The one thing mainstream America seems to know about the Negro Leagues is that it doesn't know much about them. Thus, some statistics from their rich and segregated history will shock you. Josh Gibson banged out 84 home runs in a season in 1936 -- take that, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Mark McGuire, and Barry Bonds. In 1952, Joe Louis Reliford became the youngest person to play in a professional game at the age of 12. Reliford is one of the Negro League players putting in an appearance at the African American Research Library.
The very term "Negro League" is something of a misnomer. Along with the Negro National League and the Negro American League, there was the Negro Southern League, the Texas Negro League, and several others. And that's just the professional leagues -- even more semiprofessional teams and leagues dotted the country. Down in South Florida, with no league representation, barnstorming teams, including the Ethiopian Clowns and Miami Giants, traveled around the country putting on exhibition matches with professional teams.
Although there is no Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame, 16 of the era's players have been inducted into Cooperstown, the most recent being Smokey Joe Williams in 1999. Reliford also counts himself a Hall of Fame member -- though he played only one extremely controversial game, in which the umpire allowed Reliford -- the batboy -- to play a few innings. The real reason that he made the hall in 1991 was his prepubescent performance on the base paths.
Many other Negro League players make stops at the African American Research Library throughout the month. Walter "Dirt" Gibbons, so named for his childhood propensity for eating dirt, and Clifford "Quack" Brown both grew up in the Tampa area but found themselves on opposing teams in the late 1940s -- Gibbons pitched for the Indianapolis Clowns while Brown played shortstop and second base for the Philadelphia Stars. Though Brown never had to face Gibbons' pitching in the pros, he recalls facing Dirt in younger days in Tampa.
"I tore the fence down with him," Brown states with a wicked grin. "One pitch, and I tore the fence down."
"I was 9!" Gibbons quickly protests.
Whatever the truth of the matter, these men have that touch of bravado that is the hallmark of many a ballplayer.
Some of Gibbons' illustrious colleagues -- a dozen of the most successful pitchers in the Negro Leagues -- meet Saturday as the Negro League Baseball Showcase concludes.