Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Past Ball: Negro League Conference comes home to Harrisburg.

“Giants Come Home,” a painting by Dane Tilghman, depicting Harrisburg Giants players throughout the history of the team.

“Giants Come Home,” a painting by Dane Tilghman, depicting Harrisburg Giants players throughout the history of the team.

In the late 1930s, Calobe Jackson, Jr., often went with his grandfather to City Island.

There, he saw players whose legends still live today—Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, the colorfully named Double Duty Radcliffe. The baseball was tremendous, but even as a child, Jackson recognized the unjust premise behind it.

“We realized most of the Negro League players were good enough to make the Major Leagues, but we saw the discrimination,” he said.

As a Negro League baseball hotspot, Harrisburg hosted most of the greats, and, this July, the legacy will be relived as the city hosts the 20th annual Jerry Malloy Negro League Research Conference. Also known as the Society for American Baseball Research Negro League Committee Conference, it’ll be the event’s fourth appearance in Harrisburg—the original host city—since its launch in 1998.

Study of Negro League history reveals “the evil of segregation and discrimination,” said Ted Knorr, the Harrisburg-area resident who founded the conference. The conference agenda includes speakers on teaching Negro League history in K-12 education as part of American history, not separated into the category of African-American History Month subjects.

“No baseball fan can tell me with a straight face that they know baseball history in the first half of the 20th century unless they have a good working knowledge of the Negro Leagues,” Knorr said. “Forty percent of the game was outside of the Major Leagues. The audience for this conference is not a pigeonhole. It’s anyone who wants to know the rest of the story.”

Like many great endeavors, the conference was born late at night, over beer. Knorr and colleagues at a Society for American Baseball Research conference—all members of SABR’s Negro League Committee—were sharing Negro League stats and stories. It was the sort of sidebar meeting that happened at every SABR conference, and one of them said, “We really should have our own conference focused strictly on the Negro Leagues.”

Knorr took the ball and knocked it out of the park. He organized the first conference, in 1998, in Harrisburg. Since then, it has rotated among other cities, including Kansas City and Newark, and returned to Harrisburg in 2000 and 2003.

The conference includes a tour of notable Negro League sites in and around Harrisburg. At City Island, attendees will see the diamond and home plate on FNB Field, which haven’t changed location since 1890. On 16th Street, they’ll see the still-standing home of Negro League legend Oscar Charleston—player, manager of teams including the Harrisburg Giants, and husband to the daughter of a Harrisburg minister. They’ll visit the Steelton grave of Herbert “Rap” Dixon, the first African American to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium.

When it comes to Negro League baseball, Harrisburg is “not quite Kansas City or Homestead, but it’s on the map,” said Knorr. According to Jackson, the city’s place in Negro League baseball dates to 1867, when journalist and educator Thomas Morris Chester and his brother founded the Harrisburg Monrovians, named after the capital of Liberia, where Chester had studied.

The Monrovians played a game against the Philadelphia Pythians—Jackson has the box score—and the Pythians are famous for being denied an application to play in the Major Leagues of the day, “one of the first instances of discrimination against black ballplayers,” Jackson said.

As a regional transportation hub, Harrisburg found itself in a sweet spot for Negro League play, said Jackson. Teams now legendary—the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays, the Philadelphia Stars, the Baltimore Giants, including Campanella—found it easy to come to the city and play in the ballpark by the river.

“They remembered it because of the flies and the bugs,” Jackson said. “Nothing changes.”

Negro League history deserves study because it shows “how things have changed through the years and the opportunities that have come about for us through their vigilance,” said Jackson.  

Although some 19th-century teams were integrated, a “gentleman’s agreement” late in that century blocked African Americans from Major League play, said Raymond E. Janifer, Sr., Shippensburg University professor of English and Ethnic Studies and a conference presenter. From there, Negro League history reflects the U.S. reliance on the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine for legal cover that justified segregation, discrimination and Jim Crow laws.

Negro League games “were very well attended,” he said. “People went to those games saying, ‘Those guys should be in the Major Leagues.’”

American Literacy Corp. Executive Director Floyd Stokes worked with Knorr to develop a children’s activity book on Negro League history and will help present the conference. Negro League players “achieved great things,” he said. “Their stats, their history, their achievement is just as important as anybody else who played in the Major Leagues. They just didn’t have the opportunities because of the color of their skin.”

That, he added, is American history “that needs to be told. The stories need to be told because the young people just don’t know the great folks right here in our yard. Not just our backyard. In our yard.”

After panels featuring researchers, biographers and a 1950s Negro League player, the conference will wrap with an awards banquet, plus music by the Crawford All-Stars—a combo featuring a player whose father played Negro League baseball.

“This is family,” said Knorr. “Many of these people were there years ago, white and black, male and female, old and young. We still gather together to break bread and talk baseball.”  

The Jerry Malloy Negro League Research Conference takes place July 27 to 30 based at the Hilton Harrisburg. To learn more, visit www.sabr.org/malloy.

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