Kansas City, Mo. Step into the office of Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, open your mind and your ears, and you’re going to walk out of there thinking about something really compelling for the first time. And you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.
It happened again Tuesday night in the visiting manager’s office in Kauffman Stadium, a couple of hours before the first pitch of the Red Sox-Royals game.
Valentine had taken a few of his players to the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City and that got him to talking, hours later, about the global impact of the league. And while he was doing so, he pointed out a misstep in the way Major League Baseball chose to integrate, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
“What should have been done,” Valentine said, “two, if not four, of those franchises should have been incorporated. Our game would be so much stronger, if in fact, we incorporated those teams, instead of stealing players.”
Interesting. Take the approach the NBA did with the ABA, the NFL with the AFL.
Why would the game be stronger if that had happened?
“We would have black fans,” Valentine said. “We still don’t have black fans today.”
More black fans would equate to more black athletes choosing to play baseball and a larger pool of players from which to choose, by definition, means a better quality of play.
“Those stadiums were sold out across the country for 15, 20 years with people who paid to watch baseball,” Valentine said of Negro League games. “Baptist churches, if I remember correctly, in about 10 of the towns would change the times of their services to accommodate the baseball games. That never happens.”
The Kansas City Monarchs would have been a powerhouse right off the bat, and baseball in Kansas City today very well could be thriving.
Valentine, whose father-in-law, Ralph Branca, is the last living player from Jackie Robinson’s first team and was pro-integration, shared many stories with his son-in-law about the way Robinson handled breaking the color barrier.
Valentine also teamed with Richie Allen on the Dodgers, who had played in the minors in Arkansas and had been the victim of racial taunts.
“He had abominable stories,” Valentine said. “And he was a real sensitive guy. He did not handle it. He was the antithesis of Jackie, you know, turn the other cheek and all that stuff. Richie wanted to fight back every second.”
Valentine didn’t have to hear a story about other Dodgers teammates suffering racist treatment. He witnessed it.
“In 1969, I went with Maury Wills and Willie Davis to a place in Vero Beach when I was 19,” Valentine said. “The drinking age was 21. There was a bar we went to after dinner. We went in this back door. They were going to sneak me in so I could have a beer. The guy was going to serve me and wouldn’t serve them. I was underage and they were just black. And they would have served me and not them.”
Valentine and Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, started a Jackie Robinson Little League in Stamford, Conn. back in Valentine’s playing days. To this day, Valentine sponsors a team in that league named “Gracie’s Bombers” in honor of his mother.
During Valentine’s visit to the Negro Leagues Museum, he saw something that flashed him back to high school.
“There was a Jackie Robinson bat there,” he said. “I guarantee it’s the bat I used in high school, the exact model. That exact model is the one I used in high school in Stamford.”
Mike Sandlock, a former Brooklyn Dodgers catcher who did construction jobs with Valentine’s father, a carpenter, had given it to him at one of Valentine’s Babe Ruth League games when he was 14.
“Now, I don’t know if it was store-bought or an original,” Valentine said. “All I know is the handle is the same. The length is the same and the autograph is the same. It’s a Louisville Slugger.”
Nothing would make Valentine happier than to see fans who come to Kansas City for the Major League All-Star Game check out the cash-strapped Negro Leagues Museum while in town.
“It was the traveling black All-Star team from the Negro Leagues, in 1927, that basically introduced the professional concept to Japan, and all of Asia, for that matter,” Valentine said. “It was the Negro Leagues that went to Cuba and introduced the game, not the Major Leagues. Lefty O’Doul took a barnstorming group of Americans over there in 1931 because of the success the black All-Stars had in 1927 and 1929.”
In 1934, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were persuaded to go with an all-star team to Japan, a seven-week boat trip that included a stop in Hawaii. (There are some baseball historians who whisper that the Babe did something during that trip that made Gehrig dislike him deeply and forever.)
The slow, steady stream of black players signing with Major League teams led to the slow death of the Negro Leagues, over a period of about 15 years. Valentine’s right. A merger — obviously, as he said, with the teams from the Negro Leagues allowed to trade for and sign white players, and Major Leagues also having no restrictions — would have been a smoother way of ending the color barrier.
Valentine spent two stretches managing in Japan and said he thinks the mass exodus of second-tier Japanese players to the Major Leagues will have negative repercussions.
“Without a doubt, the Japanese League, which is a national treasure for that country, is going to go away,” Valentine predicted.
Too bad supersonic jets can’t be manufactured and run more economically. Absorbing a couple of Japanese League teams into the majors might become a logical next step, but for the transportation hurdles.