Negro Leagues historian Phil Dixon was on a mission three decades ago to chronicle the baseball career of Buck O’Neill when he asked whether the former Kansas City Monarch knew where some of his teammates had landed.
“Well, I know Rainey Bibbs is in Terre Haute, Ind.,” O’Neill told him.
Frustrated with the number of books that concentrated only on big names like Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, Dixon set out to record the stories of the Negro Leagues’ unsung heroes.
Because of his efforts, Junius “Rainey” Bibbs no longer remains anonymous. The infielder was inducted Jan. 21, 2011, into the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame on the campus of Vincennes University is sponsored by the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association.
He joined only 149 people, about three of whom were in the Negro Leagues, who have been similarly honored by the IHSBCA since 1979.
With little more to go on than Bibbs’ Negro League nickname and his last known location, Dixon revved up his Subaru and headed out of St. Louis toward Terre Haute.
“I went to the Black section of town and looked for the oldest Black person I could find,” he said. “I knew in the old days, if you were Black and you were doing something, the old people knew who you were.”
Dixon learned from an old woman sitting on her porch that Bibbs had long ago moved to Indianapolis. Once he reached the Circle City, Dixon pulled out the phone book. Though Bibbs had passed away in 1980, Dixon located his widow, Dorothy Bibbs and met with her to gather some facts, which since have been included in at least three of his books on the Negro Leagues.
Born in 1910 in Henderson, Ky., Bibbs, his parents Lloyd and Catherine, and his sister Eloise moved to Terre Haute, Ind., where he lettered in track, baseball and football at the former Wiley High School.
During the decade it took him to complete his studies in science at what is now Indiana State University in preparation for a teaching career, Bibbs played on several Negro League teams, including the Indianapolis Crawfords and the Detroit Stars. Playing with the Cincinnati Tigers in 1937, the switch-hitting second baseman earned a .404 batting average, leading to his selection to the West squad of the All-Star game.
But Bibbs’ claim to fame came a year later when he signed as the regular second baseman and batter in the leadoff spot with the Chicago American Giants. Part of the way through the season, he was recruited to play with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he helped the team to three of four consecutive Negro League pennants in 1939, 1940 and 1941.
Ending his 12-year career in 1944 with the Cleveland Buckeyes, Bibbs went on to teach biology and coach baseball and wrestling for about 25 years at Crispus Attucks High School. He retired in 1972 after two years of teaching at Thomas Carr Howe High School.
Buried at Crown Hill Cemetery, where his grave sometimes is included on historical tours, Bibbs was inducted in 1998 into the Indiana State University Athletic Hall of Fame.
Jeff Bibbs, whose efforts led to his father’s inclusion in the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame, said much of what he knows about his father’s Negro League career he learned from others.
“People approached me when I was a kid and said he was ahead of his time. It took me a long time to understand what that meant,” he said.
The only reason his father was allowed to play professional baseball while attending college, Jeff Bibbs said, was that society refused to recognize the Negro Leagues as professional.
“To have stopped him would have recognized them as a professional league,” he said. “That really gave him an advantage at Indiana State because he could play professional ball with the best then go back to college and play with lesser ballplayers.”
Former Harlem Globetrotters Hallie Bryant and Willie Gardner and basketball legend Oscar Robertson were coached by Bibbs in baseball while they attended the former IPS School 17. Among the opportunities Bibbs provided for his students, Bryant said, was bringing other Negro League players to the school.
“I remember vividly sitting on the steps while Roy Campanella was at the bottom speaking to us,” he said.
Roy Campanella (left), with Emory James, Wesley Jackson and
Bibbs, visits Crispus Attucks High School. He visited at the
invitation of Bibbs . (Courtesy of Phil S. Dixon)