“He is number 42,” I said.
On a baseball outing with my daughter’s family the other night, I was trying to find the name of a player on the Durham Bulls baseball team while the Bulls were playing a doubleheader against the Buffalo Bison.
The player list in the game program did not show a number 42. Then I noticed another player wearing number 42, and then another. Every player was wearing number 42.
I should have remembered “42,” last year’s film about Jackie Robinson.
Number 42 was on Robinson’s uniform when he first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. He was the first African-American to break the color barrier in major league baseball.
On April 15 every year, major league baseball teams honor Robinson with a special day on which every player on every team wears number 42. You will not see that number on any major league player on any other day. All major league teams have retired Robinson’s number.
Before he moved into the Dodgers organization, Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs, a part of the Negro League, a term that covers several all-black professional leagues.
The Bulls players were wearing number 42 as a part of the team’s Negro League Night, honoring all those who played for the all-black professional teams during the days of segregation. When the Bulls introduced about 20 local former Negro League players, including former Hillsborough Mayor Horace Johnson, all the fans, white and black alike, gave them warm rounds of applause.
The all-black professional teams of the Negro League provided the only options for talented black baseball players until Robinson broke the major leagues’ segregation policy. In addition to Robinson, others who began their careers in the Negro League included Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.
Bringing black baseball players into the mainstream certainly had a positive impact on the struggle to dismantle segregation in other aspects of American life. Even hard-line segregationist baseball fans came to admire and cheer for Robinson, Mayes, and Aaron. With their appreciation for the black athletes increased, they must have had a harder time defending the laws and customs that kept people like those players from eating and going to school with other Americans.
But not everything was positive. After Robinson’s great success with the Dodgers, other major league teams began to raid the all-black teams. Thus, the integration of professional baseball led to the gradual death of the Negro League. By the end of the 1960s, the teams and leagues had disappeared.
Down on the Durham Bulls’ field were a lot of white baseball players wearing a black man’s number 42. But most of the few players of color were from the Dominican Republic.
I wondered if any of the former players from the Negro League who were honored that night were thinking, “It was nice when we had our own leagues and our own teams.”
In Charlotte there was great community pride 30 years ago about the successful desegregation of schools. One of the previously all-black high schools, West Charlotte, gained a large percentage of white students.
I thought this was something to brag about until an older woman at a public meeting in the West Charlotte neighborhood stood up and said, “Everything was just fine around here until they came along and took our school away from us.”
As I watched the former Negro League players walk out on to the field the other night, I wondered if some of them did not feel the same way about “their” leagues and their teams.
— D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.