DR. NKOJI MCELROY
“How would you like to go to a baseball game and a dinner date this Sunday?” Carole asked.
“With whom?” I figured Carole’s invitation must have been special since Carole and I spent most Sunday’s in the library.
“Remember that guy Jackie Robinson I told you about? Well, he’s playing for the Kansas City Monarchs this Sunday at Pelican Stadium. I called Sister Agatha and she said I couldn’t go by myself.”
Pelican Stadium was only a few blocks from campus but Xavier co-eds were not allowed to go off by themselves and meet guys off campus. And you had to get permission from one of the head nuns to go.
Carole met Jackie Robinson when he was a coach for a small black college in Austin, Texas and his team played Xavier. He was on campus when he saw Carole rushing from class with her arms full of books. He dispatched another co-ed to deliver Carole a note. They had kept in touch.
“One of Jackie’s teammates will be your date,” Carole said.
Talking about excitement. The Kansas City Monarchs were charter members of the Negro National League. Negro League baseball games were important spectator events in the black community; a place where an oppressed people could release their pent up emotions in a positive, collective setting. It was one of the few black controlled institutions that we could call our own and feel proud and excited about.
Carole and I spent hours getting dressed. Black people wore their Sunday best to the Negro Leagues games. It was a warm day in New Orleans so we wore flirty, summer like dresses that emphasized our small waists and showed off our slender, shapely legs.
We topped our outfits off with matching gloves, pumps, purses and flowers in our hair a la Billie Holliday.
Satchel Page one of the best and most exciting players in the Negro Leagues was pitching for the Kansas City Monarchs. He was legendary for pitching sixty straight scoreless innings during one of the Negro World Series. This was Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Monarchs. While he had not attained legend status like Satchel Page, Jackie was a crowd pleaser that day. He played shortstop and thrilled us with his quick and agile style.
After the game, Jackie introduced his teammate who was tall and slender, but rather shy. He and Jackie were originally from Georgia and had that Southern gentleman style about them. Most of the League players came from impoverished rural or urban backgrounds and had very little formal education. Jackie was educated and more sophisticated than most of his fellow teammates, but he was humble and charming with kind eyes and a great smile.
Jackie was a great conversationalist and of course Carole and I wanted to know what it was like to be champion baseball players and admired by so many fans. Jackie leaned forward and said:
“Well, it’s not like you think it is. There is a big difference between Negro League baseball and the Major League. We travel on broke down, uncomfortable buses. And there’s no such thing as a good night’s rest. We either sleep on the bus or stay in some dingy, dirty hotel. The decent hotels are off limits to us. We end up feeling sleep and tired during the games, and of course there is no comparison to the pay white players get.”
“Yeah,” my date agreed. “That’s why some players hit the bottle more than they should. Look at Josh Gibson. He’s the top hitter in Negro baseball, in fact the best in all of baseball. That’s why they call him the Negro Babe Ruth, but we know that Josh is the real champion. You hear our folks sayin’ if only he was white. Josh drinks himself silly most of the time. It’s so bad sometimes that he ends up in the hospital.”
Not too long after our date, Branch Ricky, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson. After spending a couple of years on a farm team in Canada, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in 1947 to join a major league team.
Blacks were jubilant, but Dad gave his forecast on the consequences of Jackie Robinsonintegrating major league baseball:
‘It’s another trade-off. We have gained something and lost something. This is the end of Negro baseball. They will rob the Negro League of its present talent. The crowdswill follow Jackie Robinson and those who come after him. The Negro League is not strong enough to compete the Branch Rickey’s.”
My Dad had been a part of Negro baseball from the early 1900s when he played on an East Texas team. Dad was right, within a year, people crowded the stadiumswherever Jackie played and the Negro Leagues died soon after.