- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2016


One of the annual exercises of Black History Month is to remind everyone of the greatness that was Negro League baseball — and the place Washington had in the history of that institution.

The irony is that Negro League baseball existed for all the wrong reasons — hate, bigotry — as black players created their own version of the national pastime. They did so with style, never letting the hatred that kept them out of Major League Baseball take away from their love for the game itself.

In some places, the Negro League team was one of the most important institutions in the black community, right behind the church. The game became so popular in places like Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and other cities that sometimes it drew bigger crowds than the major league teams.

The East-West Game — the Negro Leagues’ all-star game — would draw as many as 50,000 fans and outdrew the MLB All-Star Game in at least four different seasons. The game was so popular that two Negro League all-star games were held in 1946, the second one at Griffith Stadium. The games would showcase future Hall of Famers like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and other legendary players.

The game came to Washington in 1946 because of the popularity of Washington’s adopted Negro League team — the Homestead Grays, one of the most famous and successful Negro League teams in the history of the sport.

Washington had a number of black professional baseball teams in the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century. Teams would sometimes spring up, play for a season, and then fold throughout the country. There was the Washington Capital Citys, a team that played in 1887 in the League of Colored Base Ball Players. There was the Washington Pilots and the Washington Potomacs, who played in the 1920s and 1930s.

Then came the Washington Elite Giants — the well-known and well-traveled franchise created by Tom Wilson that began in Nashville in 1921 and later moved to Columbus, Ohio, before coming to Washington briefly in 1936. The Elite Giants would move to Baltimore in 1937, where, as the Baltimore Elite Giants, they became a successful team that played until 1950 and featured such stars as Roy Campanella, Leon Day and Joe Black. When the Elite Giants left Washington, the Washington Black Senators took their place, but folded after a few games.

Best known, though, for Negro League baseball in Washington were the Homestead Grays — a franchise started by Cumberland Posey in 1912 in Homestead, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh.

The Grays began splitting their homes games in 1937 between Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Griffith Stadium, where the owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith, saw the financial opportunity of hosting Grays games. The irony is that the Grays would go on to win nine consecutive Negro National League championships and three Negro League World Series titles, while their major league counterpart at Griffith Stadium, the Senators, were among the worst teams in baseball.

Washington fans had the opportunity to see such greats as Gibson, whose statue stands outside the home plate entrance to Nationals Park, and Buck Leonard, who, in an interview with local Negro League baseball author and historian John Holway, spoke of the issues they faced splitting games between Pittsburgh and Washington.

“We would play in Washington when the Senators were on the road and in Pittsburgh when the Pirates were away,” he said. “We would leave Pittsburgh after midnight some Sunday mornings to play a doubleheader that day in Washington. That was 263 miles over the Pennsylvania Turnpike … with the traveling we were doing, we weren’t sure whether we were going to get there or not.

“I remember our bus broke down in Hagerstown once and we had to call and tell them to send three taxicabs out there to pick us up to get to Washington to start the game. Sometimes we would play a semi pro team in Rockville in the afternoon and a league game at Griffith Stadium that night. Sometimes we would stay in hotels that had so many bedbugs you had to put a newspaper down between the mattress and the sheets.”

Despite the burdens, the Grays played some of the best baseball this town has ever seen — historically great.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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