On August 22, 2014, Indianapolis Indians players and coaches will honor the baseball history of Indianapolis by donning throwback, red-white-and-blue jerseys of the former Negro League team the Indianapolis Clowns. These jerseys will be auctioned off during the game to benefit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The jerseys will act as part of a celebration of the extensive Negro League heritage in Indianapolis and the continued movement towards equal rights. Below is an article written by Michael Dabney that appeared in Indiana Minority Business Magazine, Third Quarter 2014 with permission from Shannon Williams, President and General Manger of the Recorder Media Group.
Civil Rights Game celebrates history and movement toward equal rights
By Michael Dabney
With the crack of Jackie Robinson’s bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Negro Leagues Baseball died, although at the time no one knew that for sure.
Within a few short years, as more and more Black players signed to play for teams in the Major Leagues, the Negro Baseball Leagues – which for three decades were some of the largest and most financially successful Black businesses in the nation – were decimated and faded into oblivion.
“With hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in revenue, the Negro Leagues, as Donn Rogosin notes, ‘may rank among the highest achievements of Black enterprise during segregation,’” Jules Tygiel wrote in 1992 in the Organization of American Historians Magazine of History. “In addition, baseball provided an economic ripple effect, boosting business in hotels, cafes, restaurants, and bars.”
Yet Black baseball left an incredible legacy for its high level of professional skill and sportsmanship, and for its entertainment value. It’s a legacy the Indianapolis Indians will honor at 7:15 p.m. Aug. 22 when they take on Toledo at Victory Field during the team’s third annual Civil Rights Game.
The game celebrates history and the progressive movement of all people toward equal rights, the Indiana Civil Rights Commission said in a media release.
“The partnership we have with the Indians has been amazing,” said Jamal Smith, executive director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, which hosts the game with the Indians.
“First and foremost, the fight for civil rights is still current and on-going. And we look for venues for getting that point across.”
The Indianapolis Clowns, a team of the Negro American League, similar to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters, was one of the last African-American teams to play competitive baseball. In fact, the future Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, who went on to break Babe Ruth’s homerun record, signed his first professional contract with the Indianapolis Clowns and played with the team for three months in 1952. The 18-year-old’s contract was for $200 a month, and he played shortstop and clean-up hitter before his contract was sold to the Boston Braves organization for $10,000.
The American Brewing Co. originally sponsored an independent team in Indianapolis called the ABCs in the years leading up to the formation of the Negro National League in 1920, according to the website NegroLeagueBaseball.com. It was a powerhouse in the initial years of the league but fell into decline after the death of manager C.I. Taylor in 1922 and was disbanded in 1926.
Another team called the Indianapolis ABCs emerged in 1931 but it faltered financially and disbanded near the end of the decade.
The league of the 1920s also fell apart only to have another Negro National League created in 1933 with the Pittsburgh Crawfords as charter members. It was a strong team throughout the 1930s but was sold and moved to Toledo as the Toledo Crawfords for the 1939 season and moved to Indy as the Indianapolis Crawfords for the 1940 season. It folded after that.
Only four Hoosier Negro Leagues players – Junius “Rainey” Bibbs, Oscar Charleston, George Crowe and Charles “The Glove” Harmon – have been inducted into the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame. Charleston also was inducted into the national Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.
The civil rights game has been tremendously successful, Smith said. With roughly 14,000 people in the stands, “each game was a sellout and we expect to do the same this year,” he said.
Though no former Indianapolis Clowns players have attended the civil rights game in the last two years, several former Negro Leagues players have attended and were honored. In addition, the Indianapolis Indians players paid tribute to the Clowns by wearing throwback jerseys.
Smith, who threw out the first pitch, said it is an honor to draw attention to the importance that Negro Leagues baseball had in the battle for civil rights. He also said he enjoyed the former players who have attended the game.
“They have been amazing,” he said. “They are full of spirit, and they really know the game. And some of them still talk a lot of trash.