Yogi Berra Museum: Negro Leagues turn 100
Friday, Jan. 24: screening of “The Other Boys of Summer,” with Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick, and Pedro Sierra, former Negro Leagues player.
“Discover Greatness: An Illustrated History of Negro Leagues Baseball,” exhibit on loan from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, at the Yogi Berra Museum through June.
Educational online curriculum, “In Search of a Level Playing Field,” for middle and high school students, created by Warren Zanes, available in February.
Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center,
8 Yogi Berra Way, Little Falls.
By GWEN OREL
The grass is green.
You can see the color of the player’s socks.
The 90 photographs on loan from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center exhibit “Discover Greatness: An Illustrated History of Negro Leagues Baseball” are in black and white. But with the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center’s augmented reality app and a tablet, viewers can see some of the images in color.
The app helps build a bridge between what seems like distant history, and right now, said Yogi Museum Executive Director Eve Schaenen. “[The subjects] become real, living people. One of the nicest moments for us is when a student comes in and says, ‘That looks like my Uncle Cory.’ That moment of connection is what we’re looking for.” Who gets to be reflected and represented in a museum is one of the issues Schaenen wants to address.
Not long ago the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence had its board meeting at the museum. One of the women approached Schaenen and said her husband’s grandfather had played in the leagues.
“I asked her what his name was. And she said, ‘Quincy Trouppe.’ And his picture is right there,” Schaenen said with a smile.
Schaenen pointed out that Newark and Paterson were big hubs for the Negro Leagues, and that Larry Doby, who was the second person to cross the color barrier and enter Major League Baseball, raised his family in Montclair.
“So I was eager to have the exhibit here,” Schaenen said. It opened in September, and will continue at least through June.
The exhibit shows pictures from the earliest days of baseball, before it was segregated.
Next week, on Friday, Jan. 24, the museum will host a screening of “The Other Boys of Summer,” a documentary about Negro Leagues Players, followed by a Q&A with director
Lauren Meyer and NLBM President Bob Kendrick.
“Really, the Negro Leagues are an important part of not only baseball history, but American history,” Kendrick said. “I believe whole-heartedly that it is bigger than the game of baseball. It’s exciting to us as an institution to bring this story to light.” Traveling exhibits allow more people to have access to it than it would have at home in the NLBM. “This is a story about economic empowerment, and about unprecedented levels of leadership. The social advancement of America is all rolled up inside the story of these tremendously courageous players. It is a glorious history, in the midst of an inglorious time in American history.”
In February, during Black History Month, the museum will launch its online curriculum, “In Search of a Level Playing Field,” conceived by Montclair local, rocker Warren Zanes, who acted as the lead educational consultant for the project.
Both the evening and the curriculum as part of the museum’s year-long celebration of the centennial of the founding of the Negro Leagues, which disbanded in 1960.
When students visit the Yogi Berra Museum and see a picture of Jackie Robinson, sometimes they say “There is the first black baseball player.” But black baseball players always existed, ever since the game was invented. The Negro Leagues were formed in 1920.
This misconception is one reason Schaenen was eager to host the exhibit, Schaenen said. “There was a whole universe of African American players, star athletes rising and falling, with fan bases.”
The exhibit includes photographs from the 1800s through the 1960s, showing the Independent Leagues, the formation of the Negro Leagues, the 1947 contract-signing by Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier and joined the Dodgers and the Major Leagues, and much more. Visitors can also see pictures of Robinson playing for the Negro Leagues, in the Kansas City Monarchs.
Robinson was actually the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in America, said Kendrick.
The heyday of the Negro Leagues were the 1930s and 1940s. Crowds were often integrated, and the games became especially popular as so many of the Major League players were fighting, and many Negro League players were too old to go. The Negro Leagues included not only African American players, but also African American owners, managers and coaches.
The black players had no idea of making history: “All they wanted to do was play ball,” Kendrick said. “Their passion for the game of baseball changed the sport, and changed the country for the better.”
The sheer numbers in the stands impress Zanes. “There were 45,000 people showing up for the Colored World Series,” Schaenen added.
School groups have been coming to the exhibit since it opened, and more than 1,000 children have visited.
Sports is a connector, Schaenen said. It is a way to activate childrens’ interests and to prompt them to think about race and more. The online curriculum has four components that will drop throughout the year: one on race, one on gender, one on immigration, and one on financial literacy.
“When you’re trying to understand race in America, baseball is one of the best case studies,” said Zanes. “That was one of the things that attracted me, coming over from music, what I was doing middle and high school educational projects. It felt like what I was doing in that area was writ large in sports.”
Zanes had been creating similar teaching curricula for 10 years at the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation.
“The best examples of the American Dream come from sports and entertainment,” Zanes said. “We would often talk about the difference between the world of popular music and the world of, say, politics, where in popular music the bulk of the population of celebrated artists came from lower on the class ladder.” The history of sports and music are a way to learn about this country, and the modern world, he said. His younger son Piero, 15, is a “different animal at a hockey game” than he might be in the classroom.
Zanes wants to see young people bring that energy into the classroom. “The fabric of sporting culture is as intellectually deep as anything you can provide,” he said. For example, the immigration lesson unpacks Yogi’s life as a first-generation immigrant, what his family’s choices were, what the community was like. “And along the way you get, 100 years of immigration history in the United States. And right now, as immigration is a hot topic, this is the background that young people need to be able to have a more nuanced take on what's happening in America.”
“Kids need a place to talk about the subjects. They are on the front page of every newspaper, every day,” Schaenen said. “We’re looking into the history, but we’re really looking for a place to talk and make those connections.”
The financial literacy unit includes a Monopoly-like game, with a downloadable board, based on what happens to a young player who gets a huge signing bonus.
Lesson plans encourage students to go deeper into issues they may see on the museum walls. For example, Zanes said, Hank Aaron was persecuted and even received death threats when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.
“An eruption of violence in the American pastime draws out the racial divide,” Zanes said. “In the lesson plan we look at that, rather than just celebrate it. We go to the celebration, but then follow through.”
“One of the things we wanted to point out is that the received history of baseball is segregated,” Schaenen said. It is not so simple that Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier made everything equal. There was a loss of the Negro Leagues and its resources.
The museum partnered with Ken Burns, and also Teach for America for the online curriculum. Tony Morante of the New York Yankees and sports reporter Kavitha Davidson also worked with the museum as they developed the project.
For children today, segregation may be a foreign concept, Kendrick said. “Kids all summarize segregation very simply: ‘That was dumb.’ They are right, it was dumb. But it’s the way our country was. It’s so important that we allow our children to look back in time to appreciate how far we’ve come. It’s a quest to empower our young people so they can continue to take us where we need to go in future. We still have work to do related to race relations in our country. If they are charged with doing it, they have to understand that life was not always as good.
“The look on their collective faces when they learn you could go to jail for sitting in the wrong section of ball park, or drinking from the wrong fountain… and going to jail was one of better things that could happen to you.”
Looking at segregation through the eyes of courageous athletes is a way in to the complex issue, he said. Yet the difficulties, where a player might have to sleep on the bus because there were no establishments between St. Louis and Chicago, never killed the love of baseball for the players.
“There is nothing sad or somber about this story. It is a celebration. They never cried about social injustice. They went out and did something about it. The story embodies the American spirit.”