By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
A charity baseball game that paid tribute to the Negro Leagues and their significance to the sport was held at Sacramento State’s John Smith Field on Oct. 9.
The second annual Honorary Negro League Game is a fundraiser for the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Founded in 1990, the museum is the only one in the world dedicated to preserving and celebrating the rich history of African American baseball and its profound impact on the social advancement of America.
The event was organized by Todd Sullivan, co-host of television’s “The Sac Dugout Show” and pitching coach for Baseball Performance Academy. Museum President Bob Kendrick and three-time World Series champion Dave Stewart were guest speakers.
“We need as many people as ever supporting this effort. It’s such an amazing story and an amazing museum,” Kendrick told The OBSERVER. “It’s a story that many people had no idea existed. This museum keeps the story and their legacy alive.”
Negro Leagues veterans Don “Rook” Porter, W. James “Jim” Cobbin and Dennis “Bose” Biddle were among a modest crowd that saw the Homestead Grays, coached by the Royster family, beat the Lee family’s American Giants 12-6. Also on hand were avid baseball fans, college recruiters and professional scouts.
Biddle played for the Chicago American Giants in 1953 and 1954. Cobbin played for the New York Black Yankees and Indianapolis Clowns in 1956 and 1957. Porter played for the New York Black Yankees and Clowns in 1957 and 1958. All three gentlemen are now in their 80s.
“The teams represented for this game — the Chicago American Giants and Homestead Grays — as well as the Kansas City Monarchs, are three of the greatest franchises not in Black baseball history, but in baseball history,” Kendrick said.
Baseball royalty served as coaches. The Lee family of Sacramento including Leon, his brother Leron and Leon’s son Derrek coached the Chicago American Giants.
The fundraiser was to be played at Sutter Health Park, home of the Sacramento River Cats, in West Sacramento. Danny Royster Sr. said it was moved to Sacramento State due to “timing issues.” The players were high school sophomores, juniors and seniors.
“They wanted us to play the game in June but many of the players were still playing baseball,” Royster said. “This venue (at Sac State) actually worked out well for us.”
Derrek Lee, a graduate of El Camino High School in Carmichael, played 16 years in Major League Baseball. He won a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins in 2003. Leon Lee spent seven years in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system and Leron Lee played eight seasons for the Cardinals. Both brothers also played professionally in Japan.
Jerry Royster and sons Danny Jr. and Ryan managed the Grays. Jerry Royster, who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers at age 17 in 1970, played 16 years in the majors and once managed the Milwaukee Brewers.
Jerry Royster is a cousin of Greg Vaughn, who played 14 years in MLB and graduated from Sacramento’s Kennedy High School in the Greenhaven/Pocket area. Vaughn and Stewart attended a silent auction held to benefit the museum at Riverside Clubhouse in Sacramento.
Jerry Royster praised the former Negro Leagues players’ support and Kendrick’s willingness to visit Sacramento to raise awareness about the museum.
“For this guy to get on an airplane to fly out to Sacramento is a big deal,” Royster said. “I’ve been in baseball forever. I was fortunate to have some really good things happen to me because of baseball. But I wouldn’t have any of that if it wasn’t for the Negro Baseball Leagues.”
In 1920, an organized league structure was formed under the guidance of Andrew “Rube” Foster, a former player, manager and owner for the Chicago American Giants. Foster was the catalyst who unified owners to form the Negro National League “in a YMCA in Kansas City,” said Cobbin, whose baseball career was cut short when he entered the U.S. Army.
The Negro Leagues maintained a skill level on par with, if not better than, MLB and became centerpieces for economic development in many Black communities. But players were shut out of MLB for decades until Monarchs star Jackie Robinson’s historic debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Black players such as Larry Doby and prolific pitcher Satchel Paige soon followed Robinson. By the early 1960s, the Negro Leagues had disbanded as a cluster of talented stars entered the majors.
Initially part of independent leagues, the Chicago American Giants started playing ball in 1911. From 1920 through 1935, the team played in the Negro National League, Negro Southern League, and the second Negro National League. The Giants won Negro World Series titles in 1926 and 1927.
Josh Gibson, Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Martín Dihigo, Turkey Stearns, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Smokey Joe Williams, Willie Foster, Vic Harris, George Scales, Ted Radcliffe, Newt Allen, Jesse Williams, Bonnie Serrell, Wilber Rogan and Buck O’Neil were among 3,000 athletes who played in the Negro Leagues, Kendrick said.
More than 60 years after the last Negro Leagues game, before a handful of athletes who actually played in the leagues, a young crop of Black and Latino players from the Sacramento region donned the uniforms of the Homestead Grays and Chicago American Giants.
The Homestead Grays were in the American Negro League for 1929, its only season before it folded. After barnstorming the country and scheduling just about any team that would play them, the Grays joined the Negro National League in 1935.
The Grays dominated the league into the 1940s, becoming a big draw at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. From 1937-48 they won 11 league titles, including nine straight, and three Negro World Series championships.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a privately funded, not-for-profit organization, Kendrick said. Interested parties and individuals can join as members to keep the story of Black baseball in America alive so that future generations can discover the greatness of the Negro Leagues.
“We always need support but we encourage patrons to visit the museum,” Kendrick said. “Once you step on that baseball field (in the museum) you will feel the spirit. It’s an incredible experience.”
For information about Negro Leagues Baseball Museum events, programs, and purchasing of souvenirs, visit nlbm.com, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 816-221-1920. The museum is at 1616 East 18th St., Kansas City, Missouri.