Negro Leagues open window to history for students

Baseball historian Glenn Lautzenhiser speaks to Sabrina Campbell's class at West Point High School.
Staff Writer

The stories are not in popular history books, they almost never get mentioned on sportscasts and their role in the roots of the Civil Rights movement hardly are touched.

But Friday, some West Point students got rare insight into some of America's greatest baseball players, the Negro Leagues and how some of those players paved the way for sports today.

Baseball historian and fan Glenn Lautzenhiser wove the history of the leagues and some players, including the likes of "Cool Papa" Bell from Starkville, into personal advice for today's students.

As part of an art project related to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., West Point High art teacher Sabrina Campbell had Lautzenhiser, who served on the Columbus school board for 25 years, speak to two of her classes, some members of the West Point High baseball team and some history students. Lautzenhiser brought some of his extensive memorabilia collection with him to share with the students.

West Point Schools Superintendent Burnell McDonald and other administrators sat in on part of the presentations, which included a gift from the art department of a portrait of Lautzenhiser.

Among other things, he shared the stories of whites who played a vital role in helping Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 by standing up against racism, including Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Peewee Reese and famed broadcaster "Red" Barber, who grew up in Columbus.

He also used the story of Willie Mays, who played in the Negro Leagues before getting to the majors, as an example of having confidence and not giving up.

When Mays first came to the majors, he failed to get a hit in his first 13 at bats and went to his manager, Leo Durocher, asking to be sent back to the minors. Durocher assured Mays he was the team's centerfielder for the rest of the year and in his next at-bat, Mays hit a home run off Warren Spahn, one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

"It's about believing in yourself, that's something that we can use everyday," Lautzenhiser told the students.

"It was not easy for these men, the Negro League players to do the things they did. They faced unbelievable harsh treatment and challenges. It's just an example of you never lose unless you quit," he continued, revealing to the audience that shin guards, the hit-and-run bunt, and night games all originated in the Negro Leagues,

In fact, the Kansas City Monarchs had a mobile light system the team took with it so it could play night games and attract more fans.

"They could make more money," he said, noting the biggest change to the game in the last 70 years is the amount of money paid players and for memorabilia.

For students, it was a window on a part of sports and history they knew nothing about.

"I was surprised by it all. I had no idea," said West Point student Goia Robinson.

"It's amazing to learn about all the things these players went through and what they did," added Carson Taylor.