Negro League honors long time coming
Inclusion of 17 tied to minority league means much
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The Hall of Fame induction of the 17 members of "black baseball" had formally ended Sunday afternoon as Monte Irvin, a former Negro League star and himself a Hall of Famer, sat in a nearby gym at the Clark Sports Center and paid homage to old friends.
"I'd like to say this: 'What happened today was something that I thought would never happen,'" Irvin said. "I'm happy that people know a little bit more about some of these great players."
Others echoed Irvin's sentiments.
"It means so much to these guys and their families," said Linda Paige Shelby, whose father, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, went into the Hall of Fame in 1971. "Unless you're there, it's the appreciation that they want, not the recognition, not the glory and all that.
"They just want, 'Hey, I remember when I did this.'"
In the warmth of a hot summer day, 16 men and one woman from black baseball got their recognition from the Major Leagues. They had been among an initial list of 39 candidates that a group of respected baseball researchers and historians had put together as part of $250,000 project that Major League Baseball funded.
A smaller group, which former Commissioner Fay Vincent chaired as a non-voting member, then assembled in Tampa earlier this year and put each candidate's credentials under scrutiny. In a secret ballot, the group selected 17 from the final list.
"This has been a historic moment for baseball," said Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the Hall of Fame.
Rachel Robinson, the wife of Jackie Robinson, viewed the event as Clark did.
"It's exciting; it's an historic day for me," Robinson said. "I think it means, in a formal way, that they are being recognized as the great organizations that they were.
"It's a long time in coming, and yet we're celebrating the fact that it's happening at all."
Class of 2006
From the day's start, history was draped around the occasion. The induction featured Irvin, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Ozzie Smith, Johnny Bench, George Kell, Bob Feller and 33 other living Hall of Famers, and it also featured Sharon Robinson, who is Rachel and Jackie's daughter, and Buck O'Neil as the voices of the 17 inductees, none of whom are alive.
In his speech, the 94-year-old O'Neil, who was one of the initial 39 that panel considered, made the event a remembrance of the special world of the Negro Leaguers.
He told the hundreds who had gathered on a lawn outside the center that Hollywood never captured the reality of black baseball nor how much of a financial force the Negro League franchises were in the black community.
The world behind the color line was vibrant, O'Neil said. The world behind the color line was filled with success stories, he said."All you needed was a bus, and we rode in some of the best buses money could buy," O'Neil told the gathering. "A couple of sets of uniforms and you could have 20 of the best athletes that ever lived.
"That's who we're representing here today."
In specific terms, the Hall was recognizing the elite of "black baseball."
Its 17 inductees included Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley, the first woman enshrined; Biz Mackey, one of the all-time great catchers; right-hander Ray Brown, the anchor on the great Homestead Grays teams of the late 1930s and early '40s; Mule Suttles, a hard-hitting first baseman that some people thought was the equal of Negro League legend Buck Leonard; Frank Grant, considered the best black player from the pre-Negro League era; infielder Jud Wilson, whom Satchel Paige considered one of the two toughest hitters he ever faced; and Cristobal Torriente, a five-tool center fielder who starred in Cuba and in the Negro Leagues.
"You always wish things can be done in a timely manner," Rachel Robinson said. "Clearly, you wished people would be available to enjoy the awards and the accolades."
Robinson paused to reflect a bit more.
"But that's life," she said with finality.
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.