Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Play Ball!" -- and remember the sport's complicated history

My sister Eileen in Orlando sent me information about an Negro League Baseball exhibition at the University of Central Florida. She also sent a link to an Orlando Sentinel article about Orlando's strong ties to the Negro Leagues and to Jackie Robinson. Two years after breaking Major League Baseball's "color barrier" in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played an all-star game at Orlando's segregated Carter Street Park. This was 10 minutes away from the whites-only Tinker Field. "10 minutes, a thousand miles and a thousand years," as Negro League player and civil rights pioneer Nap Ford once described it.

Twenty years later, I was playing basketball against teams from segregated high schools throughout central and north Florida -- including Orlando. You'd think history would move faster than that. Sometimes it just has to play catch-up. Jackie Robinson broke the minor league baseball color barrier in 1946 in Daytona Beach, where I played b-ball at Father Lopez High School. The town's baseball field is now called Jackie Robinson Ballpark.

The exhibition, co-sponsored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the American Library Association, is "Pride & Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience." Read the Sentinel article by Joy Wallace Dickinson at

I'm not one who sees baseball as a metaphor for all things. But baseball in the 20th century did reflect the realities of American life. And not just in the South.

The University of Wyoming is hosting an exhibition about the history of the semipro baseball league that featured teams from southeast Wyoming, northern Colorado and western Nebraska. Nicknamed the "sugar beet league," it was made up of agricultural workers who worked the fields of the Great Western Sugar Company. Here's info about it, from a UW press release:

The University of Wyoming's Chicano Studies Program will host a public event April 1, celebrating Hispanic contributions to baseball at both the regional and national levels -- a start to the Major League Baseball season.

Adrian Burgos Jr., University of Illinois associate professor of history and author of "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line," will give a public lecture about sports promoter Alex Pompez at 5 p.m. in the Wyoming Union West Ballroom in Laramie. Pompez helped hundreds of young baseball players from the Caribbean make the leap from sugar cane fields to major league ball fields.

Following Burgos' lecture, Gabe and Jody Lopez, finalists for the 2009 Colorado Rockies Adult Hispanic Leadership Award, will open in Ross Hall their exhibit "From Sugar Beet Fields to Fields of Dreams: Mexican/Spanish Contributions to America's Favorite Pastime."

The exhibit documents the history of the Rocky Mountain Semipro Baseball League, which got its start among Hispanic agricultural workers in the 1920s and quickly spread throughout northern Colorado, southeast Wyoming and western Nebraska.

"It was dubbed the ‘sugar beet league' because it came out of the Spanish colonies built by the Great Western Sugar Company beet field laborers," says Ed Munoz, UW Chicano Studies Program director.

A reception and book signing will take place in Room 109 of Ross Hall, where books by Burgos and the Lopezes will be available for purchase.

"Mexican baseball teams helped solidify Chicano communities during the 20th century," Munoz says. "They provided a break from hard work in the fields or on the railroad and they also served as social and political outlets for the players and their fans."

Through research, the Lopezes have located information about Wyoming baseball teams in Albin, Bitter Creek, Burns, Carpenter, Casper, Cheyenne, Cody, Creston Junction, Hanna, Laramie, Lusk, Newcastle, Piker Spring, Pine Bluffs, Rawlins, Riverton, Sinclair, Superior, Torrington, Wamsutter, Wheatland, Worland and Yoder. The exhibit will be expanded to include some of this information.

"We invite the players and their families to the exhibit to relive their playing days," Gabe Lopez says. "We want to hear their stories."

Event sponsors are the Wyoming Humanities Council, the UW Office of Diversity, Multicultural Affairs, Sigma Lambda Gamma, MEChA, Associated Students of UW, the Social Justice Research Center and KOCA 93.5 FM La Radio Montanesa.

FMI: Contact the UW Chicano Studies Program at or 307-766-4127.

Photo: The 1943 Cheyenne Lobos played in the Rocky Mountain League.


mpage225 said...


Nice post, would like to add a couple of things.

First, the very fine Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is located in Kansas City, Mo. The Negro National League was formed in 1920 at a meeting held at the Paseo YMCA in KC. More here

Also, technically Jackie Robinson did not break the color barrier, he re-broke it. After the civil war, black players did play on teams with white players. In the 1880's as reconstruction fell apart, the black players were forced out of baseball as they were most everything else in America until Jackie came along.


Michael Shay said...

Bob: Must get to KC to visit you and your family and the Negro Leagues Museum. I didn't know that about black players during Reconstruction. Interesting stuff.

mpage225 said...

Come on down...