Baseball had a chance.
It was 1869. The Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia played the Philadelphia Olympics. Not a well-pitched game: Olympics 44, Pythian 23.
It was noteworthy, however, because Pythian players were Black and the Olympics players were White. Against one another, they played baseball’s first recorded interracial game.
“Two decades later, the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ of 1887 between white professional baseball teams excluded all black players from participation, leading to the eventual creation of the Negro Leagues,” Stephen Segal wrote in the journal the Historian in 2012. “Rather than continuing racial progress after 1869, blacks went backwards in terms of equality in organized baseball. The story of the Pythian Club exemplifies yet another example of how African-American dreams of equality were shattered and unfulfilled during the period of Reconstruction and afterwards in both the South and North.”
But you won’t hear that explained Sunday as baseball marks the centennial of the Negro Leagues. Instead, Major League Baseball will cover it up with a 100th-anniversary logo patch on players’ uniforms in Sunday’s games. Pat itself on the back for joining the players’ union in making a $1 million contribution to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Have some virtual conversations in pandemic-empty stadiums about some of the Black men who made for great tales over a 60-year span playing just among themselves.
Few entities have done better than baseball at whitewashing an ignominious history. Just look at how the game commodified Jackie Robinson into a national celebration in the 1990s while wrongfully alluding to him as its first Black player — Fleetwood Walker predated Robinson as the majors’ first Black player by six decades — and ignoring its policy that dashed countless Black men’s dreams of playing big league baseball over three generations simply because of their heritage.