'Black baseball is like oxygen': Doug Glanville on the joy of playing to honor the Negro Leagues


No matter who you are, there are times and places in baseball when you wonder how you got there. Saturday’s Hall of Fame East-West Classic at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York, was one of those times for me. Being a small part of the greatness collected on the field that day was humbling, and the events of the weekend swirled in my mind as I stepped into the batter’s box.

The last time I’d hit in any competitive landscape was 13 years ago in the same Doubleday Stadium. Only two of my four children were born then, which meant this was the first (and maybe last) time they’d get to see their dad play. In addition to my resurrected baseball equipment that I pulled from storage, I was carrying 10 more unshaped pounds and a graying beard.

A lot had led up to this moment. The work of two captains, CC Sabathia and Chris Young, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum inspired a reunion of dozens of former major league stars. They assembled us to honor and recreate the Negro Leagues’ All-Star Game, an annual event that took place in MLB ballparks at the pinnacle of independent Black baseball. It was also a celebration of the Hall of Fame’s newest exhibit, The Souls of the Game: Voices of Black Baseball.

Everyone on the East-West roster was a big leaguer, or at least had been at one point, and we were also family on this day, connected by our common experiences and the constructs of color and race.

From the moment I checked in at the luxurious Otesaga Resort Hotel on Friday, I could feel the escalating sense that I had been invited to a royal ball. Then I saw the royalty. The lobby was teeming with greats of the game’s past: Dave Winfield, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Rice, Ryne Sandberg, Fred McGriff, Ozzie Smith.

I was told I needed to try on my uniform, provided by the Hall of Fame, to make sure it fit. I unfurled it in my room, bit by bit, wondering if the measurements I gave were accurate. Once I had it on, I took a picture to send to my family. It was a different me than I envisioned. I kept thinking, “I look more like a coach.”

But I would be one of 24 players. Tony Gwynn Jr. and I wondered together how hard we should play. Before the bus trip over to the Hall, all of us got together to exhale and laugh, and officially open the new exhibit. Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch teased us about the sometimes faulty measurements we’d sent in for our uniform sizes, saying “some of you said you were size medium.”

Prince Fielder, known during his career for his power and size, replied, “Why are you all looking at me?” and the room broke out in laughter.

I might not be a size medium anymore, nor a Hall of Famer, but in the jaw-dropping awe of the exhibit’s opening it didn’t matter. The Hairston family was represented by Scott and Jerry Jr., whose grandfather, Sam, was a Triple Crown winner in the Negro Leagues. Fergie Jenkins was there to again honor his parents — his father, who could not rise in baseball due to his color, and his mother, who was blind. I worked on the committee that helped shape the new exhibit and I knew the tone that was set. This Hall of Souls was not about statistics, but humanity.

The red-carpet affair culminated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. At one point, we all gathered for a picture. As I stood among the likes of Harold Baines, Ken Griffey Jr., Rollie Fingers, Jim Kaat, Joe Torre, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Lee Smith, Jenkins, McGriff, Rice, Sandberg and Winfield, I tweeted, “Did someone calculate the total Wins Above Replacement on that stage?”.

I also walked through the new exhibit for the first time. It’s a celebration of a Black experience that also provides a certain kind of armor, and an affirmation of the value and the impact Black baseball has had on the game we love. There was perseverance, dedication and the fight for equality. But there was also protection, unity and love. It allows us to point to the undeniably hard truths as we ran the bases of history, an antidote against dismissal of our trials with racism along the way. It is much harder to deny our experience when we have a shared story.

Documenting those stories — and initiatives just this week like adding Negro League marks to MLB’s leaderboards — builds a bridge to the past through the names we already know: Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Effa Manley. But more importantly, it’s a path to the many anonymous Black players who filled up rosters from coast to coast.

I particularly loved reading the published appeals made by many to demand equality. The words of Wendell Smith, a famed sports writer of the time, remind us that we were athletes but also advocates, in search of an ever-moving home plate.

On game day, we met to go over the lineups and took our spots 1 through 9 in the batting order.

I was batting ninth, as the designated hitter, which helped insure my 53-year-old body did not have to run too much. I listened to my teammates introduce themselves, and most had incredible baseball resumés. I had no All-Star Games or Gold Glove awards to speak of, so mine was left to my best season, when I hit .325 with 11 home runs. I wondered later what I should have added — my errorless streak to end my career, my hitting streaks in 1998, my stolen base success rate before the pitch clock?

But at game time, there was no turning back. We all were here and more importantly, we all deserved to be here. Fittingly, we had no names on our backs. We could not fit all of those who came before us on our jerseys, so we stood on their backs instead.

During the pregame festivities, the unforgettable conversations I’d been having ran through my mind. Getting ribbed by Sabathia for showing up with “so many bats.” Swapping stories with Murray over dinner. Mookie Wilson taking me back to a commercial I loved as a kid, when he was with the Mets. Being a part of this historic event was like jumping into a silent movie and finding out there are words being spoken, only no one else but us can hear them.

Just before first pitch, I thought of what poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony about the listening required to hear the Black voices of baseball:

“And when you listen, you discover that chorus surrounds you like oxygen. Black baseball is literally everywhere.”

In its essence: Black baseball is like oxygen.

In many ways, the deep breath I normally take in the batter’s box felt freer this time. Maybe it was because I knew more about how I got into that box. It was palpable that I could share that revelation with a special kind of baseball family, some sitting in the stands, some suited up, who walked through the world in the uniform of darker skin.

In my first at-bat in the game, I executed my routine. I kicked my spikes into the dirt to set in motion my own personal baseball history — my nod to Mike Schmidt with a subtle tap of the outside corner of the plate.

I walked, and when I reached first, Fielder was standing there. I had played against his dad, Cecil. When we spoke, he said, “I know this is an exhibition, but it is so hard to turn it off.” “Impossible to turn it off,” I told him. (Even still, I didn’t try to steal second, though Tyson Ross was employing a high leg kick that I would have taken as an invitation in my younger days.)

But our competitive spirit was cooperative, just as the survival of the Negro Leagues depended on working together — as a business and as a community. At our East-West exhibition, I felt I had new teammates in time, where I am not alone in that batter’s box.

Fit for the drama, we were down 4-2 going into the bottom of the fifth inning. With two outs, up stepped Ryan Howard. He was a rookie in my last season with the Phillies, when I became an example for him of what happens when you age in this game. Years later, as his career was winding down, he told me: “Now I know how you felt when you got old.”

Now, we were all veterans. We were all making — and listening to — the sounds of the game, as we’d done for years or decades. And nothing is more undeniable than the crack of a bat on a well-struck baseball.

Howard’s made our dugout jump. “He got him,” I said.

And he had.

Exit velocity — unknown. Launch angle — who’s measuring? We knew by the senses we’d honed all of our lives.

The ball cleared the fence, giving us a 5-4 lead going into the last inning. We met at home plate to celebrate. (Most of us were too old to jump too high.)

It would turn out to be the winning swing, but we had already won the moment the first pitch was thrown.

When the game was over, I broke bread again with my teammates and our families. My family had seen me play — some for the first time, and possibly for the last — but I’d shared so much more than just at-bats. It was a day for history, honor, equality and the value of playing for something so much bigger than yourself.

Perhaps most of all, it was our tribute to the spirit of the game.

Later, back at the Hall, a fan came over to take a photo during an autograph session. She said this:

“You guys played with such joy.”





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