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UMass exhibit highlights 150 years of black players in baseball

  • The traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" is on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" is on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • The St. Paul (Minn.) Gophers were one of several independent all-black teams proclaiming themselves the "Colored World Champions" of 1909. From a panel titled "Barnstorming on the Open Road, 1887 - 1919". Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The St. Paul (Minn.) Gophers were one of several independent all-black teams proclaiming themselves the "Colored World Champions" of 1909. From a panel titled "Barnstorming on the Open Road, 1887 - 1919". Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • "Example of hate mail received by Jackie Robinson when he broke into the majors."  Detail from the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    "Example of hate mail received by Jackie Robinson when he broke into the majors." Detail from the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of Rosa Parks, right, from a side-by-side timeline comparing African-American history and baseball history. Panel at left shows Jackie Robinson on cover of Life magazine. From the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Detail of Rosa Parks, right, from a side-by-side timeline comparing African-American history and baseball history. Panel at left shows Jackie Robinson on cover of Life magazine. From the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • The traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" is on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through Dec. 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" is on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through Dec. 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords at Greenlee Field. Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords at Greenlee Field. Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords at Greenlee Field.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords at Greenlee Field.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • The 1886 Cuban Giants, from a section called "Black Teams Become Professional" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The 1886 Cuban Giants, from a section called "Black Teams Become Professional" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • An 1895 Findlay, Ohio, team with two black players (second row, far left and right).  Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    An 1895 Findlay, Ohio, team with two black players (second row, far left and right). Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • From a panel titled "Separate Leagues, Parallel Lives, 1920 - 1932" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    From a panel titled "Separate Leagues, Parallel Lives, 1920 - 1932" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • From a panel titled "Separate Leagues, Parallel Lives, 1920 - 1932" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    From a panel titled "Separate Leagues, Parallel Lives, 1920 - 1932" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.
    KEVIN GUTTING

  • This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in a scene from "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox)

    This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in a scene from "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox)

  • The traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" is on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The St. Paul (Minn.) Gophers were one of several independent all-black teams proclaiming themselves the "Colored World Champions" of 1909. From a panel titled "Barnstorming on the Open Road, 1887 - 1919". Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • "Example of hate mail received by Jackie Robinson when he broke into the majors."  Detail from the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Detail of Rosa Parks, right, from a side-by-side timeline comparing African-American history and baseball history. Panel at left shows Jackie Robinson on cover of Life magazine. From the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" is on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through Dec. 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords at Greenlee Field. Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords at Greenlee Field.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The 1886 Cuban Giants, from a section called "Black Teams Become Professional" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • An 1895 Findlay, Ohio, team with two black players (second row, far left and right).  Detail of the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • From a panel titled "Separate Leagues, Parallel Lives, 1920 - 1932" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • From a panel titled "Separate Leagues, Parallel Lives, 1920 - 1932" in the traveling exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience" on display in the lower level, Learning Commons, of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through December 7.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in a scene from "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox)

Before Matt Kemp, Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, there were others — Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Sol White and Moses Fleetwood Walker. And if modern-era baseball players of color won stardom and handsome salaries, the earlier ones had to get by mostly on pride and love of the game. Part of their goal was simply to prove the National Pastime wasn’t just for whites.

That’s the thrust behind “Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience,” a traveling exhibition on view at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Sponsored in part by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the show looks at the challenges faced by black and later Latino ballplayers as they tried to get equal opportunities in the game, beginning in the post-Civil War era.

With photos, text, memorabilia and other features, “Pride and Passion” sketches the long, winding path black players took to become part of the national baseball scene, from outright exclusion to having a dominating statistical presence in the game — black players won nine of 11 Most Valuable Player awards in the National League from 1949 to 1959 — to today, when their numbers have declined to a 50-year low.

The exhibit, based on a permanent display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., doesn’t look at the game in a vacuum. Two time lines, one for baseball and one for national events in the U.S., show how developments in both areas compared — how, for instance, Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in modern baseball in 1947 set the stage for the beginning of the Civil Rights era in the early 1950s.

Robinson’s famous story — becoming a national hero after joining the Brooklyn Dodgers and answering white hostility with his brilliant play — is juxtaposed against a less well-known tale. As “Pride and Passion” outlines, black players were a notable presence on several national and minor league baseball teams in the 1870s and 1880s, until Jim Crow laws that were segregating much of U.S. society became part of baseball, excluding them from the game

Sometimes that opposition to black ballplayers came in rather passive-aggressive form, as team owners simply stopped offering them contracts. Sometimes opposition was more blunt. For instance, the exhibit includes part of the text of a threatening letter sent to an Ohio team, the Toledo Blue Stockings, in the early 1880s concerning their black catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker.

The letter, from another team that the Blue Stockings were slated to play, warned of “... 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes on the grounds in a [uniform]. We hope you will listen to our words of warning, so there will be no trouble; but if you do not, there certainly will be.”

Black ballplayers eventually formed their own teams in the late 1800s and early 1900s, playing against each other in barnstorming sessions and against semi-pro teams. One team, the Cuban Giants — the squad did not actually have any Latino players — played for guests at a fancy hotel on Long Island, N.Y., during the day, then waited tables for them at night.

As one team photo — the St. Paul (Minn.) Gophers from 1909 — at the exhibit shows, this open-ended playing arrangement led to various teams, including the Gophers, claiming the mantle of being “The Colored World Champions.”

But in 1920, former player Andrew “Rube” Foster started the first black baseball league, the Negro National League; a second, the Eastern Colored League, formed in 1923. Teams found enthusiastic audiences of black fans and soon began playing their versions of All-Star games and World Series in rented stadiums. They pioneered developments later used by the Major Leagues, like night baseball and the use of batting helmets, and players such as slugger Josh Gibson and pitching ace Satchel Paige became huge names on the circuit.

But as the exhibit shows, black players — now joined by some Latino players — still faced the hardships of segregation. They travelled in balky buses or cars and were often forced to get food in grocery stores and sleep on their bus, in barns, or on people’s couches because many restaurants and hotels refused to serve them.

One exhibit photo shows the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a team from the 1930s, posed alongside their bus. The players look ready enough, but their schedule, like those of other teams, could be grueling: They might play two or even three games a day and drive thousands of miles each summer.

Beacon of hope

A good part of the exhibit is given over to the story of Jackie Robinson, who became the leader of a Brooklyn Dodger team that went to the World Series six times during his 10 years with the club. More importantly, Robinson became a hero, a beacon of hope for blacks and whites who believed in ending segregation in all walks of American life.

Among the photos of Robinson in action — batting, stealing home, turning a double play at second base — there’s a blowup of him from the cover of an issue of Life magazine from May 1950 (when a yearly subscription to the journal cost just $6). The display also documents how Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier opened the door to scores of talented black and Latino players in the following decade: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Ernie Banks.

Yet Robinson faced intense racial hostility at first, even from some teammates, as well as threats. There’s a chilling facsimile of a note, written in crudely scrawled block letters, that he received in the late 1940s before the Dodgers were to play a series at Crosley Field, then the home of the Cincinnati Reds. A group calling itself “The Travellers” threatened to kill him if he took the field.

“We have already got rid of some like you, one was found in the river just recently,” the note reads, in part.

But Robinson and other black players persevered, showing great talent and courage, winning a huge percentage of awards such as the MVP and batting titles in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1959, every major league had at least one black or Latino member (the Boston Red Sox were the last team to add such a player). And in 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to field an all-black lineup in a game.

On the other hand, so many black and Latino players came to the majors from the Negro Leagues that the latter soon began to struggle, drawing dwindling crowds as fans went to see their favorite players in big league games. The last of the Negro League teams folded in the early 1960s.

“Pride and Passion” documents another decline. Today black players represent only about 8 percent of major leaguers, down from a high of about 27 percent in the early 1990s. Baseball analysts have suggested a number of reasons, such as the greater popularity of football and basketball among talented young black athletes. Latino players now represent almost 30 percent of major leaguers, and big league scouts spend considerable time in countries like the Dominican Republic where baseball is hugely popular.

But the exhibit touches on other reasons for the decline of black players, such as a continued dearth in the majors of black managers, coaching staff and team administrative personnel — people who might otherwise lead efforts to recruit more promising black athletes to the game. As the exhibit text puts it, “The limited opportunities for [black] management and front office positions are still critical topics for discussion.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Pride and Passion,” organized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the American Library Association, will be on view in the lower level of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass through Dec. 7. Also on display are records, memorabilia, photos and other items documenting the history of baseball and women’s softball at the university.

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