Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Every time I call myself a baseball fan, I am forced to live with the incredibly flawed and whitewashed history of my favorite game in the world.
When it comes to cards, my consciousness of baseball's checkered history runs even deeper than that -- I admit that I myself am a privileged and imperfect card collector. I collect cards of Ty Cobb. I collect cards of Cap Anson. I collect cards of many figures from baseball's early days who forced black players out of the major leagues. I do this because, as a fan, I am intensely interested in piecing together the history of the game. But as a living and thinking and rational human being, I am often ashamed of my ability to sometimes compartmentalize the racism of baseball's past as I look through my cards.
With everything happening in the country right now, and the incredible sadness I've felt about it, I tried to cope by looking through my Negro League collection today. My Negro League cards are a treasured corner of my collection, but they're relegated to a small, separate binder outside the shelves of my standard team binders since many of the game's greatest black stars spent the first century of baseball's history unable to play for teams like the Cubs and Red Sox. The sum total of my Negro League collection spans maybe a dozen double-bagged nine-pocket pages. My Yankees binders contain hundreds.
While looking through my Negro League cards, I couldn't help but think that the card industry itself, by reprinting the same '52 Topps Mantles and T206 Wagners to death, was doing a disservice to the real history of baseball, a history that included black players well before the rise of Jackie Robinson. Outside of a few random inserts here and there, Negro League stars are all but ignored in today's hobby (which still includes copious amounts of Ty Cobb cards). For a few years there, Topps included a terrific subset of forgotten Negro Leaguers in their A&G sets, but those faded away ten years ago and haven't resurfaced since. The voices of the Negro Leagues have been all but silenced in today's hobby.
With that in mind, it seems relevant to acknowledge ten card producers who, whether through entire sets or individual cards, documented the Negro Leagues in all their glory, and acknowledged their importance to the game we love.
#1 -- 1986 Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars
This is one of the few all-Negro League sets I've come across -- they're fantastic and not as terribly scarce as many of the non-major-brand oddballs of the era.
#2 -- 2001 Topps "What Could Have Been" inserts
Not the most thrilling design, but a rare nod from Topps to the importance of the Negro Leagues.
#3 -- 1993 & '94 Ted Williams Negro Leagues
I don't know how much input Ted Williams actually had into the sets that bore his name in the '90s, but I tend to think it was at least a fair amount since Teddy Ballgame was an early advocate for Negro Leaguers being inducted into the Hall of Fame (he said as much in his own HOF speech).
It makes sense, then, that the sets he (perhaps) created are home to some of my very favorite Negro League cards ever made.
#4 -- 1992 Eclipse Shea Stadium Negro Leagues
Best I can tell, this set was given away at a Mets game in 1992 -- I only own a couple of 'em, but they're awesome.
#5 -- 2001 Fleer Greats of the Game
Many sets that contain the name "Greats" or "Legends" solely focus on the best players of the major leagues as we know them -- if they acknowledge someone like Satchel Paige, they only do so because of the time he spent well past his prime with the Browns and Indians.
Given that, it's quite a treat to see a select group of Negro League stars such as Rube Foster honored in the '01 Fleer Greats of the Game checklist, one of the few sets to actually live up to its name.
#6 -- 2012 & '13 Panini Golden Age
The sympathizer in me wants to think there's a legal reason for Topps not making Negro League cards, like copyright issues or something along those lines, rather than flat-out ignorance or worries that they wouldn't "sell" as well as Bowman.
The fact that Panini included a good amount of Negro League stars in their Golden Age sets a few years ago seems to line up with some kind of legal reason -- either way, cards like these are a big reason why I still miss this brand so much.
#7 -- Topps Fan Favorites
The only flaw in the excellent concept of Fan Favorites featuring star players on old Topps designs is the fact that Negro League stars were never featured on old Topps designs.
I'll give credit where credit is due, however, to Topps including this nod to Buck O'Neil on the iconic '62 woodgrain -- even though it feels shoehorned and bit revisionist, it's still a wonderful card.
#8 -- 1987 Donruss Highlights
It may have happened far too late, but many Negro Leaguers were eventually enshrined in Cooperstown -- including Ray Dandridge, whose HOF induction in 1987 was documented on this Donruss Highlights card from that year.
#9 -- 2001 Upper Deck Hall of Famers
As a whole, I've yet to find a better set that honors the Negro Leagues' HOF inductees better than the aptly-named 2001 UD Hall of Famers release, which features a healthy amount of the game's pre-integration stars (this Cool Papa Bell might well be my favorite Negro League card ever made).
#10 -- 1994 Upper Deck Ken Burns Baseball
Unlike most compendiums of baseball history, Ken Burns's Baseball gives the Negro Leagues its rightful amount of screen time, and juxtaposes it brilliantly next to the goings-on of the all-white major leagues that so often dominate the history books.
It makes sense that the card set issued in accordance with the opus -- which I received as a gift from my parents as a child and have treasured ever since -- contains so many of the stars like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson that made the Negro Leagues the success it was.
Of course, the obvious tragedy of the Negro Leagues is that they never should've had to exist at all, which is a great source of pain when I look through the (far too few) cards I own of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. Buck O'Neil and Rube Foster should have been allowed to play next to Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth. They should have been able to wear the Yankee pinstripes or Dodger blue. The black greats of baseball should have been able to flourish in the major leagues, and have their stars burn every bit as brightly as the white greats of the same era.
Their lives, then and now, should have never had to endure in the shadows.