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Research on minority stars for Baseball Hall of Fame a revelatory process

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Adrian Burgos
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Illinois history professor Adrian Burgos was an associate director of the Negro League Research Authors Group when the Hall of Fame awarded it a $250,000 grant, underwritten by Major League Baseball, to conduct a comprehensive study of the Negro Leagues and black baseball. Burgos’ role was to gather and produce materials about Latinos in the Negro Leagues and African-American involvement in Latin-American baseball.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — One of the 12 people who will vote in a historic special election for Negro League inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Feb. 27 says that the research involved in choosing the candidates changed history.

Researching the names, stories and statistics for black and Latino ballplayers who the nominating committee believes merit retroactive – and in many cases,
posthumous – enshrinement “not only recovered the history of the Negro Leagues and their predecessors, but also produced a fuller view of baseball on the other side of the color line,” said historian Adrian Burgos.

“Linking the Negro League story in the United States with the Latin American story is one of this project’s most important interventions,” said Burgos, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“What is particularly significant is that this election and the process the Hall established for this vote represent perhaps the first time that Latino candidates such as Cristobal Torriente, Jose Mendez and Alejandro Oms have been given this level of consideration as possible enshrines,” Burgos said.

The Hall of Fame decided to hold a special election after the Negro League Research Authors Group (NLRAG) submitted its 800-page narrative and 3,000-page statistics section. In June 2005, the Hall selected Burgos to serve on the screening committee charged with drafting the final ballot of candidates from the 94 names nominated by fans, former players and historians.

Come voting day, the names of 10 pre-Negro leaguers will be on the ballot alongside the names of 29 Negro Leaguers, including Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, the first black Latino in the Major Leagues, who later integrated the Chicago White Sox.

Anyone receiving a “yes” vote on at least 75 percent of the ballots cast will earn election to the Hall of Fame and will be inducted on July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y. The names and biographies of the 39 nominees are linked to the Hall of Fame’s homepage in a section titled “Special Ballot Bios.”

Burgos was an associate director of the NLRAG when the Hall of Fame awarded it a $250,000 grant, underwritten by Major League Baseball, to conduct a comprehensive study of the Negro Leagues and black baseball. Burgos’ role was to gather and produce materials about Latinos in the Negro Leagues and African-American involvement in Latin-American baseball.

The group, which involved more than 50 researchers nationwide, culled more than 160 black newspapers, as well as a number of Spanish-language publications to recover box scores, game summaries and interviews about this history.

“As a result of this study, we know more than we ever have about the Negro Leagues, have more statistics of league games that shed light on the quality of the players and affirmed much of what we had heard in oral interviews with former players,” he said.

“Many had long thought that the statistics, the raw data, was not out there to locate, but advances in technology – searchable digitized newspapers and microfilm readers that provide much sharper images – have helped us greatly, allowed us to conduct research faster and in more newspapers.”

Black baseball began during slavery days on Southern plantations. The first organized games among black Americans started in the mid-19th century, while the glory days of the Negro Leagues stretched from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Roughly 2,600 players participated in the formal Negro Leagues, with approximately 300 or so Latino participants. Only 18 Negro League stars have been elected to the Hall of Fame thus far, among them Robert Leroy “Satchel” Paige (1971), a “fireball” pitcher and legendary storyteller, and Andrew “Rube” Foster (1981), a star pitcher, owner, manager and founder of the Negro National League. Martin Dihigo is the lone Latino from the Negro Leagues in the Hall, Burgos said.

The number of Negro League teams that played ball in the United States is probably unknowable, Burgos said, because the teams operated at so many levels, some functioned only on a touring basis, and the composition of leagues changed constantly.

Burgos specializes in U.S. Latino history, African-American studies, sport and urban history. He is finishing a book manuscript, “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line.” This semester he is teaching a research and writing seminar on baseball, race and nation in the United States.

Burgos also is one of eight co-authors of “Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball,” the fruit of the comprehensive study. The book was published this month by the National Geographic Society. Lawrence D. Hogan, a history professor at Union County College in New Jersey, was the lead author.

Burgos’ role for the “Shades of Glory” book was to write about Latinos in the Negro leagues and interactions among African Americans, Latinos and white Americans in Latin-American leagues starting in the early 20th century.

Burgos said he and Hogan strove to emphasize that Latinos were “much more than an afterthought to the story of Jim Crow baseball,” that they “were there at the creation, participated throughout the existence of the Negro Leagues and were critical participants when we entered the integrated era,” Burgos said.

This approach, he said, “enabled us to highlight the important role that different individuals played in changing the game’s history, whether it is “Minnie” Minoso as an integration pioneer, or Alejandro Pompez as the sole Negro League owner who successfully transitioned from the segregated era to the integrated era and who had a significant role in shaping what integration would look like as the New York/San Francisco Giants’ director of international scouting,” Burgos said.

Such stories, Burgos said, revealed “critical connections between the Negro Leagues and Latino baseball that would continue to have an impact on the pace and shape of integration in the Major Leagues.”