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Minors' teams celebrate Negro League legacy

Taking a nationwide look at planned centennial commemorations
Minor League teams across the country had plans to celebrate the Negro Leagues in 2020. Many had already done so in previous seasons.
September 1, 2020

On Feb. 13, 1920, the Negro National League was founded in Kansas City, Missouri. One hundred years later to the day Minor League Baseball announced it was partnering with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Josh Gibson Foundation "to celebrate the impact the Negro Leagues have had on professional

On Feb. 13, 1920, the Negro National League was founded in Kansas City, Missouri. One hundred years later to the day Minor League Baseball announced it was partnering with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Josh Gibson Foundation "to celebrate the impact the Negro Leagues have had on professional baseball." This partnership was to include "educational tours, fundraisers, traveling exhibits and player appearances" at Minor League ballparks.

Cancellations caused by COVID-19 put a kibosh on these plans, of course. While 2020's slate of centennial celebrations would have been extra special this season, Negro League tributes have long been a part of the Minor League Baseball landscape. This article looks at some of the notable Negro League promotions that were planned for the 2020 season, combined -- in many cases -- with examples of what those teams had done in prior seasons. Here's what has been, would have been and soon will be. Here's to 2021.

An alternate Minor League Baseball logo, released in February, paid homage to African history and ancestry.

Triple-A Charlotte's first Negro Leagues Tribute Night took place in 2014, the same season in which the Knights moved into a new ballpark in downtown Charlotte. From the beginning, former Negro League player Eddie "G.G." Burton was a huge part of these endeavors. The second baseman played for the Harrisburg Giants and a variety of all-Black barnstorming teams from 1947 through 1955. He died in 2018 at age 88, and the Knights continue to pay tribute to his legacy. This year's Negro League Night, scheduled for April 22, was to be in Burton's honor.

"Thank you, Eddie. Thank you for opening my eyes and ears to Negro Leagues Baseball," wrote Tommy Viola, Knights vice president of communications. "To its history. To its foundation. To everything it stood for. You were a great ambassador of the game. You’ll be missed."

Three days later on April 25, Double-A Bowie planned to host its 19th annual Negro League tribute. Last season's Baysox iteration included an impressive array of Negro Leagues alumni, including James Tillman of the 1941-42 Homestead Grays and Joe Durham (Chicago American Giants), who went on to become the Baltimore Orioles' second Black player.

Also on April 25, Double-A Mississippi planned to play in 1938 Atlanta Black Crackers throwback uniforms. The Black Crackers, originally Negro Southern League counterparts to the Southern Association's Atlanta Crackers, made the jump to the Negro American League prior to that 1938 season.

On May 2, Class A Charleston was scheduled to stage the 2020 edition of its long-running Larry Doby Heritage Weekend. The connection between the RiverDogs and the first Black player in the American League is personal. Doby's entrance into the Major Leagues was via Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck, whose son, Mike, is a co-owner of the Charleston club. The team has retired Doby's No. 14, and previous editions of his Heritage Weekend have included Negro League alumni guests, giveaway items and themed uniforms. On numerous occasions, the RiverDogs have suited up as the Newark Eagles, for whom Doby played prior to signing with the Cleveland Indians.

Class A Columbia, like Charleston, is a South Carolina-based South Atlantic League entity. And like the RiverDogs, the Fireflies have put a special emphasis on Doby. Columbia staged its first Negro League celebration in 2019, during which the numbers of Doby (14), Frank Robinson (20) and Jackie Robinson (42) were formally retired. This season's iteration was scheduled to have taken place on June 13.

The Columbia Fireflies retired the numbers of Larry Doby, Frank Robinson and Jackie Robinson.

Every year, Double-A Birmingham returns to its former home for the Rickwood Classic, a nostalgic afternoon of Southern League Baseball. Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910, also served for many years as the home of the Birmingham Black Barons. The 2020 Rickwood Classic, featuring celebrity guest Andre Dawson, was scheduled to take place on June 8. The Barons were to to wear uniforms modeled after the 1920 Black Barons, which featured "black caps with red bills and three white B's arranged in a circle." The Barons currently play in downtown Birmingham's Region's Field, which is located in close proximity to the Negro Southern League Museum.

As already established, a common theme of 2020's Negro League celebrations featured Minor League teams suiting up in Negro League uniforms. Other teams planning similar commemorations were the Triple-A Red Wings as the Rochester American Giants on June 19, the Double-A Drillers as the Tulsa T-Town Clowns on June 27, the Double-A Blue Wahoos as the Pensacola Seagulls on July 8 and the Double-A RubberDucks as the Akron Black Tyrites on July 31.

Similarly, Double-A Jacksonville planned to play as the Red Caps on July 11. A Red Caps fedora giveaway was to be part of the Jumbo Shrimp evening, as was a tribute to the players who came out of historically black Edward Waters College. One of them was John "Buck" O'Neil, who graduated from Edward Waters College in 1930.

Another unique approach came courtesy of Triple-A Syracuse, which planned to give away Moses "Fleetwood" Walker bobbleheads at the Mets game on June 20. Walker, a Black catcher, played for the Major League Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, and five years later, was a member of the International League's Syracuse Stars. His life story is fascinating.

One of the last -- or perhaps the last -- Negro League celebrations of the 2020 season was scheduled to take place at Class A Advanced Wilmington's home of Frawley Stadium on Aug. 22. The Blue Rocks are no stranger to such commemorations. The field at Frawley Stadium is named after Wilmington's Judy Johnson, and a statue of him can be found just outside the ballpark. The Hall of Fame third baseman played in the Negro Leagues between 1921 and 1937. The fact that he and so many others were barred from playing in the Major Leagues due to the color of their skin is something for which the sport can never fully atone.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.