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Fenway Park's 100th anniversary inspires 'Color of Baseball in Boston' exhibit

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  May 17, 2012 11:05 AM

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West-Newton-Colored-Giants-(1936,-Historic-Newton)607.jpg

The West Newton Colored Giants in 1936. (Photo courtesy of Historic Newton)

How interested are you in the best baseball player "you have never heard of"? That’s one of the tie-ins for the Museum of African American History in Boston’s new exhibit, “The Color of Baseball in Boston.”

Riding the fanfare of Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary, the museum has put together a collection of rare photographs and articles of clothing of black baseball players in Massachusetts from the 19th and early 20th century. One of the main draws will be the more than 20 articles of clothing, including a full uniform, of William "Cannonball" Jackman, a negro league player for the Boston Royal Giants who was regarded as the best black pitcher from Boston from 1920 through the 1940s. He played for 30 years, before integration, and was otherwise known as the "best ball player you have never heard of."

"With the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, we always find that the history, the community history, gets lost," said the museum’s executive director, Beverly Morgan-Welch. "Even though the Red Sox have been very wonderful in supporting this exhibit, and the celebration of Fenway Park, this is a multi-layered story. This is a very rich story. It's hard to tell in a sound bite. You can't really think about Jackie Robinson signed by the Dodgers [without thinking about] what went on long before that, that ever made that happen. People tend to think it is the action of one person … That doesn't mean there weren't people who were working on this for a century."

In that sense, Boston is uniquely positioned to tell the stories of black baseball players, a nod to the region’s unique abolitionist history. Company and factory teams in the region often had players both black and white.

Photos in the exhibit from Ernest Withers, on loan to the museum, provide a scarce view of black baseball life. Of the hidden gems, there is a picture of a 16-year old Willie Mays during his time with the Memphis Red Sox, another negro league team. But there are other rare photos of black baseball players who bore the seeds of integration long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. And then some.

"When we started this, we didn’t know that Frederick Douglass' son played baseball and that he (Frederick Douglass) went to big games," Morgan-Welch said. "That’s just [incredible]. Because I believe we, in spite of ourselves, in spite of the museum's own research and scholarship, [we are] so inundated with the history of black people in America being very narrow. It's slavery, it's civil rights, and that’s kind of it -- that we’re always fighting for our rights -- that there isn’t a sense of full, or individuals, communities, families that have to exist and thrive beyond that or they would collapse."

Baseball is a part of that, Morgan-Welch said.

For baseball diehards, there’s a treasure trove of information on the Boston Giants, who played from time to time at Fenway Park, and the newly discovered ordinance that points to the game’s origin in Pittsfield back in the 18th century. The Red Sox donated a base from Jackie Robinson day signed by each of the team’s players in 2006. It also donated a base from this year’s Jackie Robinson day, just last April.

The museum will hold a “Memories and Memorabilia Day” for the exhibit at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at its Beacon Hill residence (46 Joy Street). The three-hour event will feature expert speakers on black baseball, including Dr. Robert L. Cvornyek, chair of the Rhode Island College History Department and editor of “Negro Baseball … Before Integration,” who will talk about the Boston Tigers. Journalist Bijan C. Bayne, who was a contributing writer for “The Color of Baseball in Boston” exhibit, will tell stories about black baseball in Boston before 1900. Mike Ginns, the founder and director of the Cannonball Foundation, will speak about Jackman.

For more information on the exhibit and the Museum of African American History, visit http://maah.org/.

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