Race in America

Negro Leagues history lost as players pass away

Former Negro League players are honored before the 17th annual Negro Leagues tribute game between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan, July 16, 2011.
Former Negro League players are honored before the 17th annual Negro Leagues tribute game between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan, July 16, 2011. MCT

They buried more history on Tuesday. Not many of them left now. This is a precious resource, an irreplaceable connection to a proud and triumphant history that is already too often overlooked. What will happen when all the voices are gone? What will people remember about the Negro Leagues’ place in the Civil Rights movement?


Mickey Stubblefield died last week. He played two seasons for the Monarchs. Learned his curveball from Satchel Paige. He played for teams across the country. Saw black bodies hanging from nooses on the way to games, where he sometimes heard the worst insults human minds can imagine, and then slept on the bus because a hotel owner wouldn’t give him a room. He helped raise 10 children, worked as a janitor at a tire factory, and was the grand marshal in his hometown’s parade. It was a good life. He was 87.

Only one known former Monarch is older. Fewer than 100 men who played in the Negro Leagues are known to be alive. The museum here in Kansas City dedicated to telling their stories must shift focus.

“We lose a piece of history every time we lose one of those guys,” says Bob Kendrick, Negro Leagues Museum president. “The reality of it is, we’re about to lose all these folks.”

Mickey Stubblefield stood 5-foot-9 and weighed about 160 pounds, but if you painted his image to scale he looked an awful lot like the legendary Satchel Paige on the mound. That’s why they called him “Lil’ Satch.” Same loose, quirky, athletic delivery. Ball came easily out of his right hand, just like Big Satch.

So he began to answer to Lil’ Satch, which was just as well because Mickey wasn’t his real name, either. They called him that because he wore hand-me-down spikes a few sizes too big. Made his feet look abnormally big. Mickey Mouse had just come out, so, yeah. Wilker H. T. Stubblefield became Mickey.

These are the kinds of stories Kendrick’s museum tries so hard to push. They want to show these ballplayers as human beings. These were men trying to do what all men do — provide for their families — and if telling those stories means knocking some of the legend off, well, at least they get a fuller picture.

Not that they had to knock any legend off Stubblefield’s story. He was a good player, not a great one. He was the middle class of the Negro Leagues, good enough to make a career and be drafted by the Pirates after integration.

Baseball became the love of Mickey’s life in the Negro Leagues. After his time with the Monarchs was done, he broke the color barrier in a league in Kentucky, Illinois, and Tennessee. They gave him a standing ovation when he debuted there, but his team, the Mayfield Clothiers used him only in home games because of safety concerns. They made one exception, when he pitched in front of the largest crowd in his league’s history, against a rival in another Kentucky town, Paducah.

After his playing days were over, Mickey’s attention turned to family. He made sure his boys played baseball. He told them that when you shake a man’s hand, shake it like you mean it. If you’re a good person, life will be good to you. Go to church, he said. You get out of life what you put into it, good or bad.

“I’ve been living that motto myself,” says Dennis Stubblefield, Mickey’s youngest son. “He taught me a lot about becoming a man.”

Mickey worked a factory job in Kentucky. That name stuck with him, too. People knew him for years and would’ve been clueless if you asked about Wilker. That name was for Social Security forms, retirement pensions. Wilker became Mickey through baseball, and he stayed Mickey for the rest of his life.

There are dozens more men with stories like Mickey’s, but not nearly as many as there used to be. There will be fewer next year, fewer still the year after.

Kendrick thinks about this every day, of course. He has to. Keeping a museum living while the history it’s dedicated to is dying isn’t easy. They have around 40 recorded oral histories of the Negro Leagues, stories and anecdotes from the men who lived them. The most famous is from Buck O’Neil, on camera telling about the day he hit for the cycle and met the woman he’d be married to for more than 50 years.

“My best day in baseball,” he always said.

But it can’t go on forever like this. Nobody knows this more than Kendrick. That’s why he and the museum are in the beginning stages of shifting their focus forward. They will still celebrate the heroic and historical accomplishments of the Negro Leagues. But they will bring their eyes forward, too.

Last month, the museum announced it would no longer hold the Legacy Awards. For years, the celebration has been the museum’s centerpiece event and fundraiser. But it became increasingly difficult to persuade current players to show up — this year, San Diego’s Everth Cabrera was the only one — which diminished appeal for fans and donors.

So Kendrick has a plan, like always. They’re going to recognize more recent big leaguers, guys who played after integration but who carry the spirit of the Negro Leagues into the majors. No decisions have been made, but guys like Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken, and Bob Gibson seem like obvious choices.

These former players figure to be more likely to show up at the museum. Plus, the event can be held around Jackie Robinson Day in April. This is a scary transition for the museum, and for everyone who cares about it. But Kendrick figures it’s better to be proactive. They have to try something.

Every week, it seems, the museum gets a reminder that the history it’s trying to preserve is literally dying off.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” Kendrick says. “The reality is with each passing generation we become less affected by the struggles of others. It’s like, ‘That was then, and this is now.’ But we still need to be reminded of what people went through. This is important. It’s American history.”

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