Nats, Mets recognize Negro Leagues

Nats, Mets recognize Negro Leagues

WASHINGTON -- With just two hours remaining before Friday night's game between the Nationals and Mets, neither New York's road gray jerseys nor Washington's home whites hung in the respective players' lockers. Instead, they were replaced with uniforms and logos from a bygone era, from teams that were members in a league that promised opportunity and a place to play while the others denied both.

In a nod to the Negro Leagues, the Nationals and Mets donned the jerseys of the Homestead Grays and New York Cubans, respectively, on Negro Leagues Tribute Night at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. With the uniforms hanging loosely off of each of the coaches and players, and pants pulled up to the knees, for at least one night it was a trip back through Negro League lore, when the Grays called D.C.'s old Griffith Stadium home and routinely outdrew the American League's Washington Senators.

In the eyes of Nationals manager Frank Robinson, the attention being paid to the Negro Leagues and its players is a long time coming, and just the tip of what should be a very big iceberg.

"It's overdue," Robinson said. "But there are other ways that we can honor these guys and that league and what they accomplished and what they did, what they meant, what they missed out on. I think we should have done a lot of that stuff long before now, because most of them are too old to get around. ... But better late than never, isn't that the old saying?"

The Nationals were expecting a large crowd for the opening game of their three-game set with the Mets, but the Nationals skipper was concerned about a very specific type of person passing through the turnstiles Friday night.

"Do we have any representation from the Negro Leagues here tonight?" Robinson asked the press in his pregame press conference. "Anytime you wear the throwback jerseys, you should."

The Nationals and Mets did, with nine Negro Leagues alumni in attendance before Friday's game. Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, Hank Mason, Jose "Potato" Piloto, Bert Simmons, Al Burrows and others were recognized before the first pitch and signed autographs on the concourse at RFK.

Johnson, who compiled a 33-8 career record as a pitcher, was one of only three women to ever play in the Negro Leagues, toeing the rubber as a member of the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953-55. The right-handed former hurler, sporting a red, white and blue Clowns uniform, sans number but with "Johnson" stitched across the back, threw out the first pitch, and then, with the rest of her Negro Leagues colleagues, mingled with fans on the 300 level of RFK.

Mingled may be an understatement. More than 300 fans lined up, some with Kansas City Monarchs hats, some sporting the colors of the Homestead Grays, but all looking to hook on to some Negro Leagues nostalgia and talk to some of those who toiled in the under-appreciated circuits. The former Negro Leaguers signed uniforms, caps -- sometimes of the their former Negro League rivals -- foam fingers, ticket stubs, scorecards and anything else that would hold the ink of their Sharpie pens.

Fans loitered at the table for much longer than it took for the players to sign their possessions, asking questions, shaking hands, posing for pictures and frustrating those in line behind them.

Mason, after playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1958, appeared in four games in two seasons for the 1960 Phillies, throwing a total of 10 2/3 innings. Mason agreed with Robinson, saying that the recognition the Negro Leagues is receiving now should have happened while he manned the mound for the Monarchs.

"It should have happened when we were playing," Mason said. "But that was a different time than what it is now. You appreciate it very much, that they're doing it for us now."

Burrows, who said he rarely looked in the stands when he was on the playing field, said that he hopes that tributes like this one will spread baseball to a younger generation and make the sport a truly national game.

"I'm glad to see [things like this happening], especially for the young people," said Burrows, who exchanged a high-five with one fan during the signing session. "They don't know nothing about [the Negro Leagues]. See, I've been out there, they don't play ball no more. In my day ... they were playing ball on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. It would mean a lot to the young people, and they don't have that now."

More people know now. About halfway through the four-inning autograph session, a father and a son came through the line, the son probably not old enough to realize who was signing his ball or what those freshly scribbled names meant to baseball and to the nation's history. The pair exited the line and headed back to their seats, the son holding a ball probably destined for a bookcase or a mantle, and a place in their family's lore, helping to keep the spirit of the Negro Leagues alive.

Michael Walsh is an associate reporter for Contributor Jennifer Gilbert contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.