Why Negro Leagues history provides lessons of hope and possibility

Why Negro Leagues history provides lessons of hope and possibility

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick came to Oklahoma City this week with stories that should inspire.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Feb 29, 2024, 4:00pm CST

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Feb 29, 2024, 4:00pm CST

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Bob Kendrick stood on the stage inside the Millwood High School auditorium earlier this week telling stories of the Negro Leagues.

There were tales of players that seemed like they were straight out of a superhero comic book. Sachel Page once had his fastball clocked at 105 miles per hour but was so precise he would pinpoint his pitches during warmups by having the catcher place a chewing gum foil wrapper on the plate. Cool Papa Bell was so fast he once scored from first base on a bunt — then he did it again. 

There were also stories of segregation, teams that would go into a town, draw thousands of cheering locals to the games, and then be denied a place to eat or sleep by those very same fans.

Kendrick is one of the main reasons so many people have heard those stories or others like them. The president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, who came to Oklahoma City to promote the Rookie League Foundation has made it his life’s work to keep alive the history of these segregation-era baseball leagues through any means necessary. Books. Documentaries. Social media. Movies. Even video games.

Kendrick does the voiceover about Negro League players now being included on the video game “MLB The Show.”

Still, his talk to all the high school students at Millwood in the final week of Black History Month is a reminder that there’s so much more to learn.

For example …

“Did you know,” Kendrick said to the students at one point, “there were three women to play professionally in the Negro Leagues?”

I don’t know if any of the students sat up in their seats, but I sure did.

“Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson,” Kendrick continued. “Pioneers. Women who competed with and against the men in the Negro Leagues.”

Stone was the first of the three to play, signing in 1949 with the San Francisco Sea Lions. She then spent a few years with the New Orleans Creoles before joining the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953.

She played second for the Clowns, a position previously held by Hank Aaron.

“Toni Stone was the first female of professional baseball,” Kendrick said. “I know people keep saying one day that a woman will get to play in the major leagues. I tell people that one day has already happened.

“We are waiting for it to happen again.”

Soon after Stone joined the Clowns, so did Morgan and Johnson.

Kendrick recounted the fact that Johnson, a pitcher who stood no taller than 5-foot-3, didn’t have the nickname “Peanut” when she joined the Clowns. Then one day, they played the Kansas City Monarchs.

I’ll let Kendrick take the story from here.

“The Monarchs had a great leadoff hitter named Hank Baylis, and Hank didn’t realize that there was a woman on the mound. So he gets in the batter’s box, and he finally notices that, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a female!’ And he steps out of the batter’s box, and he looks up at the mound, and he says in this very condescending fashion, ‘Whatcha doin’ up there? You ain’t no bigger than a peanut.’

“She promptly struck him out, and she was ‘Peanut’ from that day on.”

“There were women who owned Negro League teams, and they were executives and leaders of Negro League teams. … The Negro Leagues gave women an opportunity to do things in this country before this country gave women an opportunity to do things. 

“They didn’t care what color you were. They didn’t care what gender you were. Can you play? Do you have something to offer? That is the way it is supposed to be.”

After Kendrick had finished speaking to the Millwood students, I had a chance to tell him how grateful I was to learn more about those trailblazing women. He went on to tell me that Johnson had actually wanted to play for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

“She was the only one of the three women that wanted to try out for the All-American Girls Professional League, which of course was the inspiration for the hit film, ‘A League of Their Own,’” Kendrick said. “And she was denied an opportunity because they would not accept black women.”

So a league that was about providing opportunities …

“Denied an opportunity,” Kendrick said, nodding. “If you ever saw the film, ‘A League of Their Own,’ you might recall there’s one scene in the film where they’re playing and the ball gets loose and this black lady is walking by and she picks it up and she fires it back in. Geena Davis and everybody’s looking like, ‘Oh, wow.’”

The scene is worth a look.

“The late great Penny Marshall directed that film,” Kendrick said. “That was her ode to Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson.”

As we stood talking outside in the February chill, I got goosebumps that would’ve still happened in the dead of summer.

“She intentionally put that in the film to let people know, to pay tribute to Mamie because she had been denied,” Kendrick said, “but as fate would have it, she would get an even greater opportunity to make history by competing with and against the men.”

Bob Kendrick went to Millwood with a powerful message: it’s important to dream and believe that anything is possible because the Negro Leagues proved that it is. There were Black baseball players back before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and Major League Baseball opened to all who dreamed of playing pro ball, who believed they could — then they went and made a way.

Incredible athletes.

Remarkable humans.

It’s not just history to hear. It’s history to learn from.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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