Baseball historian Vern Freeman believes that the baseball community is still looking at the sport’s history with color incorrectly, and it looks like his ideas are starting to generate support from some prominent baseball figures.
Freeman, the California-native author of the upcoming People of Color Leagues: A Look Inside Baseball’s Superior Early Sports Leagues has suggested that the term “Negro leagues” as a catch-all is an inaccurate description of the various minority-driven baseball leagues that cropped up during the sport’s early segregated period, positing that the use of the term lacks awareness and is, in many cases, “offensive and insulting”.
“If we’re talking about the well-known Negro American League or the Negro National League, then by all means, the term Negro League is an appropriate terminology,” Freeman says. “But, the people of color leagues constitute a legacy and a history that goes beyond the Negro American and Negro National Leagues. When we talk about the collective people of color leagues in America, we’re almost universally including the West Coast Baseball Association, the Southern League, the National Colored Base Ball League, the Eastern Colored League, and any number of American-based Cuban league formations and much, much more. This is important because not only do they use the word “colored” instead of “Negro”, but many of the leagues obviously also employed some number of Latin and Hispanic players, many of whom cannot actually lay claim to the word Negro because that’s not their heritage, at all. So, you can see the conundrum that is created by such a flippant catch-all term as being called ‘the Negro leagues’.”
Grant Wilhouse, considered ‘stuffy’ within some baseball circles, surprisingly became the first well-known baseball historian to echo Freeman’s sentiment. In an upcoming interview segment on WBVT9, Wilhouse — who has previewed Freeman’s book — said he found Freeman’s People of Color Leagues to be “a real eye-opener that peels back another level of a subtler racism that’s been persistent among the sport and even the sport’s entities for generations.”
“If anything, just by way of allowing both black and some Latin players, the people of color leagues were more integrated than the Major League was until some time after Jackie (Robinson) came along. In that respect, I cannot dispute Vern’s position that on this very important issue, the people of color leagues really were superior to Major League Baseball at the time.”
Historian Bill James and MLB analyst Brian Kenny have also expressed agreement with aspects of Freeman’s position. George Will was reportedly sent a preview copy of the book but has yet to weigh in.
Freeman recognizes the potential backlash he might face for the position but says he is willing to deal with it head-on.
“Because of the slower, more casual pace and touted tradition of the sport, baseball has historically maintained better appeal among the more laid-back conservative crowds. Oftentimes, research shows that these are the types who aren’t really swift on the uptake when it comes to new ideas. For that reason, there remains a lot of casual racism when it comes to baseball. So, sure, I expect a lot of push-back, a lot of resistance. It all just kind of comes with the territory: the hesitance to learn and the reluctance to change. I trust that for now many of them are still going to call the people of color leagues ‘the Negro leagues’ or even worse.”
“But over time, people are going to come around,” Freeman declared.