Bert Simmons died last month in Baltimore. With him died another piece of an important yet disappearing part of baseball in America — the Negro League ballplayer.
Simmons played Negro League baseball for the Baltimore Elite Giants. He more than anyone else came to represent Negro League baseball in Baltimore through his appearances and talks at schools.
In the past 15 years, baseball finally embraced an institution that was great and unique despite its roots in the hate and fear that kept black players out of the major leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
Now major and minor league teams hold Negro League nights every season. On Saturday, the Baltimore Orioles will celebrate the anniversary of the Baltimore Elite Giants championship teams from 1939 and 1949 by wearing replica uniforms in their game against the Texas Rangers.
The Frederick Keys recently held their first Negro League night, honoring the history of black baseball on a national and a local level.
There are other keepers of the flame.
The Negro League Legends Hall of Fame last Saturday sponsored a vintage Negro League uniform game at Shipley Field at the University of Maryland as well as a “Negro League Salute” All-Star Game played by the Metropolitan Junior Baseball League.
The flames, though, are being extinguished. The men who belonged to that core group playing before and just after Robinson’s historic season are nearly all gone.
“The numbers are dwindling,” says Charles Winner, an attorney who helped form the Negro League Baseball Players Association in Baltimore more than 20 years ago and helps run the organization pro bono. “Those that are still with us are not healthy. We haven’t had a meeting in two years here because it is too hard for members to travel now.”
The association became a force for forgotten players, raising awareness of their history and putting a little money in their pockets through autograph events and merchandising. Those extra dollars are a pittance compared to what these men were denied.
The great Leon Day died six days after he was finally inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995 - nearly 50 years after he was a star hurler in the black game. Had he been elected earlier, Day could have made some of the money that comes with being a Hall of Famer.
The association had a chance to give its players a decent payday when it tried to market replica jerseys of the New York Black Yankees, a Negro League team. George Steinbrenner blocked that effort.
“We lost a huge account because George Steinbrenner gave everyone grief about using the ‘Black Yankees,’ ” Winner said. “He said he had the rights, but it was clearly in the public domain. But we had no money to fight it and lost a huge licensing account.”
The association gets dribs and drabs of money now and hopes to find someone interested in making fundraising efforts.
Even as Negro Leaguers like Simmons pass away, the organization hopes to press on with surviving family members or people who have a “genuine interest in promoting the wonderful things that their predecessors have done and to support young black players so that they can become major leaguers,” Winner said.
Simmons is gone, but he left a legacy to promote the game he loved and the league he loved.
Simmons donated his memorabilia to the Negro League Baseball Museum of Maryland that is scheduled to open this month in the basement of the Lochearn Presbyterian Church — artifacts of the players whose love for the game triumphed over the hatred of those who tried to keep them out.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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