As if sent on assignment from the baseball gods, three former Negro league players and the widow of a fourth descended onto the State House complex in Annapolis yesterday afternoon. Technically, they were there to speak to the Senate and House members on behalf of a joint bill to establish an official day in honor of Maryland's contributions to the Negro leagues.
In essence, they also were there to remind everybody, at a time it was needed most, that as foul as baseball can be sometimes, it still can give birth to heroes.
Eddie Banks, Luther Atkinson, Al Burrows and Geraldine Day (wife of the late Leon Day) actually were there to talk about the past. About "the opportunity the state of Maryland has to pay some long-overdue respect to the leagues and to these players," said Del. Melvin Stukes, who is co-sponsoring the bill with a fellow Baltimore Democrat, Sen. Verna Jones.
About sacrifices made decades ago by players who were first kept out of the big leagues and their farm systems because of their race, and then were openly discriminated against when they were allowed in.
"A lot of prices were paid for guys to get to the level they are today," said Banks, 66, a former infielder and one of the youngest surviving Negro leaguers.
About support for the players and the game that went unrecorded - for example, from Jones' father, who ran a boarding house for the players to stay in when they came to play in Baltimore, and at whose cleaners on Eutaw Street cleaned the uniforms.
"We made $7 a week, and that was a lot of money in those days," said Burrows, 77, a former pitcher and first baseman. "If it wasn't for these people, I wouldn't be here today."
The bill, received favorably by the committees in which they were introduced, is expected to breeze through, and Jones is confident it will be signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in time for Negro Baseball League Day to be celebrated next year, and on the second Saturday in May thereafter. It is believed that Maryland would become the first state to officially commemorate the Negro leagues.
Ideally, the annual commemoration will illuminate the depth of the history black baseball shares with Maryland. It is home to some of its most famous teams (the Baltimore Elite Giants), most extensive leagues (the Tri-State League, which was still active in segregated ball's final days in the late 1950s), oldest ballpark still standing (in Oakville in St. Mary's County) - and, of course, greatest players, such as Hall of Famers Judy Johnson and Day. Geraldine Day, who still lives in Baltimore, received an ovation from the House of Delegates committee members and attendees when she was introduced.
It is a history not many know about: at special days in their honor at various ballparks, Banks said, fans, coaches and executives know them, "but you get a lot of the guys sitting on that bench, saying, 'Who are those guys?' "
Stukes was first approached about creating an official day of honor last summer by Tonya Thomas, executive director of the Baltimore-based Black Athletes and Lost Legends (BALL Inc.). Thomas is part of the effort to open a Negro leagues museum in Lochearn later this month.
Thomas, the legislators and the players could draw a straight line between the gap in knowledge about the city's and state's baseball history and the precipitous decline in local participation and interest.
Increased education can lead to increased resources for youth baseball, Banks told the House committee, "so baseball can take its rightful place atop the athletic chain."
It troubled the former players how much baseball had abandoned that spot. They were aware, for example, that around the same time, former Oriole Miguel Tejada was in federal court in Washington pleading to charges of lying to congressional investigators about his knowledge of performance-enhancing drugs in the major leagues.
"They've taken what we built and become what they are today," Atkinson said, frowning and shaking his head.
That is both an indictment of baseball today and a tribute to what it was then, but is already being neglected or forgotten.
Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).