- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

For those who cherish baseball’s old Negro Leagues, a pilgrimage to Union Station is — literally — the best bet in town these days.

In the station’s West Hall, about a Josh Gibson home run from the main entrance, you will find a touring exhibit from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Nearby, a shop is selling Washington Nationals gear, so it’s possible to savor the sport’s past and future simultaneously.

The exhibit, titled “Discover Greatness,” is sponsored by the D.C. Lottery. That seems something of an oxymoron considering baseball’s long-standing aversion to gambling, but the lottery folks have done a neat job creating commemorative scratch-off tickets honoring each of the four most renowned and successful Negro League clubs: Washington’s Homestead Grays, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Indianapolis Clowns and the New York Black Yankees.

Even if you don’t normally participate in a lottery, it’s worth the few bucks to glom one or more of the tickets. Bettors get to keep the colorful top half, which offers a team picture and pertinent data concerning the powerhouse club in question.

One incredibly lucky bettor will win $50,000, which might match the entire payroll of some teams in the 1920s and 1930s — the heyday of black baseball before it was killed off by the integration of the major leagues in 1947.

Another inducement: 260 ticket buyers will win replica Negro League uniform shirts. In fact, the recent popularity of such gear helped bring the exhibit to Washington.

“I noticed a lot of young men wearing the jerseys, but most of them seemed to know nothing about the teams — it was just a fashion statement,” says Bob Hainey, communications chief of the D.C. Lottery. “You feel like going up to them and saying, ‘Why are you wearing that? Why not learn something about those teams …’”

For anyone eager to do so, the opportunity is at hand. The exhibit, which opened last week with loquacious former player and manager Buck O’Neil gracing the occasion, will be at Union Station through March 13.

Unlike many traveling museum displays, this is no quickie deal. It takes a half-hour or more to properly relish hundreds of artifacts like game tickets, advertisements, magazine covers and pennants, plus marvelous photographs and text.

Perhaps most impressive are lockers showing replicas of uniform shirts worn by Negro Leaguers who belatedly made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.: Gibson, legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Martin Dihigo, league founder Rube Foster, Ray Dandridge, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston and Pop Lloyd.

O’Neil hasn’t made it to Cooperstown yet, probably because he served for years on the shrine’s former Veterans Committee and therefore was ineligible, but he belongs. At a lively 93, Buck knows more Negro Leagues anecdotes than any other person alive. One of my favorites: “How fast was Cool Papa Bell? He was so fast he could turn out the light and get into bed before the room got dark.”

OK, so it’s a slight exaggeration — so what?

The exhibit also pays tribute to former Negro Leaguers who lasted long enough to reach the major leagues, such as Henry Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Minnie Minoso, Willie Mays and Paige (who was 42 or thereabouts when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948).

Many of the photos come with poignancy attached. There is an incredibly slim Roy Campanella soon after he made his Negro League debut at 15. Paige and Bob Feller are shown on a postseason barnstorming tour in 1946, when Rapid Robert was the best pitcher in baseball perhaps only because Paige was still ineligible because of an incurable skin condition.

And we learn how, in 1901, Baltimore Orioles manager John McGraw attempted to sign a black player, Charlie Grant, by passing him off as a Cherokee Indian named Charlie Tokohoma. (The bigots of the day were too sharp for McGraw; Grant was swiftly found out and barred.)

Marketing director Bob Kendrick says he isn’t surprised that 60 percent of visitors to the Kansas City museum are white.

“Baseball crosses generational and ethnic lines,” he says. “A lot of white fans feel cheated because they didn’t know anything about the Negro Leagues at the time — and how could black baseball have gone so unnoticed? It’s a piece of American history.”

A visit to Union Station certainly will bring local fans up to speed. For anyone who regards baseball as the truly national pastime, it should be a mandatory trip.

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