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Negro League Strat-O-Fantastic

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The late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti once said that baseball "breaks your heart; it is designed to break your heart." He was speaking of how baseball ceases each autumn and leaves us "to face the winter alone." But he also might have been anticipating the steroid era or recalling baseball's shameful past when it barred African-Americans from playing in the big leagues.

Baseball had a chance to atone for its sins by enshrining Buck O'Neil in the Hall of Fame. While 17 former Negro League players and executives were elected into the Hall in 2006, O'Neil, a former Negro League All-Star, finished a few votes short before he passed away.

The public had gotten to know O'Neil from Ken Burns' Baseball special, which aired on PBS in 1994. But fans had long known about O'Neil, who had been a scout and coach in the Major Leagues after his Negro League playing career had ended. He also founded the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

O'Neil may not have measured up statistically to other first basemen of the day, like Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg, but his love and warmth as a baseball ambassador and human being long ago should have bolstered his cause for the Hall of Fame. Furthermore, there was always one problem with the argument about statistics. We never really knew what Buck O'Neil's statistics were.

Baseball fans everywhere can now rejoice because, as the LA Times reported, there is a new Negro League version of Strat-O-Matic, a board game that preceded all of the rotisserie leagues that have proliferated in the past 15 to 20 years. Negro League statistics have always been hard to come by, but now fans can pit Buck O'Neil or Josh Gibson not only against Satchel Paige but also against white pitchers.

The breakthrough comes thanks to Scott Simkus, a baseball zealot, who combed through old black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American to find long-forgotten box scores from games played in the shadows. In so doing, he has not only proven himself an archaeologist, as he put it; he has also addressed a disgraceful chapter that afflicted the national pastime for some 60 years.

It is a little known fact that African-Americans did play in the Major Leagues in the 1860s and 1870s until Cap Anson, one of the most influential players of his day, enforced the "gentleman's agreement," which banned blacks from the big leagues until 1947.

Some have applauded baseball for being ahead of the Supreme Court, by breaking the so-called color barrier seven years before the high court desegregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education. For that matter, baseball allowed blacks to play in the majors for a few decades after the notorious Dred Scott decision, which denied blacks the right to be free citizens.

But baseball shouldn't be too proud of itself. The national pastime did not embrace integration when Jackie Robinson first suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of 1947. He received racist taunts during his ten-year career, during which some teams, like the Boston Red Sox, remained segregated. The Sox did not field a black ballplayer until 1959, and only did so then with Pumpsie Green, a backup who rarely played. In fact, as late as the 1970s, the Red Sox typically had no more than a few African-American players on the big-league roster.

There are many reasons why there are fewer blacks in the big leagues now. Some experts have cited the lack of fathers or father figures in the lives of young black men since baseball, more than other sports, tends to get passed down from fathers to sons. Others have pointed to baseball's perceived lack of street cred compared to basketball and football. Of course, there still are black players; it's just that many of them hail from countries like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and identify at least partially as Latino.

Whatever the reason for the presence of fewer African-Americans in the big leagues, it is a delight that fans can get to know the old-timers by playing Strat-O-Matic, which, in an era of Blackberries and cell phones, employs such antiquated notions as a board, cards and dice.

Perhaps this new version of an old game will inspire young baseball fans to make a pilgrimage to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where they can learn about men who played an exciting brand of ball, which for too many years was ignored. There, they can look at exhibits, take a Negro League quiz, and see life-size statues of Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and, yes, Buck O'Neil, in a replica of an old ballfield.

Come to think of it, if racists like Cap Anson and Kenesaw Mountain Landis can make the Hall of Fame, then maybe Buck O'Neil resides in a better home, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, as well as in Strat-O-Matic and its world of imagination.

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