Detroit Tigers Host Largest MLB Tribute to Negro Leagues

Morehouse College President, Dr. David Thomas throwing out Ceremonial first pitch at Detroit Tiger’s Negro League tribute game.

 

The Detroit Tigers hosted the 18th Annual Negro Leagues Weekend, the longest-running weekend celebration of its kind in Major League Baseball.

“This is awesome,” said Saborn Campbell, graduate of Detroit Country Day. Campbell, 18, a student baseball player, was honored as a recipient of the annual “Passing of the Bat” ceremony on Comerica Park field. He had a front row set to living legends in the game of baseball who shared their stories and their place in history. “My dad and my mom always preached to me about all the people who came before me and who gave me this opportunity to play. So, this is just a great experience all around.”

Prior to Friday’s game, The Detroit Tigers organization hosted a luncheon featuring players of past time, including Jake Wood, the first African American player to rise through the farm system and play for Detroit. The lunch and panel session were met with storytelling, amazement, and intrigue as legends shared their experiences amongst professional and student players.

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“We didn’t even know how long the baselines were,” said Wood. “When we would play in the street, the manhole cover was always home plate. Wood’s remarks were met with laughter as he recounted childhood moments with friends in Elizabeth, NJ and playing a game where he would grow up to eventually break through the sports’ racial barriers.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Jake Wood’s MLB debut.

 

The Detroit Tigers honored several former Negro Leaguers which included Johnny Walker, Ron Teasley, Pedro Sierra, Eugene Scruggs, Sam Allen, Bill Hill, and Minnie Forbes.

Forbes was an owner of the Detroit Stars. She was one of a handful of women to own a Negro Leagues Baseball team.

While black men were making professional triumphs in an industry which did not always embrace their talent or race, it is not loss on the Tigers organization the significant impact and barrier Forbes broke. It’s a recognition she feels humble to receive. “To be in the company of the Negro League, American history, the Negro history, it’s wonderful, said Forbes. “I think when I had the opportunity to be a part of it, (Detroit Stars) the waves had been paved for me, …I think it was an opportunity for me to keep the league going so baseball players would have the opportunity to play.”

Forbes was born in Mississippi in 1932. Her family later moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan to live with her Uncle, Ted Rasberry who was a player in the Negro Leagues, and later became an owner of multiple teams. Forbes took control of the Detroit Stars partly because Rasberry who had purchased the Kansas City Monarchs, and was not allowed to own two teams.

The annual Negro Leagues Weekend festivities by Detroit Tigers, for the first time, leveraged the partnership of Black Greek letter organizations and the Detroit network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities alumni. Detroit Tigers ticket purchases for the Negro Leagues Weekend, helped support the Detroit HBCU network. The founding of all the aforementioned Black institutions have a history that is similar and aligned based on race and segregation.

“There are definitely some parallels,” said Ellen Hill Zeringue, Vice President of Marketing, Detroit Tigers. “(Black Greek letter organizations) were started because there was no opportunity for us (African Americans) to come together in social situations. So, we were forced to establish these organizations, similar to what happen with the Negro Leagues and then HBCUs. So, what a powerful way for us all to come together and do it all in the name of trying to generate scholarships for young people.”

The weekend festivities at Comerica Park included a visit from a prominent HBCU leader who threw out the first pitch during Saturday’s game.

“It’s been extra ordinally exciting, said Dr. David Thomas, President of Morehouse College. Dr. Thomas traveled from Atlanta to Detroit to lead the game of the ceremonial first pitch on the Comerica Park field. He recounts his time growing up in Kansas City, Missouri and attending Monarchs stadium games close to his home. Dr. Thomas remembers his father saying, “Satchel Paige is better than any pitcher in the National or American League.” Paige was a Black baseball pitcher who played in the Negro Leagues and MLB and whose career spanned five decades.

Dr. Thomas’ sister-in-law would become an administer at the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, another example he feels and explains as his connection to the game of baseball and his familiarity with the “Negro Leagues ultimate contributions to sports in our country and creating opportunity for African American baseball players that would not have existed.”

As this year’s Negro Leagues Weekend marked the first collaboration by Detroit Tigers and HBCU organizations, the weekend efforts focused on fundraising and youth scholarship opportunities, but just as the Negro Leagues was established amid racial injustice, Dr. Thomas views his role at Morehouse with similar platform, a space created for black men to break through barriers.

“The first day Morehouse came into existence, nine formally enslaved Black men sat in a room and the then founder of the college walked in and said, ‘you are a human being, you can learn to lead and to serve.’ These nine men have probably never heard that and that was the first strike against systematic racism in this country.”

Leading, serving, and being a team player is what black men of the Negro Leagues did best, despite fighting through a sport and nation that had not always embraced them.

Whether you were a professional or amateur player, team executive or fan, everyone was a student in a room and field of living legends at Comerica Park.

“If you don’t know your history, then you don’t know about where you come from,” said Niko Goodrum, second baseman, Detroit Tigers. “You see the people that came before you, that paved the way for you, and you just get inspired to come out on the field every day and now it’s just about creating a better future for the younger guys.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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