The crack of the bat is back, as pitchers and catchers have already reported for Giants spring training. If you’ve got baseball on the brain, a new historical exhibit at the S.F. Public Library will give you goosebumps with its mind-blowing array of artifacts and historical items from some of baseball’s most significant African-American players and beloved hellraisers.
“We’re looking at the Colin Kaepernicks in baseball history,” baseball historian and University of San Francisco professor Robert Elias tells SF Weekly. Elias refers to the players examined in his and and Peter Dreier’s forthcoming book Rebels of the Diamond, but the same can be said for many of the 50 years’ worth of status quo-crushing Black baseball players in the library’s series of exhibits and events, “A Game of Color: The African-American Experience in Baseball.”
Black History Month often acknowledges Jackie Robinson as the first African-American player in Major League Baseball (MLB). But another Black man beat him to the plate 63 years before Robinson’s historic 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers debut.
“The attempts to integrate baseball started in the 1860s — not the 1960s, the 1860s,” Elias says. His Feb. 21 presentation will explore the story of Moses Fleetwood Walker, a barehand catcher (!) who played five months in the majors in 1884 after his minor league team was incorporated into what we now call the National League.
Jim Crow culture relegated Walker to a temporary glitch in the 19th-century racism matrix. But African-American players still gave baseball some of its greatest stories.
The very hair curlers worn by Dock Ellis, known for pitching a no-hitter while tripping on acid, are featured in the exhibit. Ellis was not wearing them at the time of his legendary 1970 LSD no-hitter, as he did not adopt the look until the 1973 season.
The hair rollers drew a furious rebuke from then-MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn, in a letter whose original version is also on display at this exhibit.
“Dear Mr. Ellis,” the letter says. “I recently received a photo depicting you on a Major League Baseball field, and it is clearly evident that you are wearing hair curlers under your cap.
“I have no interest in interfering with the individual expression of Major League Baseball players, as long as their behavior and appearance are not foolish,” the commissioner fumes. “I urge you to discontinue wearing hair curlers.”
Ellis felt the sweat that collected around his curlers could be used for a spitball-like throw colloquially known as the “Jheri curve.” But hair curlers were also a Black Pride fashion symbol of the era, and Major League Baseball wanted none of that.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, the counterculture began to have an impact on what was going on in the game,” says Terry Cannon, executive director of the Baseball Reliquary, who teamed with the Institute of Baseball Studies to put together this exhibit. “With the Black Power movement and the changes going on in society, now all of a sudden you had these Black ballplayers who spoke their mind. Baseball had to deal with that.”
Baseball historians have questioned Ellis’ claim that he was high on LSD for his historic 1970 no-hitter that has been the subject of films and “dockumentaries.”
“A lot of people have speculated — did he really throw that game on acid?” Cannon says. “Nobody knows. Dock said he did, but he was a great storyteller.”
“If somebody were to come in today and present irrefutable evidence that Dock Ellis did not throw a no-hitter on acid, I think that would be a loss for baseball,” Cannon tells SF Weekly. “These wonderful stories are part of the great lore.”
For Giants fans, there’s no better story than “The Say Hey Kid” Willie Mays. His statue sits at the front of AT&T Park and the World Series MVP Award is named for him. But Mays started his career humbly in the Negro Leagues, a “separate but equal” construct born of Major League Baseball’s gentlemen’s agreement to never employ Black players.
Mays played for a Negro League team in 1947 while he was still in high school, and became a phenomenon for Alabama’s Birmingham Black Barons. Replicas of Mays’ Black Barons ball cap and jersey are part of the exhibit, as is a dream alternate-reality scenario that could have come true for Giants fans. All-time great Hank Aaron almost came to the Giants with Willie Mays.
“It was a $50-a-month difference in what the Braves offered versus the Giants,” Cannon points out. “If the New York Giants had upped the ante, you could have had Aaron and Mays patrolling the same outfield.”
The Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, four years after Aaron’s Major League debut and Mays’ return from the Korean War.
“These two icons of baseball could have been teammates,” Cannon says.
Additionally, the Negro Leagues were not the typical lesser-equivalent of the Jim Crow era.
“A lot of these Negro League teams were playing in Major League ballparks,” Cannon tells SF Weekly. “These games were well-attended. The attendance figures for [Negro league All-Star] games surpassed the Major League Baseball All-Star games.”
Jackie Robinson was of course the most significant figure, coming up from those Negro Leagues to break the color barrier in 1947. The exhibit includes Robinson in several memorabilia cases and presentations.
“He laid the foundation for not only Blacks getting into baseball, but all sports,” Cannon says. “He contributed a lot to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King said that he would never have been able to accomplish half of what he did had it not been for the groundbreaking work of Jackie Robinson.”
Robinson’s entrance to the Major League is seen as a breakthrough moment, but it was just as definitive for its racist cultural response to him. The constant fan taunts directed at Robinson were notoriously ugly, and Black players still couldn’t stay in hotels with their teammates.
“When Jackie Robinson signed, it didn’t open the floodgate for African-American players,” Cannon says. “The Yankees didn’t integrate until the ’50s. The Boston Red Sox didn’t integrate until 1959. We’re talking 12 years later.”
Robinson is celebrated as a feel-good story, as Major League Baseball has retired his No. 42 and gives him all manner of annual acknowledgements. But today’s league is more interested in celebrating his example than following it.
“While Robinson’s breakthrough was historic, he would have been shocked to see MLB now having less than 8 percent African-American [players],” Elias points out, noting the game also has fewer Blacks in management and executive positions than pro basketball or football. “In the mid-’70s, African-Americans made up 25 to 27 percent of MLB players.
“MLB celebrates Robinson, but it has pursued a very lackluster effort to get African-Americans back into baseball, signaling that it really doesn’t care,” he adds.
But anyone would be moved by the artifacts, ephemera, and epic old-time baseball stories that make up the library’s “Game of Color” exhibit. The historical presentations switch-hit from hilarious to heartbreaking to inspiring, and underscore how Major League Baseball of today could use a little more color commentary.
Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor.
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A Game of Color: The African-American Experience in Baseball, through March 18, at the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch, 100 Larkin St. Free; 415-557-4400 or sfpl.org.