The Observer was dazzled by an exhibit at the Historic Arkansas Museum: “The National Pastime in Black and White: The Negro Baseball Leagues, 1867-1955.” Here are bats, gloves, and catcher’s masks used by Negro League players in the shameful days when baseball was segregated, as well as great old photographs of great old Negro League teams like the Kansas City Monarchs and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Some of the photos included players who would later become stars in the major leagues, like Monte Irvin and Willie Mays and, of course, Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 would be the first to crash through baseball’s color line.
The exhibit has Arkansas angles too. There’s a picture of the great pitchers Satchel Paige, black, and Dizzy Dean, white, together — they often opposed each other in exhibition games — accompanied by a quotation from Dizzy, the pride of Lucas, Arkansas. The normally immodest Diz says that his fastball looks like a change of pace next to Paige’s. On another wall are the photograph and story of Charlie Grant, whose baseball talent was discovered by the famous major-league manager John McGraw while Grant was “working as a bellboy at a resort hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas.” The Arlington, we’d imagine. McGraw was managing the Baltimore Orioles at the time. Probably the Orioles were holding spring training at Hot Springs. Several major-league teams did in the early years of the 20th century. Anyway, McGraw — always looking for an edge — hatched a plan to sign the light-skinned Grant to a contract with the Orioles, passing him off as an Indian. But, the exhibit says, “the plan was foiled,” and Grant went on to distinguish himself in the Negro Leagues instead.
In a way, it all seems long ago, a different world. And yet … . It was not until 1963 that the Arkansas Travelers got their first black player. The Observer was in the stands.
The player’s name was Richie Allen, a power-hitting outfielder. Later, when he became a star in the big leagues, he took to calling himself Dick Allen. We’ve read that he also had harsh words for Little Rock, saying that he was abused by fans.
The Observer’s memory grows increasingly dim, but we truly don’t recall Traveler fans yelling the n-word, or engaging in overt shows of prejudice toward Allen. Even the bigots were trying to be cool, to put the best face on things. But fans did restrain their enthusiasm noticeably. A home run by Allen, the league’s leading home run hitter, didn’t get the applause that homers by white players did. Conversely, a strikeout by Allen produced snide muttering, in a way that white strikeouts didn’t. But he wasn’t subjected to the kind of on-the-field persecution that Robinson had endured.
Off the field, it was a different story, and Allen’s memories of Little Rock in that regard cannot be pleasant. Little Rock was still a mostly segregated city in those days — restaurants, theaters, apartment houses. Allen couldn’t have gone to many of the places that his white teammates did. And he was from Pennsyslvania, unaccustomed to the ways of the South. As far as we know, he’s never been back to Little Rock.
“The National Pastime in Black and White” continues at the HAM through Sunday, March 12. There’s still time to catch it, and it’s worth catching.