How the Negro League changed baseball — and America
It’s hard to overstate the effect Negro League baseball had on South Florida and America. The makers of the new WLRN-TV documentary Never Drop the Ball tell us how the league and its players changed the sport, and the country, forever.
It’s hard to overstate the effect Negro League baseball had on South Florida — and America.
When Black baseball players were not permitted to join Major League Baseball, they decided to form a league of their own.
The Negro League invented wearing helmets, donning numbers on uniforms and instituting night baseball. But its greatest innovation? Helping America integrate.
In a new documentary Never Drop the Ball by WLRN TV, filmmakers Michael Anderson and Fabián Cárdenas make the case with rich interviews, colorized photos and historical video footage like you’ve never seen.
"The strength and the love for a game can move mountains," Cárdenas said about the players' courage to carve out their own space. "And I think that's what the film is about."
The talent on the field forced the all-white MLB to pay attention. And for the first time, people of color and whites sat side by side in the stands — eventually, anyway.
"They became a powerhouse and when you become a powerhouse you have the East and West All-Star games," Cárdenas said. "You are filling in stadiums [with] 50,000 African Americans or people of color there, so people start noticing that."
"The strength and the love for a game can move mountains. And I think that's what the film is about."Filmmaker Fabián Cárdenas
The filmmakers were curious about unearthing baseball history and extracting a slew of stories that tell us more about South Florida. Take the professional team called the Indianapolis Clowns — the film mentions they originated from Miami, née the Miami Giants.
These players were always hustling because baseball was their livelihood. And they were popular — and profitable.
"It was not just Blacks in the audience," Anderson said. "The turnstiles were clicking Black and white. And so money was coming through in Negro League baseball altogether."
The teams were also a source of tourism entertainment. The Breakers in Palm Beach County formed their own league at the resort, where some players would work as porters or waiters to supplement their income. Florida's temperate climate during the winter ensured they could keep going year round.
"Therein lies how the name [of the film] came about," Anderson said. "They never put the ball down, and they constantly played baseball."
Thriving times in Overtown
The athleticism and performance of Negro League games would draw crowds of all different races and creeds. And where there were thriving Black economies, Negro Leagues would play ball.
Church goers, like Anderson's grandparents who met during a baseball Miami game, would head straight from service to the stadium.
"We have images of that in the film — of the thriving times of Overtown and pay homage to that because that respect should still be known in this community," Anderson said.
"We're walking the hallways or we're driving right next to these parks that have had these iconic moments in history," Anderson said. "And we have no idea about them."
The hurdles that Black baseball players also faced forced them to make creative workarounds just to play a game. When teams were "barnstorming" — touring through small towns — they would often bring stadium lights to play night baseball.
"We have images of... the thriving times of Overtown and pay homage to that because that respect should still be known in this community."Filmmaker Michael Anderson
"Negro Leagues had to rent stadiums and [they were] given terrible times — on Sunday night," Cárdenas said. "They had to be innovating all the time."
The league was an inclusive place, one where Latin Americans, African-Americans and women were welcome. It played in Latin America and accepted stars from those nations at a time when people of color weren’t allowed to play in the U.S. Today, more than 70% of the players on the Miami Marlins alone are foreign-born.
Never Drop The Ball also shows the league reaching certain milestones, for which white teams have typically gotten the credit. For example, The Philadelphia Royal Giants traveled to Japan and introduced the sport over there — that's seven years before Babe Ruth's visit with the New York Yankees.
Every drop of sweat of the Negro Leagues, Cárdenas said, would help pave the way for people like Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the MLB.
To the filmmakers, the Negro Leagues were a "blueprint" for integration — and, Cárdenas added, "how to keep fighting even though the doors are shutting."
Listen to the full interview on Sundial above.
WLRN Public Television will host two free pre-screenings of the documentary this month.
- The first will be held Thursday, Jan. 18, at the Historic Lyric Theater, 819 NW 2nd Avenue, Miami, FL 33136. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. You must register in advance to attend. There is limited seating. Register here.
- The second screening will be at Florida Atlantic University-University Theatre, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton, FL 33431, on Jan. 24. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. You must register in advance to attend. There is limited seating. Register here.
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