signs on the park’s outfield walls in the 1930s, one proclaiming the virtues of an early deodorant soap by saying, “The Senators use Lifebuoy.”
Apparently fans hereabouts were less cynical than those in the City of Brotherly Hate.. When a similar sign in Philly insisted “the Phillies use Lifebuoy,” a disillusioned rooter scrawled underneath “. . . and they still stink!”
Other items on view include ancient bats, gloves and scorecards, press credentials for such noted representatives of the black media as Sam Lacey and Art Carter, and other assorted memorabilia assembled by people who love the game and its history. And looming above all else is a humongous display showing black children playing baseball in a Washington alleyway — a reminder of how important the game once was in nearly every segment of American society.