Negro Leagues get spotlight

By John Erardi • • April 2, 2009

One can never count on serendipity in assembling a major museum exhibit, so when it arrives, it feels like you’ve hit the jackpot.

Just ask Chris Eckes, chief curator of the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. Eckes is assembling the Negro Leagues exhibit that opens Saturday at the Hall, and which is part of the festivities leading to the June 20th Civil Rights Game against the Chicago White Sox at Great American Ball Park.

It’s one of two exhibits that opens Saturday. The other is “Crosley Field Remembered.”

When it came to Negro League memorabilia, Eckes’ task was comparable to finding a needle in a haystack. That memorabilia is rare and scattered. So imagine his relief when he found video at the Academy Film Archive titled “Negro Leagues Baseball: Goose Tatum, (the Indianapolis) Clowns at Crosley Field, Cincinnati, Sept. 1946.”

The video shows Clowns player Sam Hairston, whose grandson, Jerry Jr., plays for the Reds. Among the Kansas City Monarchs shown is Buck O’Neil, who 50 years later was star of Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary.

“I contacted (the Academy Film Archive) to see if we could use the film in the exhibit, and they were thrilled it was going to get that kind of attention,” Eckes said. “Footage period from Negro Leagues games is extraordinarily rare.”

It’s a treat watching long-limbed Goose Tatum ham it up. One sees the genesis of his Harlem Globetrotters’ basketball routine.

A jazzy soundtrack was added to the film by local musicians Cam Miller and Kevin Maxwell.

Serendipity also brought three advertising posters from the Cincinnati and Indianapolis Clowns that will arrive later this month. Eckes first saw them earlier this year in a Hunt Auctions catalog of Negro Leagues memorabilia.

“It’s been a real challenge finding stuff,” Eckes said. “I did get some signed pieces from two of the first Negro Leagues player reunions in 1981 and 1982 in Ashland (Ky.), where the first Negro League Museum was.

"The pieces really contain a who’s who of the Negro Leagues – all the big guns that were still around were there. It’s cool stuff. But it’s also sobering because most of those guys are gone now.”

Cincinnati had various short-lived teams in the Negro Leagues starting in the early 1920s; the longest affiliation was the Cincinnati Tigers of 1934-37.

The Clowns began in Cincinnati in 1943, split time between here and Indianapolis in 1944 and 1945, and moved full-time to Indianapolis in 1946 through the early 1950s. That’s when Henry Aaron broke in with them. His major league rookie year bat is in the exhibit.

Other Cincinnati pieces include a photo of the 1936 Cincinnati Tigers outside their team bus at Crosley Field, and a photo of the 1937 Tigers led by famed player-manager Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe.

He got the nickname after catching the first game of a doubleheader, and pitching the second.

A replica jersey of the mid-1930s Tigers uniform, which wore hand-me-downs from the Reds, was custom-made and arrived at the Reds Hall on Thursday.

Giving the exhibit some of its deepest resonance are pieces loaned by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. They include the Homestead Grays cap of Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, game-used spikes from Lyman Bostock Sr., and a jersey with the word “Birmingham” stitched across the front, believed to be from the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the Negro Leagues’ most storied teams.

Willie Mays played for that team before he broke into the major leagues. One of Mays’ major-league rookie year bats is in the exhibit.

There are also baseballs signed by Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell from their Hall of Fame inductions into Cooperstown.

The Negro Leagues exhibit will be on the second floor of the museum. On the first will be the exhibit “Crosley Field Remembered.”

“Last year we did ‘Joe Nuxhall’ and a week later we the 50th anniversary of the (Reds’ Hall of Fame),” Eckes said. “That was the first time we simultaneously planned two (major) exhibits. This (Saturday) will be the first time we’ve opened two on the same day.”

Former Reds star Frank Robinson, who will be grand marshal of the Findlay Market Opening Day parade, is scheduled to make an appearance at the Hall on Tuesday to promote the Civil Rights Game.