The Washington Nationals’ appearance (and now victory) in the 2019 World Series was cause for celebration among everyone who cares about the intersection of sports and history. Many pointed to their appearance in the Fall Classic as the first time the World Series was being played in the nation’s capital since 1933. However, other observers noted this was only true if you ignored the Negro League World Series. Taking that history into account, then, reminds us that the Homestead Grays — who played in Washington, D.C. — appeared in the Negro League World Series as late as 1948, fifteen years after the Washington Senators last made it. This brings up an important question, one that shouldn’t just concern sport historians: what do we mean when we say the “history of baseball”?
The erasure of the Grays should not be surprising. It has become easy for most fans of the National Pastime to ignore or overlook the contributions of the Negro Leagues. Often, the Negro Leagues are mentioned as a piece of baseball history, both a reminder of Major League Baseball’s shameful segregation through the first four decades of the twentieth century, and as a portrait of what could have been in American sport history. The list of players baseball aficionados know — Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, just to name the most prominent — are like vintage pieces of trivia, a way of showcasing that you know a thing or two about the Negro Leagues.
Major League Baseball has undertaken efforts to also remind the average fan of the history and tradition of the Negro Leagues. From 2007 to 2015, the Major Leagues played a “Civil Rights Game,” which honored the Negro Leagues of the past as well as celebrates the contributions of African American players all throughout the history of American baseball. The game often featured teams wearing throwback Negro League uniforms. Since then, Major League Baseball has continued to showcase games featuring teams wearing Negro League uniforms, often of the teams closest to those cities. For example, in 2019 the Detroit Tigers hosted “Negro Leagues Weekend,” where the Tigers wore the uniforms of the Negro League Detroit Stars.
Part of MLB’s desire to promote the Negro Leagues comes from a pressing, current-day problem: bringing more African Americans into the game as players. The rapid decline of African American MLB players in the last 25 years has alarmed baseball executives, journalists who cover the game, and players alike. Numerous articles in recent years have asked this question, and efforts such as the Civil Rights Game and Negro League Weekends are attempts to remind African American sports fans — especially those in younger demographics — of the long history of African American in the game.
This makes the media’s forgetting of the Homestead Grays particularly worrisome. It should also remind us of how memory and America history means not forgetting the contributions of a wide range of underrepresented groups. Is it possible to talk about America’s baseball history without the Negro Leagues? It is — but it would be an incomplete, and poorer, story. Let’s celebrate the Washington Nationals, and also the Homestead Grays.
Robert Greene II is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University. This article was originally published by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.