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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Traveling show
Barnstorming was common place in the Negro Leagues
By Justice B. Hill/MLB.com


Negro Leaguers like Monte Irvin faced a lot of racism during the barnstorming tours.
They would load their bats and gloves onto buses and into motorcars, and their caravan would roll like tumbleweed through the countryside of Indiana, Kansas, the Dakotas and places elsewhere.

They would chew up thousands of miles of bad road, hoping to stop in Small Town, U.S.A., where they could grab a meal, unpack their gear and play a ballgame or two.

But nothing was ever easy for these real-life "Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings" as they barnstormed in the late 1800s and in the first half of the 1900s.

How could it be?

The players often had to weave their barnstorming around a more formal Negro League schedule.

They would finish a series in, say, Kansas City, head east (or maybe farther West), stop for a series in St. Louis, move on to play exhibition games in Michigan City or Fort Wayne or Toledo and end up with league games in Indianapolis, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Unwelcomed in most hotels, these black men lived out of suitcases. They slept on buses or in stadiums or on the side of the road, which surely proved this was hardly the high life.

"Out on the field, there'd be some white folks in the stands," Satchel Paige said in his autobiography. "Some of them'd call you (the N-word), but most would cheer you."

For Paige and others, their incentive to barnstorm was for the extra money they earned for exhibition games against white and other black teams. The games against whites were cash cows, often drawing thousands of fans to these small towns to watch the great Negro League players.

"The games made towns money," said Phil Dixon, an author, a baseball researcher and an expert on the Negro Leagues. "They made players money."

On the meager salaries from the Negro Leagues, the players valued the extra pay. They had the added satisfaction of showing fans in these small towns how well blacks played the game.

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And all the legends of the Negro Leagues barnstormed, often playing against Major League teams. From Pete Hill to Willie Wells to Josh Gibson to Monte Irvin, the players chased the money. They hustled baseball just as well as Minnesota Fats hustled pool.

They also won most of their games, too.

"They played mostly against whites," said Robert Ruck, an authority on the Negro Leagues and a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "A team like the Homestead Grays might barnstorm through the region playing one or more games a day against mill, mining and other kinds of teams."

Ruck said the white teams had little chance of winning. They were overmatched in talent, speed and experience. Yet, the white teams and their fans, regardless of the small town, seemed to relish the challenge.

"It was the highlight of their life," said Ruck, who has produced a TV documentary on the Negro Leagues. "Sometimes there would be meals for the black players -- or little celebrations after the game.

"This was the age of segregation, and you had black guys being feted by white people in what were basically all-white towns."

After the game, these baseball caravans went back on the road. Another stop, in another small town, chasing the game -- still chasing the dollars that came with barnstorming.

Baseball historians differ on whether many of the Negro League teams played the part of black minstrels. Some black teams like the Indianapolis Clowns did do a baseball rendition of the Harlem Globetrotters, but even the Clowns were a legit baseball team with the same high expectations as their Negro League contemporaries, Dixon said.

Ruck agreed.

"It's truer to say that the black guys realized that they had to put on a show," he said. "This is entertainment. Perhaps they kept the score down to draw fans. Nobody wants to see teams win 11-0 all the time."

Ruck had little doubt that black players rarely pandered to the racial stereotypes of the day. In most cases, they acted like professionals, and they rarely lost that firm grip on their professionalism.

Dixon echoed this view.

"That clowning and stuff, it was never an integral part," he said. "A ballplayer can do funny stuff and not be clowning. So I think for the convenience of history and how blacks are portrayed in history, it's more to the advantage to portray barnstorming as if it was more clowning."

In Dixon's opinion, Negro League players always had displayed a dramatic flair on the diamond. It made no sense, he said, to step onto the field in a white town and bore audiences who might never have heard of Biz Mackey, Cool Papa Bell, Smokey Joe Williams, Goo Goo Livingston, Moocha Harris, Bingo DeMoss, Double Duty Radcliffe, Buck Leonard, Pee Wee Butts, Bullet Rogan or Judy Johnson.

"Even if you could play, you couldn't be dull," Dixon said. "That wasn't a good formula. So you had to be colorful, but, at the same time, you had to have good ability to come in and play ball."

These weren't the easiest circumstances to play under either. While their talents on the field were appreciated, the black players still plied their trade in a segregated society. Black players could take no comfort in beating the white teams while trying to balance their lives off the field. The egalitarian concepts of fairness and justice didn't exist in the white restaurants, the movie houses, the nightclubs and the public accommodations that were closed to these black ballplayers in most U.S. towns.

Black players had to remain mindful of the color line. Not even money would let them cross it.

In his book, Invisible Men: Life in Baseball's Negro Leagues, Donn Rogosin told a story about Hall-of-Famer Monte Irvin, who recounted a racial incident in the deep South.

While barnstorming with the Newark Eagles, Irvin said he and his teammates made a stop at a cafe near Birmingham, Ala. Seeing Irvin & Co. approach, the cafe owner shook her head, signaling to the players that she wasn't about to serve black people.

"Why are you saying 'no,'" asked Irvin, "when you don't even know what we want."

"Whatever it is, we don't have," she responded.

"Won't you sell us some soft drinks, some Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola?" he asked again.

"No," she said bluntly.

In the Deep South, no meant no. Irvin understood he was in no position to quarrel. He left the encounter with the woman bewildered.

"How could she hate us so?" he lamented. "She didn't even know us."

For Negro League ballplayers, it was just another hardship to overcome, just one more frustration that chasing the game brought these talented men. But they never let racism rob them of their love of the game.

"If anybody ever played for the love of the game, it was black ballplayers," Dixon said. "They certainly weren't playing for a lot of money."

Yet love of the game couldn't erase other hardships. The bus rides wore on a player. The towns started to look the same. The daily routine took on the feel of a scene from the movie, "Groundhog Day." Each day started to look like the one before.

Still, those men who barnstormed had more good to say about the life on the road than the bad. Against this backdrop, they went on to build long, rich friendships, and they earned a place in sports history.

These were not experiences black players would ever forget, even as they voiced their anger over how white booking agents such as Syd Pollack, Nat C. Strong and Ed Gottlieb had mined most of profits out of these exhibition games.

A few years back, somebody had asked Dink Mothel, the late pitcher/utilityman for the Kansas City Monarchs, what he remembered most about his barnstorming days.

Mothel's answer was short and to the point.

"The hunger," he said.

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer with MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.