Baseball’s recent elevation of the old Negro Leagues to major league status was a long time coming, and recalls an era when barnstorming Negro teams played in Rhode Island, at sites including venerable Cardines Field in Newport.
The decision by Major League Baseball, which came shortly before Christmas, acknowledged that racism denied many a superb player the opportunity to compete at the game’s highest level.
In announcing the move, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said,” All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice.”
As we’ll see later, Negro League players always knew they were major leaguers – it was the rest of the baseball world that disdained the obvious. That began to change in 1971, when Black pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige, who played five major league seasons after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Paige wasn’t the first Black player in the Hall; Robinson was. But Paige was the first to gain entrance largely for his years of accomplishment in the Negro Leagues, with the Kansas City Monarchs.
“Satchel” Paige, whose nickname reflected his boyhood job of carrying suitcases for travelers in a train station, played at Cardines one night in 1950 with the Baltimore Elite Giants. He was 44 and between major league assignments after joining the Cleveland Indians in 1948 as a bigotry-delayed, 42-year-old rookie.
In Newport he was visiting a classic little stadium where sandlot baseball had been played since 1908. The city bought the property in 1936, improved it, and named it for Bernardo Cardines, who emigrated there from Italy at age 14 and later died in battle during World War I.
Today, the field on America’s Cup Avenue is home to the amateur, century-old George Donnelly Sunset League and the college-level Newport Gulls. The late Providence Journal sportswriter Bill Parrillo once described it as “a jewel of emerald green tucked down at one end of the city, a quaint, charming, marvelous, old ballpark.”
Parrillo in 1987 spoke with long-time Newport sportswriter Donnelly himself, then 84 and for decades the Sunset League’s official scorer. He saw Paige play that long-ago night, and recounted how the team arrived in a bus but the pitcher “drove up to the front door in a limo.”
Paige played his customary three barnstorming innings, allowing Sunset Leaguers just two singles, one of them a bunt he didn’t trouble himself to chase down, and striking out five.
Like so many others who would have enlivened the Grand Old Game but for years of discrimination, Paige was destined to leave his peak talent on the pitching mounds of the Negro Leagues.
Many of his peers never made it to the big leagues at all, including Leon Day, a star pitcher for the Newark, N.J. Eagles, and later the Baltimore team, who outdueled Paige on several occasions.
In a Baltimore hospital just days before his death in 1995, the 79-year-old Day learned he had been chosen by the Hall of Fame – and here’s where the judging of talent becomes a matter of perspective.
According to an account in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, a Baltimore Sun reporter entered Day’s hospital room and said, “It’s my honor to tell you that you were voted into the Hall of Fame today, and I would like to interview you.”
“What do you want to know?” Day asked.
“Well, I know you will understand why I have to ask you this, but does this make up for you never playing in the big leagues?”
Day replied, “Young man, you have been seriously misinformed. I did play in the big leagues. I can’t rightly say whether those white boys could have made it in ours.”
Gerry Goldstein (email@example.com) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.