- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The legendary baseball stars of the Negro League were honored Monday for their contributions to black culture in the United States.

“Everything that is created today has been created in some way by something in our past,” Camilla Giraud Akeju, director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, said at a National Press Club benefit honoring the players.

The event was part of the museum’s “Separate and Unequaled: Black Baseball in the District of Columbia” exhibit, which highlights the history and accomplishment of Negro Leagues baseball during segregation. The exhibition is now on view at the Historical Society in the District.

Among those receiving the Legends Award were James Tillman Sr. and William “Sonny” Randall of the Washington Homestead Grays; Wallace “Bucky” Williams of the Pittsburgh Crawfords; and Monford Merrill “Monte” Irvin of the Newark Eagles. Mr. Tillman, 88, and Mr. Randall, 93, attended the event.

Mr. Williams, 102, was represented by his great-nephew, Lewis Russell, who said the event was significant because it helped him realize the importance of his great-uncle’s accomplishments.

Posthumous awards were presented to James “Cool Pappa” Bell of the St Louis Stars; Cumberland Willis Posey owner of the Grays; and Toni Stone, who as a Kansas City Monarch was the first female Negro Leagues player.

Mr. Tillman, who also played for the Washington Black Sox and the Charlotte Black Hornets, was honored in June when he was picked by the Pittsburgh Pirates in a special Negro League draft in Orlando, Fla.

The Negro Leagues refers primarily to a series of successful black professional baseball leagues from 1920 to 1951. The first to be incorporated was the Negro National League, which was made up of eight teams. The league was followed in 1923 by the Eastern Colored League, composed of six teams. The first Negro League World Series was played in 1924. After Jackie Robinson became the first black to play in the Major Leagues in 1947, the popularity of the Negro Leagues began to diminish, and by 1951, all but one league had folded.

Jimmy Lee Solomon, executive vice president of Baseball Operations for Major League Baseball, said Monday that the museum and the exhibit are “institutional storytellers for unsung heroes of African-American history.”

“The Negro Leagues reminds us of a time when players faced true challenges, both on the field and off,” he said.

Mr. Solomon also said he was disappointed at the declining popularity of baseball among black athletes, particularly with inner-city youngsters more interested in basketball and football.

He pointed to the fact that NCAA Division I schools are limited to 11.7 scholarships for baseball players, compared with 85 scholarships for football players as lessening the appeal that baseball can offer young athletes.

“It seems to be the case that baseball has simply lost its appeal, it is not hip enough or fast enough for urban city youth,” he said.

Mr. Solomon said the efforts of the 41-year-old museum to recognize the often-overlooked accomplishments of black baseball players are a step in the right direction. Museum officials say they are expanding their mission to tell stories about more than just the black community in the country.

“Baseball’s illustrious past simply cannot be dismissed,” he said.

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