Until Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and the subsequent siphoning of talent from Negro League teams, Black ballplayers performed at a level equal to their MLB counterparts in both quality of play and often in box office draw. It still took 24 years after Robinson’s debut for any Negro Leagues player or executive aside from Robinson to receive induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Not until 1971 did Satchel Paige take his long-deserved place in Cooperstown (though this was just six after his last major league appearance which came at the age of 58). Ted Williams is often credited with helping Paige and the 34 other people who played all or some of their careers in Black baseball finally receive their induction into the Hall of Fame.
In his own induction speech in 1966, Williams famously advocated for Paige and Josh Gibson to eventually join him.
I hope that some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way could be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they were not given the chance.
As one of the greatest hitters to ever play, Williams’ words obviously carried a great deal of weight, but it took more than one white legend speaking up for the Black legends to get their due.
In 1969, the Baseball Writers Association of America formed a committee dedicated to the enshrinement of Negro Leagues players. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, elected that same year, assisted in making it a reality. Kuhn’s legacy as commissioner was less than stellar. Among other things, in 1974, he declined to attend the game in which Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. At the commemoration ceremony, the crowd erupted into a full minute of boos at mention of his name.
Kuhn, however, played a role in inclusion of Negro Leagues players in the Hall of Fame. Those who argued against the inclusion of Negro League players pointed to the rule that a player needed 10 years of major league service time and trotted out the old argument of denigrating the record keeping of Negro Leagues statistics. Kuhn later wrote in his autobiography:
These arguments were much too technical under the circumstances. Through no fault of their own, the black players had been barred from the majors until 1947. Had they not been barred, there would have been great major league players, and certainly Hall of Famers, among them. What applied after 1947 would have obviously applied before. This was precisely the kind of situation that required the bending of the rules.
In 1970, Kuhn arranged a meeting between him and Ford C. Frick and Charlie Kerr, the current Hall of Fame president. Joining Kuhn were also Charley Segar, Joe Reichler, Monte Irvin, Dick Young, and Jack Lang. According to Kuhn, the meeting was heated with Frick and Kerr adamantly opposing the inclusion of Negro League players, but Kuhn had harsher words for Dick Young who had a reputation for being abrasive and was supposedly rude to Frick.
After that meeting, it was clear that Kuhn didn’t have the votes on the board of directors, so he looked for a compromise. In 1971, he created a panel of Negro League experts to decide the greatest players of the Negro Leagues who would then be enshrined in a separate display at the Hall of Fame.
This separate-but-equal enshrinement was predictably unpopular, but Kuhn insisted he was playing five-dimensional chess. “I knew that the furor would be heard by [Hall of Fame] board of directors and that the public outcry would be hard to resist,” he wrote.
Intentional or not, the board eventually ceded and allowed the committee full power to induct Negro Leaguers. After Paige in 1971, Gibson and Buck Leonard followed the next year. The committee continued to induct Monte Irvin, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Martín Dihigo, and Pop Lloyd.
Kuhn was commissioner when the first full-time Negro Leaguer entered Cooperstown, but who knows how much longer it would have taken if Dick Young hadn’t been to get angry in that initial meeting or if Monte Irvin hadn’t served as chairman of the committee. Or if Robert Peterson hadn’t written Only the Ball was White in 1970? Or when Negro Leaguers were finally allowed, who would have been left out if Effa Manley hadn’t written the Veterans Committee on behalf of players she believed deserved the honor?
Williams was the catalyst and Kuhn granted permission, but credit is shared among the historians who didn’t let the Negro Leagues be forgotten, the writers who openly fought for the recognition of these ballplayers, and the witnesses who saw them play. Mostly, credit belongs to the ballplayers for being unequivocally great. They only thing they did wrong was be born into a racist society.
In 1977, the first Negro Leagues committee disbanded, and the duty of considering Negro Leaguers for the Hall of Fame fell to the Veterans committee. The rate at which Negro Leaguers gained enshrinement slowed to a crawl. From 1978 through 1994, the the only people with any connection to the Negro Leagues to enter the Hall of Fame were Willie Mays (1979), Rube Foster (1981), Hank Aaron (1982), and Ray Dandridge (1987).
In 1995, the Veterans Committee was mandated to select one Negro Leaguer a year. This started with Leon Day in 1995 and ending with Hilton Smith in 2001. When that mandate expired, MLB gave the Hall of Fame a research grant to perform an exhaustive study of Black baseball which led to the Second Special Committee on the Negro Leagues.
Eventually, 17 players and executives including Effa Manley and Cristóbal Torriente finally received their induction though more than a few deserving candidates were left out. Notably, Buck O’Neil, the great manager, scout, and ambassador of Black baseball fell one vote short of Hall of Fame induction though he delivered the opening speech at the induction ceremony.
15 years later, and no other Negro Leaguer has joined the 35 in Cooperstown. With the continuing efforts sustain the history of the Negro Leagues through compiling game logs, placing headstones on the graves of forgotten players, or simply telling stories, we’re remembering something new about the people who made these games every day. Surely, revisiting the question of who among them belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame is a worthy endeavor. Without question, the number of people who deserve that distinction is greater than 35.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.