Baseball honours 'Negro' stars at last

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The history of major league baseball in the United States is about struggle, segregation, racism, achievement. And for African-Americans of John "Buck" O'Neil's generation, it is also largely an untold story. Until now.

The grandson of a slave, Buck O'Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938.

He was good - one of the best.

But like others of his colour, he was confined to Negro League Baseball.

The very name jars with the ear these days. Not back then.

Black players played other black players. That was the way it was.

Major League Baseball was pretty much a whites-only club, off limits to the likes of Buck O'Neil.

Not until 1947 did black players begin to make the leap across this man-made divide.

Jackie Robinson famously became the first. Songs were written to celebrate him.

But what he did was rare. Even rarer was for black players to make it to the top.

The very top meant a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in New York.

Eventually, in 1960, Negro League Baseball did disappear as integration took hold.

Black players were simply too good for Major League to ignore in large numbers.

And the game developed. But in the years that followed, a feeling emerged that the early black players had gone unrecognised, their talent unsaluted.

So five years ago, the baseball authorities set up a research programme to document their achievements.

A $250,000 grant was allocated. A team of experts was assembled to look back in history at the hundred years before integration.

It wasn't easy. The press often ignored Negro League Baseball, so records were meagre.

Newspaper archives were scoured. Microfiche films in libraries were scanned.

Oral evidence was taken from those who did their best to remember who had scored the most home runs, who had pitched the best.

Precision was difficult and some decades yielded more results than others.

In the end, a list of around 90 players deemed worthy was produced.

And a panel of judges narrowed that down to a shortlist of 17.

Those 17 people - players and executives - are now to be honoured with a place in the Hall of Fame.

There has never been an incoming Hall of Fame class on such a scale before. Usually, one or two names are added each year.

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