We’ve Forgotten Our Negro League Past Part 1: Interview With Senior Writer Justice B. Hill of MLB.com
Gone and forgotten? It’s up to us to make it right and document these moments
When you read this I want you to let Justice’s words seep into your psyche. He speaks so much truth here it’s stunning for we have forgotten about our Negro League past. Do we realize the importance of the rich history we are dismissing through simple ignorance?
As I look over at a Buck O’Neil signed baseball sitting on my desk next to Mays, Reggie Jax, Reggie Smith and Bobby Thompson (damn right I want more) I think to myself that we all should be upset he didn’t get into the Hall of Fame while he was alive.
That’s simply disgusting! Every American should be upset, not just Blacks. Could you imagine what that moment would have been like? Those are the moments that inspire and spawn a new generation of athletes. His exclusion from the Hall of Fame is the reason why I snap when I feel we were wronged by a truly insignificant Vogue cover. This isn’t about bringing up race every damn time something happens just to start trouble. That’s ridiculous. I’m damn sure better than that and I hope you are as well.
Remember, the legend becomes fact if we let it.
It ain’t happening here. Trust me on that.
College basketball is officially over and the NBA is heading into the final stretch so I wanted to post something to get our heads right as baseball enters the second week of the season. I conducted this interview last year before the World Series. For some reason, I didn’t think the timing was right to post this at the time because of all the turmoil surrounding Barry Bonds and the sport on a whole. I implore you all who know and love baseball to write about the sport so we will not forget what is us.
I met Justice at the NABJ Conference last July when he sat on a panel discussion of the Black Athlete with Jemele Hill, Neal Scarbrough, Chris Broussard and David Aldridge. I was quite embarrassed I wasn’t altogether familiar with his body of work. He’s a pioneer in being one of the first Black reporters for Major League Baseball.
Do you know about him?
I thought not.
I wonder why that is?
He has a great baseball mind. I would love to sit down with him and discuss the sport in the press box at any of the classic fields and I hope I get that chance.
This is part one. Part two will be posted Monday morning.
Michael Tillery: Justice, why did you become a journalist?
Justice B. Hill: That’s always an interesting question. Maybe it was just a calling. I don’t really know. I know I enjoyed writing. When I graduated from Ohio State in 1978, that was a good time. It was post Watergate. You could be the next Woodward or Bernstein. Everybody was talking about those guys. It certainly was an opportunity back in those days because news papers–so they claimed–were looking to diversify and offer some opportunities. You sometimes look for chances to make the world better. I think as a journalist that is what we have an opportunity to do. You write about some interesting things and you hope that the truth will make this world a better place. That’s probably the reason more than anything. It wasn’t a case of a Black journalist before me helping to shape and inspire. Nothing like that. It was more a case of opportunity meshing with my skills.
MT: When did you fall in love with baseball?
JBH: I was always a baseball fan. Growing up in Cleveland, I always followed it. I always played. Keep in mind that if you grew up in the sixties and seventies, you were more likely to be a baseball fan than anything else. Guys like Reggie Jackson…
MT: He was my favorite player.
JBH: Willie Mays was still around in the early seventies. Hank Aaron…those were the heroes. Honestly, since I grew up in Cleveland, Jim Brown was someone I respected. That’s what you did in the sixties and seventies. People who grew up in the fifties played pick up baseball. You played baseball in the North until it got too cold then you played football. Maybe there was an opportunity to play basketball indoors, outdoors or whatever, but baseball was the sport. Let’s face it, especially in the sixties, we weren’t that far removed from the Negro Leagues. The name Jackie Robinson still meant something to people. Larry Doby meant a whole lot to Black folks who grew up in the city of Cleveland.
MT: For those who don’t know, can you elaborate on the type of player Larry Doby was on and off the field. He really doesn’t get the attention he deserves. That’s unfortunate.
JBH: Yes it is. That’s a shame Michael. Everybody thinks that after Jackie Robinson broke in after 1947, that everything was smooth sailing for everybody else and that wasn’t the case. People forget that Doby broke in the same season and there were a bunch of cities Doby played in that Robinson didn’t. Doby opened the doors in American league cities that Robinson couldn’t because he played in the National League.
Coming out of the Negro Leagues, he had a much better pedigree than Robinson did. That surprised a lot of people. Robinson was an older player. Larry Doby was much younger when he broke into the league. He broke in as a second baseman, but the Indians at the time didn’t need him to play the position so they moved him to the outfield. He then developed into a high quality outfielder. Speed, athleticism…he had the things a team would go for in the first wave of players that they would bring into the league.
They surely didn’t want any Black players who were showboats in those days. Larry Doby had a college education as well like Robinson. That made him more attractive to Whites and to teams that were looking to integrate. He was a great ball player. An absolutely fantastic ball player and a wonderful personality. He wasn’t as silent a personality as Robinson was, but how can you expect everybody to be the same?
The good thing in my life is that I got a chance to meet him on a number of occasions. He was gracious and eloquent. He was a man who could have hated but didn’t. He wasn’t resentful of how he was treated in the MLB and those kind of things. He was a wonderful example for Black youth and other Black men to follow.
MT: There’s a couple of players out there for me. I never got to see them play or meet them personally. Larry Doby was one and Buck O’Neil was the other. I was hot on Buck O’Neil’s trail before he passed. It was almost set up a couple of times at the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, but it never came to pass. That’s one of my biggest regrets and I still get emotional when I talk about it. I remember being sleep on my couch and waking to his voice–singing–at the Hall Of Fame induction in 2006. He affected me so much, his voice woke me up. I haven’t been affected by many people I haven’t known, but he was able to do that. What type of man was Buck O’Neil? I recently read your piece written before he passed.
JBH: I was there in Cooperstown. Michael, there’s been people that you can’t really put into words the type of people they were. Guys like Buck O’Neil are like Haley’s Comet–they come once in a blue moon. Again, just like Doby, this is a man who had more reasons to hate than anyone, but he didn’t. He said the only thing he hated was cancer and evil. I also met him on a number of occasions, before the Hall of Fame induction and he should have gotten in. Here’s a man who could’ve said that he didn’t want to be part of the induction ceremony for all those Negro Leaguers, but he chose to be there even though he was sick.
I’ll never forget that induction ceremony. There are always two to three day events going on. He and I were sitting on a bench near Doubleday Field–which is right near the Hall of Fame. Ozzie Smith was doing a clinic for young players and everybody moved out to the field to watch the clinic. We were just chit chatting about nothing. To this day I can’t remember what we talked about most likely because it was one of those things where you just assumed you’d see him a bunch of more times. Let’s say you meet someone whose never been sick in the past. You are likely to remember that. That’s how Buck was in your mind. It was just one of many times that I’d talked to him. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame on a number of occasions or done one on one interviews with him. Even though he was 93-94 years old, it never crossed my mind that I’d never get the chance to sit down with him again and have a conversation.
He was a wonderful example of good people that exists in this wold. We always want to talk about negative people but there are certainly enough good people to celebrate and Buck O’Neil was one of them.
My disappointment was that more young people didn’t get to see him and embrace him. I’m talking about mostly Black youth. Buck hasn’t been gone that long, but if you go to most high schools around the country and ask who Buck O’Neil was, they’d have no clue.
That should anger all of us.
MT: That is a shame. I remember growing up and like I said earlier that Reggie Jackson was my favorite player. When I played baseball I wore the number 44 because of him. I had no idea until I was about 15 or 16 that that was Hank Aaron’s number as well. It showed me that even back in the 80’s that we have a disconnect with baseball. Those small bits of knowledge is what’s missing from our history as well as our future.
JBH: That’s recent history Michael. The history that troubles me the most is that most don’t remember the Negro Leagues. If you ask the typical high school age kid about a couple of Negro Leauge players actually in the HOF, most would scratch their head.
I’ve come late to appreciate the Negro Leagues myself. It’s been probably in the last ten years that I’ve become a student of Black baseball. I can sit down with people at the Negro League Museum and have a meaningful conversation about who these men are.
Because baseball doesn’t resonate with Black youth anymore, we will have a hard time convincing them to read about these guys even though they have some marvelous stories to tell (and we’re not telling them). To me…that’s the sad part of all this.
MT: Did you connect with anyone from the Negro Leagues?
JBH: Most of the people I connected with were historians. Most of the people I’ve come in contact with by the time I’d become interested in the Negro leagues–almost every great player–had died. The only living one that has much of a history with the Negro Leagues was Joe Scott. I interviewed him recently. I think he’s about 88. He’s one of the last living members of the Negro Leagues from the forties. There’s a debate about when the Negro Leagues ceased to exist. A lot of historians say around 1950 when players were able to play in the MLB, the Negro Leagues stopped being significant. I pretty much buy into that.
MT: Here’s a question for you. Do you think Blacks integrating into Major League baseball was actually a detriment?
JBH: Detriment in what regard?
MT: Detriment in regards to the sheer pagentry of the game of baseball the future missed out on in Black communities. I’ve heard stories of those Sundays being a great spectacle for not only Blacks, but Whites as well. Satchel Paige pitching to batters with no one playing defense in front of packed parks. That had to be amazing to see and it was lost with integration. The money generated in Black communities was also lost.
JBH: When you look at it like that, certainly breaking the color barrier in baseball had a profound effect on the Black community. Having said that, that was progress. As much as we wanted to be accepted in all aspects of life in this country, progress meant that some of those institutions had to die. Do I wish I could go back and see what that era was like? Definitely. Just like you said, Black communities thrived in the Negro League Era. The stores weren’t owned by foreigners as they are now–certainly in Cleveland. The people down the street knew each other. There was a sense of camaraderie and a sense of brotherhood in the community that doesn’t exist today. The institutions that were the bedrock of Black society don’t have the hold on people that they once had.
Black folk on Sunday would go to church and then go watch Negro League baseball. We don’t go to church anymore. We certainly don’t get up on Sundays and think about watching baseball. Yeah I think it’s done some badness. I also think that the integration of our public schools has destroyed the foundation of our neighborhood schools. It hasn’t made the Black community a stronger institution as planned. I have a hard time saying that progress benefited us all across the board.
MT: This is another question I’ve always had Justice and I can’t think of anyone better to ask but in the tradition of Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Maury Wills and Vince Coleman, what happened to the stolen base?
JBH: It was replaced by power. Since the 90’s the home run has become the calling card of baseball. You dare not run even though the percentages are high (70 to 80% depending on speed obviously) if a Mark McGuire or a Barry Bonds is at the plate. The new baseball parks are more intimate so the potential of a big inning is far greater than it was years ago. Also those players who stole bases took a lot of wear and tear. Stealing bases with the frequency of Rickey Henderson, Willie Wilson, Lou Brock or Maury Wills takes a toll on your body because of the performance. Fans rather see the home run so you don’t run yourself out of an inning.
MT: How good was Rickey Henderson? Where would you rank him all time?
JBH: It’s hard to rank Rickey Henderson because he’s such a different player. Put it this way, if I had to pick a lead off hitter it would probably be him or Ichiro. Rickey wasn’t a great defensive player. He had enough power but he wasn’t a spectacular power hitter. He was exciting. When you bring that to the table and his ability to change the game–and he certainly had that ability with his speed–he was a wonderful ball player. Keep in mind, the stadiums that he played in were much bigger, so the stolen base was much more significant. Getting to second meant a lot. Now getting to second even with a single doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to score. I remember Manny Ramirez getting thrown out on a Mike Lowell single to right. That didn’t happen so much with the big outfield. Getting to second meant a whole lot and Rickey was good at getting to second. Rickey was good at scoring. He was good at getting on third base.
He’s a sure fire Hall of Famer there’s no doubt about that. Is he one of the ten greatest ball players of all time? I would say no. One of the twenty? I would say no. Thirty? No. Forty? No. Fifty? Now you are getting to where he belongs. In that next fifty. Is it seventy-nine or ninety-nine? I don’t know.
MT: Who would be your top five?
JBH: That’s a tough question to answer. There’s so many great players. There’s so many Negro League players that I’ve read about. I haven’t read really enough. I have to say–and most people would–that Babe Ruth is probably the greatest player of all time. He would be there. I love Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson. They would be on my list because when they barnstormed against White teams in the 30’s some of the great players acknowledged they were classic players who would have been superstars.
Top five I can’t do. I could certainly run down a list of who I thought were great players and a significant number would be players in the Negro League.
MT: Why do you think America is intentionally or unintentionally attempting to erase the accomplishments and rich history of the Negro League?
JBH: Michael they never saw it. It’s not just White Americans, but Black folk too. The Negro League wasn’t covered by the mainstream press. All White people have heard about it was by word of mouth after Ken Burns’ series on baseball. It’s easy to ignore something that you absolutely aren’t familiar with.
I take a group to Kansas City. I think you know I coordinate the internship at MLB.com…
JBH: OK , well I take a group of White kids from Kansas or Missouri to the Negro League Museum. They are going to play a role of keeping the history alive because of their interest in baseball. They are going to be the people who are going to have an opportunity to write about the Negro Leagues. It can’t just be Blacks. It has to be Whites as well. When I take them there, they are stunned by what they find out. They say they didn’t know. They had no clue. They didn’t know the greatness that existed in this segregated era of baseball.
It’s easy to forget that these people existed. No one is writing about them. No one is telling their stories. That’s why it’s become more and more incumbent of Black journalists like yourself to make it happen. I’m very critical of Black journalists–particularly young ones–who have no clue about their heritage. They care about LeBron and everyone like that, but sports is about history. There’s no history that’s richer in the Black community than baseball. You can talk about football and basketball all you want to but nothing is American as baseball for Black folks in this country. I try to bring it home to young people like this:
Baseball is Jazz in a Hip Hop world.
Jazz doesn’t resonate with young people and that’s a shame.
MT: Wow that’s a powerful statement. I’m telling you sir, that’s why I’m here. I’m trying to be a bridge with a whole bunch of arms climbing everywhere. I want everyone to climb on my back and let’s get it! Let’s go find out about the stories you speak of.