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Giving the past a future

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Monte Irvin is 88. James Tillman is 87. They are among a dwindling group of 15 to 20 surviving players who competed with or against Josh Gibson, the preeminent Negro leagues slugger who died 60 years ago.

"I gravitate to these people. But these guys are getting older and eventually there are not going to be any left," said Sean Gibson, the slugger's great-grandson.

Eager to have his relative's legacy preserved, Gibson, 37, appeared in Washington yesterday to unveil an exhibit featuring the bat, jerseys and photos of the man whose Hall of Fame plaque says he "hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career."

Tillman also appeared, saying that Gibson, his former teammate and fellow catcher on the Homestead Grays, would have enjoyed all the attention. "He would have thought this was out of sight," Tillman said.

The exhibit is being showcased in Washington's Mayflower hotel this month because this was Gibson's adopted city. His Grays split time between the Pittsburgh area and the nation's capital.

Opening the downtown exhibit wasn't the younger Gibson's only objective yesterday. Wearing a Grays jersey, he spent part of the day lobbying the Washington Nationals to include a permanent Negro leagues exhibit in the stadium scheduled to open on the Anacostia River waterfront next season.

"We've had some discussions about that," Alphonso Maldon, a Nationals senior vice president, said in an interview. "We want to do something."

Before the Nationals arrived in 2005, there was a push to call the team the Grays in honor of the club that once played at Washington's Griffith Stadium. Former Mayor Anthony Williams, who led the drive to return baseball to the city, wanted "Grays." So did Gibson, president of a Pittsburgh-area foundation named for his great-grandfather that provides education and mentoring to youths.

But Major League Baseball selected "Nationals" instead - the name of a previous Washington baseball franchise.

The Nationals organization said yesterday that it is honoring the Grays in other ways, including staging throwback days when current players don Grays uniforms.

Nationals pitcher Ray King, who attended yesterday's exhibit opening with teammate Nook Logan, said he hopes the team holds such an event this year. "I'd love to put it [the jersey] on and be thrown back to that day and that time when they played doubleheaders on Sundays, maybe with a water break in between," King said.

King, who collects Negro leagues jerseys, said he hopes learning about the history of African-American ballplayers could help entice more black youngsters into baseball. About 8 percent of all players who were on major league Opening Day rosters are African-American.

King said all black players owe a debt to Josh Gibson. "I am where I am today because of these guys," he said.

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