STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In this country, the Baseball Hall of Fame honors some of the great ball players of the Negro Leagues. Think of Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs, or Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays. They are recognized in the Hall of Fame, but researchers have found there are hundreds or even thousands of Negro League players of equal caliber that nobody ever heard of, at least no white people.
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, will hold a special election at the end of this month to vote on whether to induct 39 such players. From Kansas City, Laura Ziegler reports.
LAURA ZIEGLER reporting:
In July of 2000, more than 50 historians and scholars began to investigate the history of black baseball. With a quarter million dollar grant from the major leagues, the searched more than 150 newspapers and miles of microfilm, checking box scores against news accounts. Because reporters didn't travel with Negro Leagues teams, and there were few newswires, the statistics of players varied widely, or were forgotten altogether.
Mr. LARRY LESTER (Author): Wow. There's just so many great ballplayers. John Donaldson, who routinely struck out 20 ballplayers in a game.
ZIEGLER: Larry Lester, one of the lead scholars on the committee, is the author of six books on black baseball, and has a lifelong passion for the game. He's known to wear a Monarch's cap while making copies at the local library. Lester says he often gets chills reading some of the accounts he's uncovered.
Mr. LESTER: Here's a quote by Leo Derocher, this is what he had to say in 1939. "I've seen plenty of colored boys who could make the grade in the majors. I've played against some colored boys out on the coast who could play in any big league game that ever existed. I certainly could use a Negro player if the bosses said it was alright.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ZIEGLER: The legacy of the Negro Leagues, as we know it, is best showcased here at the Negro League's Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The volunteer chairman and league's affable ambassador is former Kansas City Monarch's first baseman, Buck O'Neal.
O'Neal and former New York Cubans power hitting Minnie Minoso are the only living members on the list of 39. When he's not on the road promoting the Museum, the 94-year-old O'Neal is here giving tours. At a simulated baseball diamond, bronze statures highlight the careers of Negro leaguers currently in the Hall of Fame.
Mr. BUCK O'NEAL (former Monarchs player): There's Josh Gibson, the great catcher, there. There's Satchel Paige, first base is Buck Leonard, who played with the Homestead Grays. Right field Leon Bay, and left field, Cool Papa Bear. He was cool.
ZIEGLER: Just around the corner from the diamond is a wall of archival photographs. One shows a night game, under tall, rickety lights on the back of flatbed trucks.
JL Wilkinson, the owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, is another name on the committees' list. The Museum's Bob Kendrick says Wilkinson's contribution to baseball is also unacknowledged.
Mr. BOB KENDRICK (Negro League Baseball Museum): History books will tell you that the first professional night baseball game took place in 1935. Well, the history book is wrong. The first professional night baseball game took place in 1930, in Lawrence, Kansas.
JL Wilkinson, who owned the Kansas City Monarchs, literally mortgaged everything he had to pioneer night baseball.
ZIEGLER: Robert Paige, Satchel's son, was too young to go to night games, but he remembers many of the Negro leaguers, including Mr. Wilkinson.
Mr. ROBERT PAIGE (son of Satchel Paige): One of his most favorite persons was JL Wilkinson, who owned the Monarchs at the time daddy played for them. And I can remember picking up the telephone, say, you know, he would call himself Wilkie, he'd say, hey Junebug, they called me Junebug back then, this is Wilkie. Is your daddy home?
ZIEGLER: Robert Paige hasn't spoken much to the media over the years, but has shared information with this committee. He says becoming a Hall of Famer was the crowning jewel on his father's career, but the acceptance came a little bit late.
Mr. PAIGE: The only resentment that daddy had, that I ever heard him say, is that he wanted to play against the best at that time, Babe Ruth, all those guys. That's who he wanted to play against. Joe DiMaggio and all those. He didn't get a chance to pitch against those guys when he was in his prime.
ZIEGLER: When Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he stood on the steps at Cooperstown and made note of the fact that no black players were there, and should be. Thirty-five years later, the achievements of only 17 are honored at Cooperstown.
A twelve-member voting committee will announce the results of the special election on February 27th.
For National Public Radio, I'm Laura Ziegler, in Kansas City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.