Earlier this month, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, one of the most celebrated baseball players of all time, passed one more rare milestone by achieving his 3,000th recorded major league career hit. His achievement made headlines and he’s likely headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame when his playing days are over.
However, a little more than half a century ago, it likely wouldn’t have been that way, even for a stellar player like Jeter.
Negro League players like Jumpin’ Johnny Wilson, Bill Owens and Charles Harmon had to work twice as hard to get half the recognition. No matter how high their batting averages were or how many home runs they hit, many Negro League players reported they were treated poorly outside the diamond.
“I didn’t really think about the history of it till I went to work at Malcolm X College in Chicago,” said Wilson, a retired high school and college coach who played with the Chicago American Giants during the 1948-49 season.
Time and again, Negro League players shared how restaurants refused to serve them and hotels refused to rent them rooms, even when they were the sole Black members of their high school and college sports teams. African-American athletes had to make do with the fare offered by the hot dog stands at the fields where they played, and they more often than not spent the night in the private homes of African-American residents in the towns they visited.
“We had to buy cold cuts and eat on the bus,” Wilson said.
Though Negro League players had a better chance of finding restaurants and accommodations in larger cities like Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh, their options were few in the smaller towns where they played. They also reported that many places in the deep South was inhospitable.
Wilson, 84, whose experiences were chronicled in the book, Jump Johnny Jump! by Dick Burdette, shared that he once played an arena in Atlanta and after leaving the building, he returned to find that he wasn’t allowed to use the front entrance.
Wilson tried to explain that he was one of the players, and the usher said: “I don’t give a g-d who you are; you go around the back to get into the arena.”
Rita Curry, daughter of the late Indianapolis ABCs player Bill Owens, who died in 1997 at age 98, recalled how her father told her when the team traveled, they had to ride in the box cars of trains, rather than in the passenger cars.
A sixth-grade dropout who later returned to school, the Indianapolis native often played in “exhibition” games against white teams throughout his baseball career, which spanned a dozen teams in the 1920s and ‘30s.
“If they beat ‘em, they knew they better get on the box car fast and come back,” Curry said.
Owens, whose experiences are chronicled by writer Paul DeBono in the book, ABCs: History of a Premier Team in the Negro Leagues, told Curry he earned $18.50 a week playing ball.
“They made the way for these new basketball players and football players and baseball players to make the money they get now,” Curry said.
Washington, Ind., native Charles Harmon, 86, recalls a less hostile experience. The first player to break the color barrier in 1954 when he was signed to the Cincinnati Redlegs, now known as the Reds, he spent five days in the Negro Leagues, playing for the Indianapolis Clowns.
“Things are a little different when you’re an athlete, a superstar,” he said. “Everybody likes champions. They didn’t care if you were white or Black.”