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Learning lessons from Black History Month
02/01/2008 9:00 AM ET
Professional baseball has always served as a mirror of American society, with the policies and priorities of the playing field reflecting the values of the nation at large.

It is for this reason that the integration of the Major Leagues in 1947 was such an epochal event in American history. The saga of Jackie Robinson transcended sports, and was a defining moment in our country's painful and still-ongoing evolution toward a truly egalitarian society.

The significance of Robinson's successful foray into the previously all-white realm of Major League Baseball cannot be underestimated, but his experience did not occur in a vacuum. There were innumerable African-American baseball pioneers who came both before and after the fleet-footed Brooklyn second baseman, and their stories deserve to be heard as well.

Cumulatively, these stories illustrate the fact that the integration of professional baseball was a long, messy and often unpredictable and contradictory affair. In the early days of the sport, blacks were often treated unfairly and overtly discriminated against, but they were not banned from competing altogether. At least 30 black players appeared in the "white" professional leagues during the 19th century, some six decades before Robinson. The first, Bud Fowler, did so in 1878 as a member of the International Association's Lynn Oaks.

By 1890, however, no black players remained in "white" professional baseball. Whether formally agreed upon or merely implied, blacks were effectively barred from playing in the same leagues as their white brethren. Over the next 60 years, the attitude of baseball elites toward the issue of integration was one that historian Jules Tygiel characterizes as "a conspiracy of silence."

"The men who controlled the national pastime in the twentieth century had inherited a system of rigid racial exclusion," wrote Tygiel in his acclaimed book, Baseball's Great Experiment. "Although theirs was a sport played primarily in cities removed from the dictates of Jim Crow, baseball officials religiously policed the color line."

After the success of Robinson in the Minors in 1946 and with the Dodgers in 1947, these officials could no longer adhere to their systems of "rigid racial exclusion." Over the next decade, the color barrier was systematically broken in Minor League cities all over the country, with reactions and results that mirrored America's uncertainty and confusion regarding the race issue.

It goes without saying that the study and celebration of the experiences of trailblazing black players shouldn't be confined to any one specific chunk of the calendar year. Nonetheless, the fact that February is "Black History Month" gives the chance to look at the experiences of African-American pioneers within the rich and diverse history of Minor League Baseball.

Feb. 1Black History Month preview
Feb. 4Willie "Curly" Williams
Feb. 11Gene Baker
Feb. 18Moses Fleetwood Walker
Feb. 25Racial integration in Durham
Feb. 29Len Tucker

In previous years, has run a wide variety of Black History Month stories, which illuminated the disparate Minor League careers of luminaries such as Fowler, Ray Dandridge and Satchel Paige (among many others). This year, we will take a similarly wide-ranging view. Over the next several weeks, look for feature articles on the following individuals and topics:

Willie "Curly" Williams: The profile of a slick-fielding, smooth-swinging shortstop who spent nearly two decades in professional baseball. Williams logged time in the Negro Leagues, Puerto Rico and the Chicago White Sox farm system, and is now retired and living in Florida.

Gene Baker: After serving as Ernie Banks' double-play partner with the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs, the duo reprised their role with the Cubs in 1953 -- becoming the Major Leagues' first black double-play combination in the process. Baker went on to become a trailblazing Minor League manager after his playing career ended.

The strange saga of Moses Fleetwood Walker: The first black player in the history of the Major Leagues, Walker played in 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. He made his last appearance in "white" professional baseball in 1889 with Syracuse of the International League, but his life after baseball was perhaps even more remarkable.

Racial turmoil in Durham: On April 18, 1957, 3B Bubba Morton and LHP Ted Richardson became the first black players to take the field for the Durham Bulls. At the game, there was unrest in the stands after 150 black fans refused to sit in the segregated section of Durham Athletic Park.

Len Tucker: The first black player signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, Tucker inked a deal with the Redbirds nearly eight years after the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Tucker, known for his speed and offensive prowess, starred in the Minors for 11 years but never made it to the Majors.

Kevin Czerwinski's piece on "Curly" Williams will run on Monday, Feb. 4, and a new article will follow on each of the next three Mondays and the final day of the month. Hopefully, these stories will provide enough information and jumping-off points to last interested readers well past the month of February.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.