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'They Knew How Good They Were': A Brief History Of Negro Leagues Baseball

The Hop
Chuck Quirmbach
Milwaukee has become the second city to transform a streetcar to honor its Negro Leagues baseball history.

One of Milwaukee’s streetcars has been decked out to honor the city's Negro Leagues team of 1923 — The Milwaukee Bears. Images on the outside and inside of the car, tell the team's story.

Listen: Milwaukee Streetcar Honors Negro Leagues And The Milwaukee Bears

The display was Bob Kendrick’s idea. He’s the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Last year, Kendrick convinced Kansas City to have one of its streetcars honor the late Buck O'Neill, a Negro Leagues star player and founder of the museum. But he didn’t want to stop there. After talking with transit organizations outside of St. Louis, Milwaukee became the second city to use a streetcar to honor the history of the Negro Leagues.

“A number of those transit companies did reach back out to me, but Milwaukee was the first to actually get it executed,” says Kendrick.

The Negro Leagues operated from 1920 to 1960 with success all across the U.S. Despite Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, he says it took twelve more years before every team in the MLB was integrated. That meant the Negro Leagues continued to exist to give Black baseball players a chance to play professionally until Black players were more widely accepted into the MLB.

While many great players would transition from the Negro Leagues to the MLB, Kendrick says that chance didn’t come for every Negro Leagues star.

Wilber "Bullet Joe" Rogan at the 1924 Negro League World Series in Kansas City.
Wikimedia Commons
Wilber "Bullet Joe" Rogan at the 1924 Negro League World Series in Kansas City.

“Because their careers had been long gone or many of them had even died by the time Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier,” he says.

Kendrick cites historically great players like Wilber "Bullet Joe" Rogan and Oscar Charleston whose careers ended years before Jackie Robinson would play his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Milwaukee legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was just one of many legendary players who got their start in the Negro Leagues and had the opportunity to play in the MLB.

“When we talk about Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron, and Ernie Banks and Roy Campanella, these are players who transitioned out of the Negro Leagues who became some of the greatest players in Major League Baseball history,” he says.

Last December, the MLB announced that it would officially recognize Negro Leagues statistics from 1920 to 1948 as Major League status. Kendrick says while it’s an exciting endorsement of Negro Leagues baseball, players knew at the time they were just as good, if not better, than MLB players.

“They knew how good they were, they knew how good their league was and quite frankly, the Major Leaguers knew how good they were as well. So, they were never seeking validation but historically this is tremendously significant. This acknowledgment, this recognition and to some extent, atonement for the egregious decision to not recognize the Negro Leagues,” he says.

Kendrick says for those who want to learn more about the Negro Leagues and take a trip back in history, visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City is a must.

From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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