As Black baseball's legacy expands, experts say there is more to learn
The World Series starts tomorrow.
Meanwhile, baseball historians and fans have had new opportunities to learn about a dormant part of the sport's history in the Miami Valley: The Dayton Marcos of the Negro League. Those opportunities come as the legacy of Black baseball expands. But experts say there is still more to learn.
In 1997, the history of baseball in America reached a major pivot point. To mark the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in Major League Baseball, the sport began to atone for decades of systemic racism, which blocked Black ballplayers from playing in the major leagues. Robinson was celebrated throughout that season, and his number 42, was retired by all Major League teams.
More than twenty-five years later, Sam Pollard's acclaimed documentary film “The League,” which did brisk business at the Neon movies in Dayton this summer, revealed the flip side of integration.
“Wherever you had successful Black baseball, you typically had thriving Black economies," an excerpt from the film's trailer said. "You have vendors, and you have advertising, people were making money from it but integration was going to kill their businesses. It was good morally but it came at a cost.”
The Dayton Marcos turned up briefly in the film since they were part of the original iteration of the Negro National League in the early 1920s.
“The League” is part of the renaissance of interest in Black baseball nationally and in the Miami Valley. Michael Carter, chief diversity officer at Sinclair Community College, grew up hearing stories about Black baseball and has now taught about its history to his students for much of the past decade.
“I think Blacks are discovering how important baseball is to our culture," Carter said. "There was a gentleman in our neighborhood who played Negro League baseball and refused to watch Major League Baseball because he had never gotten the opportunity to play Major League Baseball… [I remember] my dad talking about going to Lima to see Satchel Paige pitch.”
While the excavation of this once-neglected history continues, today only around six percent of Major League players are Black Americans. Carter said the rising cost for kids to play baseball is part of the reason why.
“Little League Baseball didn't cost me a dime," he said. You just had to show up and have a glove, and that's not the case anymore. 1200 dollars a kid is the average cost. What family can afford that? Middle-class families and upper-middle-class families and wealthy families, poor families can’t.”
Carter said one of the reasons the Dayton Marcos story isn’t more celebrated, is that it isn't seen as a success story. The Marcos made just two one-year appearances in the original Negro National League.
Leslie Heaphy, an author and professor of history at Kent State University, is on the board of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, and is featured in Pollard’s documentary. Heaphy agreed with Carter and said Negro National League teams from smaller markets like the Marcos don't get the attention they deserve.
“The Marcos, I think, are illustrative of one of the fascinating and frustrating things about the Negro Leagues," Heaphy said. "There were teams that came from fairly large cities with large black populations that had Black newspapers, and so consequently, their coverage is much more extensive than many of the others."
Heaphy said the history of the Marcos goes beyond their two years in the Negro National League. The Marcos formed eleven years before that league began and continued long beyond their time frame in the league.
"There are so many stories out there still to research, still to tell, still to try to find,” she said.
Some progress has been made. For example, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York has now inducted 37 Negro League players as full members, including one-time Dayton Marco Ray Brown.