African-American newspapers preserved Negro Leagues history
That’s when the bundle of newspapers would arrive in the mail, and he and his friends would congregate to read about their baseball heroes in historically black publications, such as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and New York Amsterdam News.
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Their historical impact did not go forgotten. In 1993, Smith became the first African-American to receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Four years later, Lacy would join him in Cooperstown in the Museum’s Scribes and Mikemen exhibit, which honors every Spink Award winner.
The advocacy journalism of Smith, Lacy and other African-American writers would ultimately lead to the demise of the Negro Leagues. Robinson’s shattering of the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers opened the doors for black baseball stars to join the heretofore segregated Major Leagues. The loss of those outstanding ballplayers, coupled with scaled-back coverage by the black press, proved to be a death knell for the Negro Leagues by the mid-1950s.
“Instead of devoting the lion’s share of their coverage to Negro League stars, Smith and Lacy were traveling with Jackie, even in 1946 when he was in the minors (with the Montreal Royals),’’ Heaphy said. “This trend would continue when other black stars, like Roy Campanella and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, joined the majors. They became the stories readers of the historically black press wanted to read about.”
Negro League owners found themselves in an impossible spot. They realized they couldn’t argue against the integration that ultimately would put them out of business.
“Owners like Effa Manley tried to bargain with the black press,’’ Heaphy said. “She correctly pointed out that not every Negro Leaguer was going to make the white major leagues. In fact, only a small percentage of them would. So, she pled with black sportswriters to keep covering the Negro Leagues, to not turn their backs on them. But they were in business to sell papers, and so they turned their attention to the black players in the major leagues.”
Over time, many of the historically African-American newspapers would fold, too. But their impact, like the impact of the Negro Leagues, continues to be felt long after they ceased publication.
“Those stories provided us with a treasure trove,’’ Lester said. “So much of the history of black baseball is based on those newspapers accounts, and it becomes even more essential as more and more of the people who played in the Negro Leagues or witnessed the Negro Leagues die off.”
Adds Heaphy: “Those newspaper accounts are the primary foundation on which Negro League history is based.”
Best-selling author Scott Pitoniak resides in Penfield, N.Y.