The answer: Visibility. Status. Power.
The question: What can art restore to our collective memories of Negro League ballplayers, their careers and significance often lost in time?
The Susquehanna Art Museum’s “Separate and Unequaled: Celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Negro League” revives the images of the men—and a few women—who played baseball when legally sanctioned prejudice kept them off Major League diamonds.
The exhibit, suggested by Harrisburg-area Negro Leagues researcher Ted Knorr, commemorates the centennial of the Negro National League, formed to provide high-level opportunities for African-American players.
Just like sports, art breaks boundaries by raising awareness of overlooked cultures and moments, said SAM Executive Director Alice Anne Schwab.
“Harrisburg had one of the preeminent Negro League teams here, and I don’t think that’s so well known in all walks of life,” she said. “It’s so cool to be able to tell that story.”
The exhibit spotlights 11 works from four artists.
Graig Kreindler’s Josh Gibson seems about to stand up and stare down any pitcher who dared test the legendary slugger. Phillip Dewey’s Hank Aaron takes a mighty swing, while peepholes reveal images of Little Rock High School’s raucous desegregation and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In Paul Kuhrman’s portrayal of three women uniformed players from a novelty exhibition team, Mamie Johnson, Toni Stone and Connie Morgan, link arms like Raphael beauties.
And Herbert “Rap” Dixon strikes the classic ballplayer’s pose, right hand on knob of bat like a cane, left hand on hip. Dixon’s image, framed by Dewey in ornate wood, represents the Harrisburg Giants, a team whose 1920s iteration played a brief but crucial role in Negro League history.
“Though they were world-class athletic talents, because of segregation, they were not given the same opportunity that equally talented or lesser white players had,” said SAM Director of Exhibitions Lauren Nye.
Around 1890, Harrisburg newspapers started referencing the baseball team formed by the civic-minded, entrepreneurial Colonel William Strothers. Strothers (“Colonel” was his given name) was once a police officer in his adopted city of Harrisburg. He founded a pool hall, cigar store, lunchroom and barbershop.
Through it all wove baseball. Organized play by African-American players on segregated and integrated teams in Harrisburg dated to 1867. When creation of the National Negro League and the Eastern Colored League division introduced organization and an elevated stage to African-American baseball’s patchwork of teams, Strothers made up his mind to compete.
Dixon was a key selection. He started as a 13-year-old slugger in 1916 for his hometown Keystone Giants in Steelton. Playing around town, he caught the eye of Strothers.
“Dixon doesn’t have to go to New York or Baltimore to play,” said Knorr. “The Major Leagues are coming to him.”
Then there was Oscar Charleston, considered one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. Charleston had power, hitting, fielding, throwing and running equal to the all-time greats on both sides of the color line.
In September 1922, Charleston and his Indianapolis ABCs played the Harrisburg Giants. This may have been when he met a young, widowed, Harrisburg preacher’s daughter named Jane Blalock Howard. They married in 1922. So, when Strothers came calling with an offer to serve as player-manager for the Giants, Charleston was ready.
Strothers bankrolled the highest-paid team in the Negro League, and, from 1924 through 1927, the Harrisburg Giants are “Major League-equivalent,” said Knorr. Charleston, Dixon and teammate Fats Jenkins comprised what Knorr called “the greatest outfield ever to play the game, certainly in the Negro Leagues.”
Before leaving the soon-to-fold ECL in 1927, the Giants amassed the league’s second-best record but never won a pennant. Strothers died in 1933, but the Giants reemerged in various versions over the years.
How good were those 1920s Giants? Five former Harrisburg players, including the intact Dixon-Charleston-Jenkins outfield, played in 1932 for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, considered one of the greatest teams in Negro Leagues history. Charleston and Giants teammate Ben Taylor are among 35 Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Others, including Dixon, have been nominated.
Dixon would go on to become the first African American to hit a home run at Yankee Stadium. That was in the first game of a 1930 Negro League exhibition double-header. In the second game, he hit two more.
In Their Eyes
Exton, Pa.-based artist Dane Tilghman submitted two works to the SAM exhibit, including the Larry Doby painting. His work has incorporated African-American players for about 30 years, since his flea-market find of baseball cards dedicated to Negro League players.
In Tilghman’s travels, he met surviving players, seeking out details for the stories he wanted to tell. He felt blessed to meet many players in their final years, soaking up their wisdom and seeing “how they would gleam when they started talking about the particular players they played against and how they fared against the Major League guys.”
“They brought everything they had to the game,” Tilghman said. “A Negro League game on a Sunday afternoon would fill any of the Major League stadiums. You could see it in their eyes.”
A few “Harrisburg, who knew?” moments in African-American baseball history include:
- The 1868 meeting of the National Association of Base Ball Players that yielded the first written rule against integration was held in Harrisburg, said Harrisburg historian Calobe Jackson, Jr.
- The powerhouse pitcher Rube Foster traveled to Harrisburg for games early in the 20th century. After retiring, he founded the Negro National League to recast a system that shuttled African-American teams to inferior venues and put them under the financial thumb of booking agents.
- Most of the players in the SAM exhibit played in Harrisburg, where the strategic convergence of roads and railroads attracted top teams, said Jackson.
- As a child in the 1930s, Warren, Pa., native Robert Peterson witnessed the Harrisburg Giants barnstorming against a white team. That game sparked Peterson’s curiosity about African-American baseball, according to Jackson. The historian’s landmark 1970 work, “Only the Ball Was White,” helped trigger the movement that enshrined Negro League players in the Hall of Fame.
- During World War II, Pittsburgh Pirates great Honus Wagner managed the Harrisburg-St. Louis Stars on a fundraising tour for the war effort.
“Separate and Unequaled,” runs through July 19 at the Susquehanna Art Museum, Pollock Education Center Gallery, 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. This schedule may change due to COVID-19 restrictions. For more information, visit www.susquehannaartmuseum.org.