LeRoy Neiman Art Center—The art museum, at 2785 Frederick Douglass Blvd., near 148th Street, is currently showcasing the “Black Ball Exhibition; illuminating Negro Leagues Baseball.” This exhibit of art works is dedicated to educating the public of Harlem and all visitors to the art center of the history of black baseball especially that played in the Negro Leagues during the first half of the 20th century.
The guest speaker was Jim Robinson, a veteran of the Negro League. Robinson was born in New York in January of 1930. As a child, Jim walked with his father, a devoted baseball fan, to the Polo Grounds to watch ball gamrs. As “organized baseball’ was not integrated until 1945, Robinson and his dad attended Negro League games to see black ballplayers. The youngster was impressed by these games at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, “I was impressed not only by the athletes’ abilities, but that they were outdrawing the Major League teams.”
After graduating from Commerce High School in Manhattan, Robinson attended and graduated from North Carolina A & T State University. Negro League great Oscar Charleston, then managing the Philadelphia Stars saw Robinson and encouraged him to come north and sign with the team. He followed the advice, but returned to complete his collegiate studies after the team folded.
Robinson then played briefly with the touring Indianapolis Clowns, where Hank Aaron received his start in baseball. As with millions of others at that time, Robinson’s career was interrupted by military service during the Korean War.
An event very meaningful to Robinson was being signed by Quincy Troupe for the St. Luis Cardinals organization. Unfortunately, an injury prevented his advancement to the majors.
From 1956-1958, Robinson was a member of the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. The infielder earned the right to play in the annual East-West All-Star game at Comiskey Park in his final two seasons.
The well-educated, good humored and insightful octogenarian explained to his much younger audience what it was like to play in the Negro Leagues and the importance the black baseball industry meant to the United States.
He described the excitement of plying Sunday doubleheaders in Major League parks. “People went to church and then the ballgame.” He referred to photos of that day showing the fans in the stands attired in their Sunday best outfits. He spoke of the economic importance of the Negro League to many black owned businesses like hotels and restaurants and how those businesses went out of business after the NL folded in the 1960’s.
Robinson described the difficult life of the Negro League ballplayer and what motivated each player, “Baseball was something we did and we did it well. Where we would eat and where we would sleep was an issue. We didn’t make any money. That was part of the life. We had to endure it because we wanted to play baseball. We were doing what we liked to do.”
The United States was a very different nation six decades ago. Segregation of the races was the norm in many places and in many activities. The Supreme Court did not approve the integration of schools until Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. Integration of public accommodations was not accomplished until the Civil Rights Laws sponsored by President Lyndon Johnson were passed in the mid 1960’s.
Yet years before those historic events, Jackie Robinson integrated MLB in 1947. His success led to other backs entering organized baseball. The preparation of Robinson and those who followed him into the majors was not done in a vacuum. Robinson, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks were contemporaries of Jim Robinson who followed Jackie into the majors and earned Hall of Fame honors. All gained experiences and honed their skills in the Negro League.
Jim Robinson spoke of the historic importance of the Negro League, “it was the forerunner of the Civil Rights movement. It should be part of the curriculum [in schools]. It was important.
The humble gentleman did not inform his rapt audience that, as much as he loves the sport, was only the early sector of a life of many accomplishments. He returned to school and earned a master’s degree in Social Work at CCNY in 1968. He worked for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for 28 years.
After his retirement, he worked several years at the Wdaryl barlow ashington Mental Health Residential Program. He then traveled south to serve as a professor of Criminal Justice at South Carolina State University from 1988-94. His knowledge of baseball was useful to the scholar-athletes he coached on the college’s baseball team.
In addition to educating the public, another purpose of the exhibition and its related activities is to raise funds to improve spaces for inner city youth to safely play baseball and other sports. The art works on display will be sold to raise funds to aid the Friends of Colonel Young Park, who are attempting to renovate the historic park in Harlem. The Harlem Historical Society and the Harlem Black Yankees have partnered with the Leroy Neiman Art Center in that endeavor. Representatives of those organizations were on hand to inform those present of this effort. To obtain further information or support this activity one should call 212-862-2787 or email- [email protected]
Daryl Barlow of the Tillary Park Foundation was at the program to encourage the support for a similar effort being made in Brooklyn. A fundraiser is being held on the evening of October 4, 2012, at the Downtown Brooklyn Sheraton Hotel at 228 Duffield Street. The funds raised will be used for such worthwhile events as a Thanksgiving Dinner for Those in Need, a toy and coat drive, field trips for youth and seniors and other community projects. Those desiring to help in this important effort should call Barlow at 917-440-3247 or [email protected]
To find Robinson at the center of these projects that will benefit inner city youth and encourage the youngsters to play baseball is to be expected as he is currently a volunteer for the Harlem Little League.