Kendrick: Ohio Valley native hasn’t received enough credit
CLEVELAND – As baseball’s brightest stars twinkled before an international audiance Tuesday night in the 90th big league all-star game, the sport took some time to give those who paved the way their just due down the street.
As part of the Cleveland Sports Commission’s Play Ball Park extravaganza at the Huntington Convention Center, exhibits recognizing players from all eras and nationalties were erected in hopes that visiting fans were not simply entertained by their visit, but informed.
And providing information is something Bob Kendrick loves to do.
As president of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Kendrick has made it his mission to make sure the greats of the league aren’t forgotten.
One of the players Kendrick believes hasn’t received enough credit is Moses Fleetwood Walker.
The Mount Pleasant native is thought by many to have been the first black man to play in the major leagues. Although Jackie Robinson is widely recognized for having achieved the feat in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Kendrick said the era in which Walker played has much to do with him being relagted to the back of many minds.
“He means a great deal to black baseball history,” Kendrick said as visitors perused a plethora of displays and artifacts. “He, for so long, has been a footnote in baseball and in the echelons of black baseball history.
“It’s always about who controls the narrative. And I think because (he didn’t play) in the ‘modern’ era of baseball, that his accomplishments have gotten kind of pushed to the back burner.
“I think it’s incumbent on (his supporters) and others who’ve been beating his drum to continue that effort so there is an understanding and an appreciation for his role in baseball history.
“(He) deserves to be more than just a footnote.”
Walker, who played professionally in 1884 with the Toledo Blue Stockings, had a short pro career, but is widley known as a pioneer, in general.
“It’s only been in recent years that this effort to gain more notoriety for Fleetwood has occurred,” Kendrick pointed out.
Walker is “prominently featured” at the museum, and Kendrick said more and more people continue to learn about what he meant to the game.
“For the majority of people who come and see us, it’s kind of an eye-opening experience,” he said.
“There have been other very light-skinned blacks who may have been able to pass themselves off as white (during that era) or maybe even snuck ongto teams that we don’t know about.
“But (Walker) is the first black to be on what we consider to be a big league team. The majority of people that come and see us don’t know the name.”
Kendrick said Walker reflects a rich tradition of Negro League baseball in the Buckeye State.
“The state’s baseball heritage is as rich as any,” he stated. “We’re talking about Akron, Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus – all having Negro League franchises at some point. What we find from a historical perspective is what you saw after the Civil War. That’s a migration of African-Americans leaving the south and going to the midwest and looking for, what I like to call, industrialized opportunities.
“Ohio is as rich in black baseball history as any state. I don’t know if there’s another state, really, that had the depth of teams like Ohio.”
Kendrick had praise, too, for the Steel City.
“When you talk about Pittsburgh, we’re talking about not two of the greatest Negro League teams, but two of the greatest franchises in the history of the sport in the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homstead Grays,” he said. “They were dominant over a stretch of time.”
Batter Up, Ladies!
Next to the large exhibit paying homage to the Negro League greats was one recognizing the women who played professional baseball.
Tuesday, a handful of the pioneers who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League met with fans to discuss their playing days and why what they did some 70 years ago still resonates with fans.
Wheeling’s Rose Gacioch carved out a 10-year career in the league, made famous by the movie “A League of Their Own” directed by the late Penny Marshall.
Gacioch, who died in 2004, was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame the year she passed. And although her 11-year career isn’t remembered by many outside of the area, one of the ladies on Tuesday’s dais recalls her fondly.
“In our league, though, we couldn’t go out with players from other teams,” cautioned Shirley Burkovich, 86, a native of the Pittsburgh area, who started playing in the league while still in her teens. “They didn’t want anyone to think anything was fixed.”
Burkovich said she enjoys traelling around the country and speaking about her playing days, something she never envisioned doing when she was in uniform.
“We didn’t think we were doing anything special,” she smiled. “We were just playing ball. That’s all. Just doing something you loved.”
Burkovich credited Marshall’s film for sparking interest in women’s baseball again and bringing she and the other players back into the public consciosness.
“If they hadn’t done that movie, you wouldn’t be here talking to me,” she laughed. “That movie just exploded and set everythuing off.”