As a baseball junkie coming of age during desegregation, I was blown away when I first saw The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.
Though a fictional flick, it painfully echoed the real-life heartbreak of Negro League ballplayers, blessed with the talent to play alongside Ruth and DiMaggio, but cursed — in America's eyes — with being dyed a few shades too dark.
Bob "Peach-Head" Mitchell remembers those days all too well: From a pitcher's mound in the mid-1950s, he hurled fastballs past future Major League groundbreakers while laboring for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs — knowing the shot at the Bigs he and other Negro Leaguers deserved was long at best.
"Sure, I had the arm, oh yeah," says Mitchell, 77, who lives in Tampa. "We had players of ability."
But the names of those players largely have faded into obscurity, to Mitchell's chagrin.
That bittersweet legacy now is on display at University of Central Florida, part of a new traveling exhibition, "Pride & Passion: The African American Baseball Experience," on display at the school's main library through April 15. Mitchell and other former Negro League players will share their experiences at a Friday event.
Based on a National Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit, "Pride & Passion" offers insight into the complicated relationship between blacks and America's pastime. Through the 1880s, black and white ballplayers shared the field as amateurs and in the minor leagues. But when Major League Baseball debuted in the mid-1890s, blacks were shut out.
Rather than hang up their cleats, black ballplayers struck out on their own. Many short-lived all-black teams sprang up. They traveled the country, taking on all comers in what often is collectively dubbed the Negro Leagues.
That moniker, however, implies structure among these barnstorming squads that didn't exist until 1920. That's when Andrew "Rube" Foster, a former player, manager and owner of the Chicago American Giants, organized the Negro National League. Competing leagues in Eastern and Southern states soon followed.
These teams — which thrilled African-American fans in more than 30 communities with Major-League-caliber play from 1920 to 1955 — are what the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City considers the Negro Leagues.
Growing up in West Palm Beach, Mitchell became infatuated with Negro League baseball while watching the West Palm Beach Yankees often through knotholes in the grandstand or earning a close-up look by selling peanuts. When there was no game, he swatted tennis balls with broom handles or honed his fastball tossing rocks at targets on train tracks.
In 1951, Mitchell made his bid for the Florida Negro League, winning a spot with a West Palm Beach team. The following year, he joined the Florida Cubans, playing two seasons, including a fateful showdown with the Kansas City Monarchs and a young kid named Ernie Banks.
"I had a good fastball and everything else, but I couldn't find the plate. So Ernie Banks came up, and I didn't know who he was — he was just a player the Monarchs had. He couldn't get around on my fastball."
Though Mitchell was disgusted with his wild pitching, his performance against Banks drew a contract offer: $250 a month to join the Monarchs, and a pitching stable featuring the legendary Leroy "Satchel" Paige.
After several seasons with the Monarchs, Mitchell retired in 1957 to marry his pregnant fiancé. He finished his career with a 30-14 record and regrets.
"I knew that 25 was a bit young to get out, but I had to prioritize," he says. "I did what I had to do because the way things were going, they weren't treating the Negro League players" with respect.
Yet Mitchell never forgot his former Negro Leaguers. In 1997, Mitchell successfully lobbied Major League Baseball for a pension plan for black players who were excluded. About 85 players were granted an annual pension. Mitchell continues the fight for players who continued playing Negro League ball after 1947 when Jackie Robinson integrated the league, and for survivor benefits for widows.
The fruits of his work helped salve some festering wounds. But even that paled to the olive branch extended in 2008. More than 40 years after he'd hung up his cleats, Major League Baseball called his number. In a special Negro Leagues Player draft, he was among the surviving players drafted by a Major League team. Mitchell was picked by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"It was a great experience," he says. "We got a taste of how major-league players were treated and respected at the time."
Much less noble times are shown in the UCF exhibit. Times we shouldn't forget. And the more than 2,500 players, managers and officials who deserve more than being forgotten.
For more information on "Pride & Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience," go to library.ucf.edu/baseball.
Darryl E. Owens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5095.