Negro Leagues Committee members reflect on the historic 2006 election
This oft-forgotten chapter in the National Pastime’s history came to the forefront recently thanks to a announcement this past December when Major League Baseball officially recognized the Negro Leagues with “Major League” status. This allowed the approximately 3,400 players that saw action between 1920 and 1948 to be remembered as major leaguers.
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“I remember listening to Frank Robinson when he called in,” said Heaphy, “to remind us of the importance of thinking about what the Hall of Fame stood for and not simply to put people in to put people in.”
“The meeting were run very professionally by Commissioner Fay Vincent,” Lester said. “And the groundwork laid by Frank Robinson on the front end of the two days, who said there were four categories and four categories only – with no humanitarian awards, no popularity contests – umpire, manager, player and owner.”
Whatever expectations or goals the committee members had prior to arriving in Tampa, in retrospect they agreed it played out well.
“We had a hearing on every single one of those 39 individuals on the ballot,” Burgos said. “Even if we saw it as a slam dunk case, someone stood there at the table and presented the strengths of the case or these may be some of the issues. We got to talk about every single one of those individuals. That was an important part of the process. Private ballots collected after each individual vote. And then we would move on to the next.”
Lester, stating his goal was to vote his conscience, adding: “I was confident that we’d maybe get six people into the Hall of Fame. When you’re looking at a three-fourth majority to get elected, that’s tough to come by. So when they announced 17 I was surprised and shocked. I was extremely happy with the results.
“The beauty of our committee was we had experts in different categories, so if there was a place I felt a weakness in I could throw that question out to the table and get an immediate answer.”
Heaphy, who said she entered the process “with an open mind,” added, “I really had no expectations. I just knew that this was an opportunity. And we would give each and every one of the candidates their due as we went through the list of candidates.
Ruck said: “Some of the choices were so clear cut that there wasn’t much of a need for extended discussion. Others we had records, but they were pretty incomplete. One of things that would happen would be people in that room could fill you in on them and point to their significance or point to things that might detract.
“You’re in a situation where you’re dealing with a lot of candidates. To a degree you’re trusting in the judgments from other people in the room.”
As the only woman on the committee, Heaphy did admit to a certain affinity for Manley and her ultimate election. Manley co-owned the New Jersey-based Newark Eagles with her husband, Abe, and ran the business end of the team for more than a decade.
“Being 100 percent honest, it was pretty incredible to see her name in that final group and recognizing that she was the first women ever to be elected to the Hall of Fame,” Heaphy said. “It still means a great deal. I just hope that one day she will no longer be the one and only. But to have a part in that and to hear that name was really incredible.”
Ruck, calling the study of Black baseball an “area that had been ignored and dismissed for a long time,” added: “But then there was a critical mass emerging of popular and scholarly recognition. Things are building. And I think that the 2006 vote should be seen in that context. I think MLB’s most recent decision should also be seen in this continuing evolution.
“I’ve been teaching about black baseball in my history of sport courses at Pitt since I’ve been a grad student in the late 1970s. At first hardly any kid had heard of these teams or players, but now most of them have.”
Bruce Sutter, the lone electee by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America that year, and the 17 electees from the Negro League and pre-Negro League eras made 2006 the largest single inductee class in history, breaking the record of 11 in 1946.
On July 30, 2006, the 18 members of the Hall of Fame Class of 2006 were inducted. The Sunday ceremony featured O’Neil, the former Negro league first baseman and at time the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, speaking to the crowd after a standing ovation.
“I've been a lot of places, I've done a lot of things that I really liked doing,” O’Neil said. “I hit the home run, I hit the grand slam home run, I hit for the cycle, I've hit a hole in one in golf. I've done a lot of things I like doing. But I'd rather be right here right now representing these people that helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice.”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum