It’s mid-September and a championship is on the line. Through seventeen innings, game five of this best-of-seven series has offered high baseball drama for the shoulder-to-shoulder fans in attendance. On the mound, a jelly-armed Leon Day — the future Hall of Fame pitcher who started the game and is still going — just saw his team, an enviably skilled squadron of black players, take a tenuous 1-0 lead in the top of the inning. Leftfielder Robert Lomax “Butch” Davis scored on a hard single and now Day has his mind set on finishing things. He’s already worked out of a bases-loaded crisis in the eighth, then in the fourteenth inning, a sharp throw home from second base, nailing a speeding runner, bailed Day out. After all that, Day doesn’t want to let down his manager Willie Wells, who was ejected from the game in the tenth inning for relentlessly arguing a call at first base. Another future Hall-of-Famer, Wells departed the field with a police escort, and only after the chief umpire finally threatened him with forfeiture.
But in the bottom half of the seventeenth inning, Day notches three more outs to secure the championship. After jolly handshakes and hugs on the field, there’s a party at the team hotel a few hours later.
This all happened in 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. That landmark moment gave black ballplayers a chance to join the Majors, but it also meant the inevitable decline of the Negro Leagues in the United States. Founded in 1920, the Negro Leagues were an association of teams owned and managed by blacks. Rosters featured black players, as well as Latinos with skin complexions too dark for Major League team owners to tolerate. Once Robinson was ushered into the Majors, those same owners began plucking the Negro Leagues’ best talent for their own teams — though only a select few, top-notch black ballplayers were chosen, so as not to deny work to an excessive number of whites.
“The Negro Leagues were employing a lot of guys,” says Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, “but with the integration of our game, a lot of older players lost their jobs.”
Black fans followed their stars, attending an increasing number of Major League games. The Negro Leagues toiled, and though the last teams held out until the mid-1960s, many baseball historians and former players consider 1950 — when the Negro National League folded — to be the last year of high-quality play in the league’s proud history. However, that last great Negro Leagues season of 1950 did not include slick pitching from All-Star Leon Day or shrewd strategizing out of Willie Wells. Instead, the two celebrated a championship that mid-September evening with the Winnipeg Buffaloes of Manitoba, Canada.
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