When the Southern and Grambling baseball teams lock up in a crucial Southwestern Athletic Conference Western Division series this weekend, the teams will take us back to a time when players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Buck Leonard were in their heyday. A time before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
During an era when black players were forbidden from playing in the big leagues, the Negro Leagues helped pave the way for Robinson’s legendary achievement.
Players wore baggy uniforms for teams like the Homestead Grays, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Birmingham Black Barons. They often had nicknames (“Smokey” Joe Williams, “Cannonball” Dick Redding, Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, James “Cool Papa” Bell) that roll off the tongue.
Borrowing from the trendy “Turn Back the Clock” theme that had caught fire in the big leagues, Southern coach Roger Cador helped bring the Negro Leagues uniforms to the Southern-Grambling series 11 years ago.
It’s an appropriate nod to the oft-forgotten league, a tip of the cap from two of the biggest names in HBCU athletics.
But this weekend, with Cador less than two weeks removed from joining a task force to help bring black players back to baseball, the coach may have an extra goosebump or two as he slips on one of the uniforms SU and GSU wear every year.
The recent release of the movie “42,” about Robinson’s breaking the color barrier, brings another layer of emotions.
Robinson began his pro career in the Negro Leagues.
“There are a lot of things happening in a short time frame that makes me think even more about how important my role is,” Cador said.
When he looks at the game today, Cador finds irony in the role the Negro Leagues played.
“Back then, the supply was great with players, but the demand was nonexistent,” he said. “There was a tremendous supply of black baseball players, but there was no demand for them. Now, today, there is a tremendous demand for them, and there is no supply.”
That’s where Cador and the other members of the task force come in.
Appointed by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to help diversity baseball, the committee met for the first time April 10 and is scheduled to meet a second time during the MLB owners’ meetings next month.
Selig chose to address the lack of black players in the game, Cador believes, because the commissioner has grown tired of watching so many black athletes put down their baseballs in favor of footballs and basketballs.
“There is information I have that can be very valuable,” Cador said. “A lot of people on that task force don’t have the hands-on experience with the African-American kids the way I do. They don’t have the connections to the inner city.”
If the Southern coach’s input helps fuel change, then Cador will have paid the Negro Leagues and their legendary stars the ultimate tribute.
Not even the cool throwback uniforms can top that.