Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Everyone knows that. What most people these days don’t know is just how remarkable a feat he achieved in doing so. Fortunately, historian Jonathan Mercantini is working to rectify this shortcoming.
According to Kean University’s website, Dr. Mercantini’s primary fields of expertise include Colonial and Revolutionary America, the American South and the state of New Jersey. He currently serves as the Chair of Kean University’s Department of History. When not occupied in that capacity, he’s a busy man. He is editing an on-line edition of the papers of John and Susan Kean. Tangential to that endeavor, he’s also involved with museum exhibits regarding the same family. In addition, he’s preparing an original piece for the New Jersey Historical Commission while co-authoring scripts for the documentary series It Happened Here – New Jersey.
But what has Dr. Mecantini done lately? Well, on May 8th, he delivered a lecture at the Moorestown Library titled “The Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues.” The event concluded this season’s History Speaks Series sponsored by the Historical Society of Moorestown.
Dr. Mercantini opened his remarks by clearing up a popular misconception. Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first African-American to play professional baseball. Moses Fleetwood Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. A few other African-American players followed him. Frank Grant played second base for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League from 1887 until 1888. Rube Foster pitched for the Chicago American Giants. That team played independently until 1920. At that time it joined the Negro National League: an organization Mr. Foster founded.
Segregation, Jim Crow laws and an unwritten agreement among baseball owners forced African-American baseball players out of the major leagues. Many did, however, play in places such as the Caribbean, Mexico and Cuba. From 1898 until 1946 they maintained their own baseball association in the United States.
Mr. Mercantini described the latter as a “precarious business model.” “The Negro Leagues” is a generic expression. It encompasses various organizations that formed and sometimes collapsed during the same season. This may be one reason why historians encounter difficulty when seeking primary sources on the topic.
The Negro Leagues included a number of characteristics that differentiated them from Major League Baseball. They developed their own version of the “Sunday Doubleheader.” Instead of the same teams playing two different games, these events featured two different ball clubs competing in each match up.
Teams engaged in “barnstorming.” This featured ball clubs travelling to different places to play the game. It allowed the fans to see players and teams they normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to watch.
Dr. Mercantini compared the method of play to jazz. It featured an “aggressive, improvisational style of baseball.” Players such as Satchel Paige viewed the sport as a form of entertainment. On one occasion he instructed his outfielders not to take the field. “I’m going to strike ‘em out, anyway,” he told his team mates.
Jackie Robinson brought an aspect of this type of play to the majors. When he received the Rookie of the Year honor in 1947, he stole 26 bases. The player with the next highest total stole 14. Mr. Robinson also had a penchant for straight steals of home plate.
The East-West All-Star game served as the “showcase event” from 1933 through 1948. They drew better crowds than the ones Major League Baseball sponsored.
The peak era occurred from 1920 until 1950. During that period, baseball dominated American sports. From 1900 until 1947 they comprised the most successful African-American run business in the United States.
A revolutionary baseball innovation occurred in the Negro Leagues. In 1930 the Kansas City Monarchs became the first professional baseball team to play at night. The ball club owned its lighting system and transported it to other venues when they barnstormed.
New Jersey included a number of places where teams played. They were located in Newark, Patterson, Trenton and Atlantic City.
The Garden State also hosted the first integrated professional baseball game in the twentieth century. Prior to joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson played for their minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. In 1946, he made his debut on April 18, 1946 against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium.
Dr. Mercantini shared an interesting bit of trivia with the audience. To date, only one woman has been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Effa Manley received that honor for her work as the owner of New Jersey’s Newark Eagles from 1936 through 1948.
Perhaps inspired by the sports themed lecture, the Historical Society’s librarian decided to play the old “try and stump the historian” game. Stephanie Herz showed the speaker two photos of an African-American baseball club called the Moorestown Crescents. Both pictures dated from the nineteen teens.
Dr. Mercantini, himself a Moorestown resident, said that he’d never encountered any information regarding that organization. “I have homework!” He enthusiastically said. Let’s hope he uncovers some information and shares at a future History Speaks lecture.
Dr. Mercantini explained that due to baseball’s prominence in American culture, “Jackie Robinson could challenge white supremacy in a way no one else could.” Since its retirement by the league in 1997, his number 42 is now a fixture around Major League Baseball parks. Because of that it’s easy to forget about the struggle Jackie Robinson endured. Historians such as Dr. Mercantini and the enthusiastic history minded fans who listen to him are a promising sign that won’t occur.