Celebrating Black baseball

Al Newman
Al Newman
Photo by Charles Hallman

Among the many problems that baseball has is its slowness to honor those who are deserving while completely ignoring too many others. The just-concluded 2021 baseball season, both locally and nationally, saw both ends of the recognition-overlooked spectrum.

Called the Greatest World Series Ever, Minnesota and Atlanta played seven games in 1991, the first-ever opponents in MLB history to finish last the season before and reach the fall classic the next. In the worst-to-first series in which the home team won every game, the Twins won the deciding game in 11 innings.

The 30th anniversary of the 1991 champions was celebrated this past mid-August. Al Newman was among the players and coaches at the on-field ceremony.  

“I knew it was the best team in the five years that I’d been here,” Newman recalled to the MSR. “We had the young nucleus even though we finished last in 1990.”

The now-gone Metrodome scared the bejeebers out of opponents, but not the host Twins, he continued. “The Metrodome [was a] special place.”  

Newman briefly reflected on his late teammate and friend Kirby Puckett, the Series hero who hit the game-winning homer in Game 6 to tie the series at 3-3. “I considered [him] my brother,” said Newman of Puckett. “I wish Kirby could have been here, as well as some of the other people that we’ve lost.”

Also, this past August in downtown St. Paul the St. Paul Saints won its 2019 American Association championship. The pandemic delayed celebration plans a year earlier, but this year several members of that winning team were in town to watch its banner raised.  

Said Jabari Henry, the team’s only Black member, “I came in a little later [that season]. They brought me in, made me feel like I’ve been part [of the team] the entire year.”

It was his first championship at any level, admitted the minor league veteran. “I’ve always wanted to play here, always played against them. So, when I had the opportunity to come here, I had to take it.

“I felt like I was here [for] my knowledge as one of the older guys, to give my knowledge to some of the younger guys,” Henry proudly pointed out. “It was a great experience.”

Photo by Charles Hallman Jabari Henry

When a young Black man passed me recently on West Broadway wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, I wondered to myself if he truly knows that team’s history: On Sept. 1, 1971, nine Black players started for the Pirates, a first in MLB history.

Grand Valley State (Mich.) Associate History Professor Louis Moore wrote in First and Pen.com, “That lineup shattered the misconception that an all-Black team was incapable of winning a [baseball] championship,” which the Pirates later did in defeating Baltimore in the 1971 World Series. “It was a win for the team…and Black America,” stressed the professor.

“This team was able to pull this off… The Pirates had a lot of Black players,” Moore later told the MSR. “You know 50 years ago how significant that was, and maybe we’ll never see that again in baseball.”

Finally, Phil “Daddy” Reid (1854-1912) was honored before a St. Paul Saints game. Reid started the St. Paul Colored Gophers in 1907 and went 380-89-2, winning several Black baseball championships.

“There is such a rich history in the city of St. Paul, the state of Minnesota as well,” said Saints GM Derek Sharrer of the new headstone installed at Reid’s burial site in Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul.  

Fans who attended the July 27 game received a STPG baseball cap. Wonder if they really knew that it honored the state’s most notable Black baseball team.