In Buck O'Neil's mind, the decision of the National Baseball Hall of Fame to review the careers of blacks and Latinos who played baseball during the segregated era of the sport should have come decades ago. Yet O'Neil, himself a star of Negro League baseball, will also say that he's glad this day has finally come. Those sentiments belong to more people than just O'Neil.
With a 12-member panel of experts poised to decide Monday who, on a list of 39 candidates, will land a plaque in Cooperstown, Negro League players like O'Neil and team executives from "black baseball" will get their due, said Brad Horn, director of communications for the Hall of Fame. "That is the final step in a vast body of research that never before existed," Horn said. "Now that this information is available, the natural next step is to honor some of the great men and the woman ... who might have been overlooked in their contribution to the game." Until recent years, those contributions proved hard to discern because of the spotty and incomplete records that existed on black baseball. But thanks to a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball in 2001, officials of the Hall of Fame commissioned a study that unearthed statistics and anecdotes about black baseball and the men and women who were part of its rich history, a history neglect seemed bent on destroying. Their stories are what the research brought to life. In almost five years of digging into black baseball, a team of researchers compiled more than 800 pages of documents, which led to, among other things, historian Lawrence Hogan's new book Shades of Glory. Hogan's book, however, wasn't the purpose of the research effort. The purpose, Horn said, was to help the Hall of Fame fill in the missing pieces of baseball's yesteryear. "It makes us more relevant," Horn said of the research. "We don't want to be seen as an institution that just collects artifacts and honors the game's great players. We want to be seen as an institution that actively collects, acquires and particularly tells the stories of baseball -- yesterday and today." That's what those people who appreciate baseball's past have longed for, said Bob Kendrick, director of marketing for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Those people welcome the research; those people also welcome the effort to right a wrong, which the segregation of baseball into black and white leagues proved to be. Kendrick pointed out that accuracy is the hallmark of the research effort. Like others who enjoy baseball history, he said he'd like to see more complete records, and the research project brought more clarity to that record than had been in existence. The project allowed the Hall of Fame to spotlight black baseball and its role in the National Pastime. "It puts a point of emphasis on the Negro Leagues," Kendrick said. "In many respects, it's the Hall of Fame opening its doors to a missing piece of baseball history. From that standpoint, it's very important that the Hall will recognize the contributions of these guys to the game of baseball." Still, Kendrick wondered if, through hindsight, putting too much credence on pure statistics might mask a bigger story: the quality of black baseball. Numbers are a baseball staple, he said. But they alone will just tell the abridged version of how significant black baseball was to this country. He said he's worried that pure numbers and a laser-like focus on them might mislead baseball fans. Others share his worries. "Most of those people on the list, it'll be years before people write something that'll put a stamp on their careers," said Phil Dixon, a historian who's written extensively about the Negro Leagues. "Most people will look at those 39 and say, 'No way -- no way were these guys that good.' " As a result of the election Monday, Dixon said he thought the research into black baseball would continue, no matter how many of the 39 people on the ballot land a plaque in Cooperstown. In Dixon's opinion, the history of baseball in America will have fewer gaps because more information will exist on the Negro Leagues. To Dixon, the information that came out of the $250,000 research project will enhance the game, which he called a good thing. Horn echoed Dixon's viewpoint. "It shows that baseball is larger than a game," Horn said of the research project. "It's a reflection of society. What happens on the baseball field is what happens in communities all across the country."
Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.