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Preserving the history of the semi-professional Negro League baseball circuit

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Major League Baseball has taken steps to honor the Negro leagues that thrived during the era of racial segregation, but far less attention has been given to the semiprofessional Black baseball circuits that continued into the late 1970s. And now a group in South Texas is working to preserve its history, as Texas Public Radio's Marian Navarro reports.

MARIAN NAVARRO, BYLINE: The semiprofessional South Texas Negro League was founded in 1945 in San Antonio, Texas, by two locals. Teams played locally through the 1978 season, long after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. Pittman-Sullivan Park on San Antonio's East Side was the place to be on a Sunday after church during the league's run. Travis Darden played as an outfielder for the San Antonio Ramblers.

TRAVIS DARDEN: Pittman-Sullivan was a good field, but some places we had to go where the field was just - it was just a - they would make it out of a cow pasture.

NAVARRO: Over a dozen former players recently gathered at a local YMCA right next to the park. Odie Davis III played shortstop for the Denver Heights Bears, named after a neighborhood in San Antonio. He says the league gave talented Black players in the region an opportunity to showcase their skills during and after the Jim Crow era of segregation.

ODIE DAVIS III: By getting a chance to get on the field and doing things, I think we all found out that talent can come from any race or anywhere.

NAVARRO: The San Antonio African American Community Archive & Museum is now working to highlight the rich culture of the South Texas Negro League. Its pop-up exhibit "Invisible Diamond: 100 Years Of Negro League Baseball" can travel to schools and throughout the community. It details the history of the league and its impact in San Antonio. Caira Spenrath is an archivist with the nonprofit.

CAIRA SPENRATH: When we think about the social consciousness of what Black baseball is and where Black baseball occurred, you know, we were really inspired to collect, preserve and share that history because we have literal living legends.

NAVARRO: Legends, she says, who never got proper recognition. And racism was still very present in the game. Travis Darden remembers one especially ugly incident in the 1950s playing for a mixed-race Air Force baseball team in Mississippi. The team played before an all-white crowd and scored 14 runs during the first inning of the game. The crowd quickly grew threatening.

DARDEN: The words that they used when they stood up in the stands - and they said, if you all score anymore runs, we're going to hang every last one of you. So we played defensive baseball from that time on.

NAVARRO: They were later escorted off the field by security. Historian Layton Revel works to preserve the history of the Negro leagues and its offshoots. He's founder of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, a nonprofit dedicated to the history of Black baseball in America. He says time is running out to tell the stories of the players from the South Texas league.

LAYTON REVEL: We had 95 players in San Antonio, and we're down to about a third of that if we're lucky.

NAVARRO: He hopes to work with the African American Community Archive & Museum to one day have a permanent building dedicated to the league here. For former outfielder Travis Darden, educating the community about the league may help inspire young Black athletes to play the game.

DARDEN: So it's very important that we would get some Afro Americans and to get the kids to get interested in baseball again.

NAVARRO: In the meantime, the players say they're happy to share their memories of the league with anyone willing to listen. For NPR News, I'm Marian Navarro in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marian Navarro | Texas Public Radio
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