In a few days, the new baseball season and a new baseball-centered film arrive. The film, “42,” takes its title from the uniform number of Jackie Robinson and documents his travails and celebrates his achievements as he left the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1947 to become a Brooklyn Dodger and the first black major leaguer.
I have long held the old Negro League ballplayers in special regard for keeping our game alive during the long years when players of color were denied the opportunity to play in the major leagues. Some superb players played only in the Negro Leagues, including Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and others.
But some were young enough when the gates fell to have been able to play in the majors. To my good fortune, three former major league stars who had begun as Negro League players -- Larry Doby, Joe Black and Ernie Banks -- became good friends of mine, as did “Slick” Surratt, who played only in the Negro Leagues, and they had much to tell of their experiences in segregated America.
I wanted to share their stories, so some 20 years ago these four – only the ebullient Banks survives -- accompanied me as we visited several colleges to talk to kids about their baseball lives and especially about the significance of the Negro Leagues.
The number of surviving alumni of the Negro Leagues is now tiny. But many of their stories have been preserved. I did extended interviews of many former Negro League players, and the tapes of those interviews are available at the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.
In those interviews and in the talks that my traveling companions gave at the colleges we visited, it became clear to me these men took their baseball seriously and played with pride at the highest level permitted to them.
Surratt told me the players were paid at essentially the level of high school teachers in the black community, yet a symbol of pride they wore coats and ties when the travelled. Their busses may have been fully depreciated but their dress signaled their self- respect.
The baseball played in those leagues was of a high caliber, and the players were skilled professionals. Yet there were other dimensions to their lives.
I once asked Slick why the players played so hard and to win. He smiled wryly at me and then asked if I wanted the baseball answer or the real reason. I asked for both.
“Well,” he said, “we played hard because we never knew whether there was some young kid named Willie Mays who might be there to try out for the team after the game, and we were afraid of losing our jobs. And then there is the real reason.”
He paused for effect.
“You see the winning team got the best girls.”
Remember, his name was “Slick.”
At one college we visited, after Larry Doby had explained the problems of not being able to eat at the best -- but white only -- restaurants in Southern towns, a young black student challenged him: “Why did you accept that? Why didn’t you just insist on being served? Why were you so laid back?”
Larry was patient and gentle: “Young man, let me explain something to you. If we had been difficult or ornery, one of two things would have happened and maybe both. We surely would have been arrested, and we might have been killed. You understand?”
The student had little familiarity with the Jim Crow era, and as a result, the impact on students of the dignified and elegant black ball players was dramatic.
Wherever we went the kids thronged around the players to hear directly of experiences none of them would ever share and few of them could imagine. The simple eloquence, however, of the players made our visits to the colleges some of the most memorable times of my life. The players explained and the kids recognized how much Rosa Parks had endured and helped to change on that bus in Birmingham.
I will look for the new film on Jackie with interest. I hope the filmmakers have avoided the temptation to add gloss to his story. The simple but piercing facts ought to be sufficient.
As I listened to Larry Doby during those college visits, I recall being so moved as he spoke of the loneliness, fear and doubt he experienced in his first days in the major leagues. Softly, he emphasized the loving support of his wife and of the vital strength he drew from Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians who had brought him to the team as the first black in the American League.
That was the experience Jackie shared. One hopes this film captures what these young players had to accept as this nation suffered through our own form of Apartheid. Think of what black baseball players have meant to our game since 1947, when Jackie first played as a Brooklyn Dodger. Think then of what we would have missed had the color line survived another 10 or 20 years.
I trust this new film will serve as the reminder of the magnificent gift Jackie and Larry and all the other black pioneers gave us.
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries. He served as the Commissioner of Baseball from 1989-92.