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For Those Who Paved The Way: A journey through the lives of baseball icons

February 1, 2024

Baseball today wouldn’t be what it is without the Negro Leagues and some of their players that paved the way. In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the players that opened the door for players today. Rube Foster 104 years ago on Feb. 13, Foster, who owned

Baseball today wouldn’t be what it is without the Negro Leagues and some of their players that paved the way. In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the players that opened the door for players today.

Rube Foster

104 years ago on Feb. 13, Foster, who owned the Chicago American Giants, held a meeting with 11 other men; three sports writers, an attorney and seven owners of various Black baseball teams. He had one goal in mind.

Create the Negro Leagues that would leave a national footprint equal to the white major leagues on and off the field.

During his barnstorming tours, which two happened in Eugene, he saw that Black players carried just as much potential as white players. He didn’t see a reason to create a parallel league until the day that baseball was integrated.

The 6 foot, 240 pound player-coach famously invited strategies to beat teams. According to historian John Holway, Foster popularized the hit-and-run, drag bunt, double steal and the bunt-and-run. With Foster at the helm, the Negro Leagues were successful and became a source of pride for the Black community. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981.

Satchel Paige

In front of 34,780 fans in Municipal Stadium in Cleveland in 1948, he came into the game to relieve in the fifth inning and he shut out the St. Louis Browns for two innings.

On his 42nd birthday, Satchel Paige became the oldest player to debut in the Major Leagues as well as the first Negro League pitcher in the American League Division.

Paige gave a glimpse of what fans, players, owners, etc have missed during the two-plus decades when baseball was segregated. Across 179 games, he finished 28-31 with a 3.29 ERA and paired it with 288 strikeouts. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.

Cool Papa Bell

As a pitcher, James Bell was able to leave the bases loaded while facing another Negro League legend, Oscar Charleston.

In the dugout, his manager, Bill Gatewood, yelled “that’s one cool papa,” and the name stuck.

But, his legacy isn’t from being a pitcher or having one of the coolest names in baseball, it’s for being the fastest player in baseball history.

Bell had the ability to score from first on a bunt, and reportedly the fastest man in the world at the time, Jesse Owens, refused to race him.

“Not only was it great speed, he’s perhaps the greatest baserunner than this game has ever seen,” Negro League Museum President Bob Kendrick said. “He had the uncanny ability to cut that bag on the inside. He would be so low to the ground that he could literally slap the bag with his hand and not fall over.”

Due to his speed and injury to his pitching arm, he moved to center field in 1924 and would later learn to switch hit so he could be closer to first base out of the left-handed batter’s box.

Historians estimate that he could round the bases in 12 seconds flat. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.

Josh Gibson

Even though Gibson never had the opportunity to play in the majors after passing away from a brain tumor a month after his 35th birthday, he left a mark in baseball history that led to his Hall of Fame induction in 1972.

As stories are told, an 18-year-old Gibson got his opportunity when he attended a Homestead Grays’ game as a fan. When their catcher got injured, he stood up from the crowd and put the gear on.

As more history continues to come out about the Negro Leagues, rumors have arisen that his longest home run was 587 feet. While those could be exaggerations now, there’s no doubt about his ability to smash the ball.

Buck O’Neil

While many people love baseball, not many fully devote their lives to the sport. O’Neil was a player, first Black coach in baseball, a scout, but most importantly was an advocate for baseball and the importance of honoring the Negro Leagues.

"The last 15 years of his life were just spent entirely focused on telling the story of the Negro Leagues and keeping the memory alive of all of these great players and great people," said journalist Joe Posnanski, who chronicled O'Neil's career and final year of life in his book "The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America." "It was never about him. … I think he would be even more excited about the general way that the Negro Leagues have been celebrated over the last couple of years and taken into a whole new level."

Two years after his passing, the Hall of Fame introduced the Buck O’Neil award, given to people who are dedicated to growing the game in a positive light

Willie Mays

His remarkable speed and power during his career in a Giants uniform makes him arguably one of the best all-around players in Major League history.

As a member of the 3,000-hit club, with 660 home runs, four home run titles, a batting title and four stolen base titles, he spent 13 years in MVP consideration.

With 12 golden gloves, the most by any center fielder, he’s most known for “The Catch” — an over-the-shoulder grab in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. It’s still one of the greatest defensive plays in MLB history.

“Everyone said, ‘well, it was a hard catch,’” Mays said. “I said nah, it was an easy catch.”

Hank Aaron

In his 23 seasons, Hank Aaron held the record for most home runs for more than 30 years with 755. He was one of the last major league stars to have played in the Negro Leagues.

Hammerin’ Hank, a nickname that was gained after his ability to smash the ball, still remained No. 1 in the major leagues in total bases with 6,856 and RBIs (2,297), No. 2 in at-bats and No. 3 in hits (3,771) at the time of his passing in 2021.

Matching his jersey number, he finished with 44 home runs in four different seasons.